Sunday, January 17, 2016

One characteristic that appears to distinguish Trump supporters

According to a national survey of 1,800 registered voters, the variable that best predicted support for Donald Trump was authoritarianism. The idea that highly authoritarian individuals tend to be highly obedient and gravitate toward strong or charismatic leaders is nothing new, as the author duly notes. In the context of the current electoral season, though, it should give us something to consider as the first caucuses and primaries are to be held within a matter of weeks. The author suggests that pollsters may be incorrect in assuming that Trump has a ceiling of support within the Republican Party that he has already reached. Rather, the author of the study suggests that there is the distinct possibility that Trump will fare better than pundits have predicted (including one whom I tremendously respect, Nate Silver, of 538 blog).

The only other variable that the author claims was statistically significant was fear of terrorism, which seemed to indicate support for Trump. Other variables, such as income level, race, etc., did not serve as significant predictors, according to the author. The author's narrative does seem to fit with some data I published last year that showed a significant positive link between authoritarianism and racial/ethnic resentment, social conservatism, and intolerance, which may well be what characterize the attitudes of Trump's base of supporters.

Some skepticism is always in order. There has been some question about how much of the variability authoritarianism actually predicts, with some scholars suggesting that other variables, such as social dominance orientation are better predictors of political attitudes and behavior than authoritarianism.

The researcher behind the survey, Matthew MacWilliams, is a doctoral candidate at University of Massachusetts. His research was conducted very recently and as of yet has not gone through the usual vetting process that academic research normally undergoes. I am guessing or at least hoping that other social scientists will have the opportunity to examine the data as well, and that MacWilliams has the opportunity to present his findings in venues other than a political blog. The results are interesting, nonetheless.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Passings: Leonard Berkowitz

Earlier this month, social psychologist Leonard Berkowitz passed away. You can read his obituary here. It is practically impossible to be an aggression researcher and not encounter his influence. Much of his work focused on media violence and cognitive cues on aggressive behavior. He also was well known for his efforts to advance theory and research on the relationship between frustration and aggression. His own theoretical model, the Cognitive Neoassociation Model, shared quite a bit in common with the theoretical model that has guided much of my own research. Berkowitz was a solid methodologist, and one who wrote quite extensively in defense of the lab experiment - a research approach that was at one point under attack (look up the "crisis" in social psychology). When I was initially admitted to the University of Missouri's Social Psychology doctoral program, my summer reading list included work by Berkowitz, and I was strongly encouraged to get a hold of a copy of his then-current textbook on aggression. One of Mizzou's Social Psychology faculty members, Russ Geen, was in fact one of Berkowitz's students, and Berkowitz was an informal mentor to one of my friends and a current collaborator, Brad Bushman (one of Russ Geen's students).

Leonard Berkowitz continued to publish long after he retired, and although I did not know him particularly well, we did share some correspondence periodically with regard to the weapons effect, a phenomenon that he is credited (along with Anthony LePage) with discovering. His work will undoubtedly continue to be influential for many decades to come. Any aggression researcher studying the weapons effect will be citing his famous article that established the phenomenon. Many of us studying media violence or provocation effects will be citing Berkowitz's key research articles or his theoretical work for the foreseeable future. He has left an impressive legacy. That said, he will be tremendously missed in my particular corner of social psychology.

David Bowie and Reinvention

A couple bloggers at Psychology Today offered their personal perspectives on how the work of the late David Bowie affected them. I'll share my own thoughts. My first exposure to David Bowie was as a child. I had read a brief passage about David Bowie in one of the Colliers Yearbooks that my parents subscribed to, and found the description of his work and the photo of him taken during his Ziggy Stardust phase to be intriguing. Later I would see him sing a song on national television with Bing Crosby. However, what was most significant for me was the first album of his that I ever purchased: Lodger, which was the last of the Low/Heroes/Lodger trilogy of the late 1970s. That album would be significant as it introduced my 13-year-old ears to the likes of Brian Eno, Adrian Belew, and a little later Robert Fripp - artists whose work I quickly grew to appreciate. His appearance on one of SNL's fifth season episodes (performing with him would be Klaus Nomi I would later learn) was unlike anything else I'd seen. As an artist, Bowie was quite adept at challenging gender role expectations and assumptions regarding sexual orientation that at the time was quite revolutionary.

What I came to appreciate most about Bowie as a performer was his willingness to reinvent himself on a regular basis, and to do so not just in terms of stage appearance, but in terms of trying out different musical styles - a quality that characterized his work up until his final recording (which caught my attention in large part due to the jazz musicians who accompanied him). As I reflect on how I have developed as a professional, I would have to say that a certain amount of reinvention is not only necessary but desirable. Reinvention means taking risks, opening oneself to new experiences. In my particular domain, doing so entails mastering new theoretical models and methodological skill sets. The primary benefit is obvious: increased versatility, which can help one navigate a very difficult job market - especially if one is intending to make a living in an academic environment. The potential pitfall is the risk of appearing unfocused. Bowie, for all his reinventions, as an artist came across as consistent. His experiments with R&B or German progressive rock in the 1970s were an extension of his earlier work, and his overtly pop recordings in the early to mid 1980s employed the lessons learned from the late 1970s, and so on. As a professional, one should maintain focus on a particular theme or set of related themes while remaining open to new ways of addressing those particular interests and remaining cognizant of available resources for research. Bowie rarely appeared to stagnate during his lengthy career. Any of us as researchers or educators can use Bowie's example as a vehicle for assessing how our own careers are progressing. Is there a new methodological advance or a new (or new to you) area of inquiry that would add a new dimension to your own research program? Is there a new pedagogical approach that you are thinking about trying out? Is there some new opportunity or challenge that you seek? Those are certainly questions I periodically ask myself, especially during those slightly quieter intervals in between semesters. I would like to think my CV reflects the outcome of those periods of reflection. Hopefully yours will as well.

I don't want to overstate the influence of a pop musician on my own professional work. Clearly, there are others - in particular those who mentored me, and those whose theoretical and experimental research that I have read over the years - who have had considerably more influence on me. Many of those individuals have themselves undergone a reinvention or two. What I do think is fair to state is that at some point during my formative years, some pop performers who were particularly adventurous ended up inspiring me. The experience of watching others try - sometimes successfully, sometimes not - to do something a bit out of their comfort zone encouraged me to do likewise. Later in life, I would continue to draw on that experience as I began to develop as a professional, and continue to draw on that experience to this day.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Recent scholarly activity

When I decided to make the move from Oklahoma Panhandle State University to my current post at University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, my intention was to increase my research productivity by having access to larger samples and a larger pool of potential undergraduate research assistants. My hopes have begun to bear fruit, especially over the last couple years.

For example, my book chapter on aggression in the most recent edition of the Encyclopedia of Mental Health was published late last fall. You can read the abstract here. I do have an article on authoritarianism and attitudes toward torture as well as an article applying framing theory to attitudes toward torture (the latter coauthored with Sara Oelke, a UAFS alumna who is currently finishing her Masters in Counseling), both of which should be in print later this summer. There are a couple other papers coauthored with Brad Bushman that are in various stages of the review process that should appear in print later this year or sometime the following year. I also have some data collected with the assistance of various UAFS psychology majors that I hope to work on writing up over the May interterm or during the summer, and hopefully will have those under review late in the year.

Overall, I am happy with my level of productivity, given my teaching load (I usually teach four courses per semester) and lack of a stable lab space for conducting experiments. I am hoping one or both of those particular constraints are removed sufficiently to really do the quality and quantity of research that I expect of myself. That is, of course, a work in progress.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Busting Myths About Gun Violence

On the day that President Obama held a town hall appearance to address gun violence in the US, Mother Jones posted an article entitled 7 Myths About Gun Violence, Debunked. The article provides links to previous articles that have addressed various claims made about gun violence, in the process separating fiction from fact. What I like best about the article (and the links therein) is that it takes an evidence-based approach to reporting and interpreting the available evidence. A few of the issues raised in the article are ones I've discussed before, including the controversy over how to define mass shootings (Mother Jones uses a very cautious operational definition, which is probably wise) as well as the lack of evidence to support a popular but wrong claim regarding the role of mental illness on mass shootings (to which I would add gun violence in general). What I appreciate most about this particular article is that it lays out a legitimate social and public health problem in a way that cuts through the misinformation, and in the process hopefully spurs thought and conversation rather than ill-informed panic.

Some study tips

With a new semester coming up, this would appear to be as good a time as any to post a friendly reminder that your best bet as a student is to study smarter (courtesy of Vox):

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Gender equality on "The Force Awakens": Two thumbs up!

My friend, Karen Dill Shackleford, recently posted about The Force Awakens on her blog. Suffice it to say, she likes what she sees. As a long time fan of the Star Wars franchise, I'm quite pleased as well. The latest film in the series has been panned in some circles for being a bit of a throwback to the original back in the late 1970s. However, when it comes to gender equality and how women are portrayed, the newest film is very much a product of the social changes occurring currently.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Fried Green Y'all Qaedas, Anyone?

As many of you are undoubtedly aware at this point, there is currently an armed standoff on a federal wildlife sanctuary near Burns, Oregon. The root cause of this particular standoff is simple enough: a couple ranchers were convicted of arson on federal property, and received a mandatory minimum sentence of five years each. The original judge who presided over the case thought the mandatory minimum sentence was excessive, and instead opted to sentence the individuals to serve a fraction of that time. The federal government successfully appealed that sentence, and as a result, these individuals are to serve the remainder of their five year prison terms. Although there is a legitimate discussion about the usefulness of mandatory minimum sentences, themselves a relic of the "get tough on crime" ethos that dominated the 1980s and 1990s political landscape in the US, that discussion has been obscured by the antics of those who showed up to protest.

Initially there was minimal national media coverage, and CNN in particular managed to botch coverage of the protest in Burns and the armed standoff that ensued. As of this writing that appears to have changed. Hence, on social media platforms such as Twitter, the hashtag #OregonUnderAttack began to trend as a critical mass of users decided to spread the news on their own. As of this writing, that particular hashtag continues to trend on Twitter. There appeared to be some pushback by apologists for the militia members who seized the nearby wildlife sanctuary in response. What followed, however, was an example of what Twitter users with mainstream political views do best: they created additional hashtags to mock those involved in this particular armed standoff. Among those hashtags are #YallQaeda, #VanillaISIS, #YeeHawd, #YokelHaram, #CowTippingTerrorists, #FailQaeda, #Infantada, #WhiteSIS, #SaturdayNightTreason, and #TrailerDaesh. The first three of those hashtags in particular caught on. These hashtags accompanied any of a number of clever quips, humorous photoshopped images, and also links to some serious commentary about terrorism, white privilege, racism (the Bundy family, a member of whom is leading this particular action, is notorious in that regard) and gun use. None of the users of these hashtags appeared to accept the explanation by the would be insurrectionists and their apologists that the armed occupiers were harming no one. Given some of the rhetoric to the contrary used by some of the members of this particular militia, that is understandable.

The negative reaction to any sort of armed action is not terribly surprising, given the potential for violence. There is ample evidence in the psychological literature that protests that are violent or threaten violence do change attitudes, but not in the direction the protesters would intend. Rather, violent and potentially violent protests persuade onlookers to become more pro-government in their attitudes. I can think of a number of experiments that Bob Altemeyer ran and published back in the 1980s and early 1990s that demonstrated this phenomenon quite well. Even if you read the coverage of what the locals in Burns think about the protesters, the impression you'll be left with is that the protesters are largely unwanted, even if they agree that the sentence given to the two convicted of arson was excessive, and even if many of them may be rather jaded in their views regarding the federal government and its land management policies.

As an aside, it is worth noting that in recent history, attempts to instigate armed revolt or revolution in stable democratic societies have typically failed to win over the public. The member of the Bundy family who has spearheaded this particular armed standoff in Oregon has argued that his militia's purpose is simple: the residents in Burns are too weak to stand up to the federal government and need the militia's help to gain sufficient courage to fight. The same rationale has been used previously by revolutionary groups. The notorious Red Army Faction, which terrorized West Germany during the 1970s and into the 1980s rationalized their acts of terrorism as needed because the average West German would not do so. The public reception of the Red Army Faction was not entirely negative at first, when their actions did not involve casualties, but once they began to kill civilians, support vanished. The organization was mocked as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and it became popular to voice distance from the Red Army Faction by placing bumper stickers on vehicles (especially BMWs, given that the group drove stolen BMWs for a while) stating “Ich gehöre nicht zur Baader-Meinhof Gruppe" ("I am not a member of the Baader-Meinhof Group"). When the West German government cracked down on leftist organizations, as a result of the terrorism caused by that organization (as well as some splinter organizations), there was broad support for the government's decision. Rather than act as a vanguard for resistance, the organization became something of a laughingstock and something to be loathed. Interestingly enough, both the right-wing militia and the RAF appear to be arguing from a position of privilege, to the extent that they claim to have the necessary background and courage to overthrow the system that the rest of the population is too weak or ignorant to do themselves. That rhetorical tactic will be unlikely to win over too many converts.

The lesson to be learned is that violent rhetoric and actions rarely persuade those outside the circles of the already converted. In a social psychology course, we could start using terms like polarization and reactance to describe the typical reaction toward such tactics. It really matters little what the ideology of those involved in using such rhetoric and actions happens to be. The reaction among those with attitudes that are more within the mainstream will be generally negative.

A belated happy new year to those of you who read this blog. I will be back later in the month with some fresh content.