The Social Psychology of Ferguson

Witnessing the dialogue sparked by the events in Ferguson, MO, I just feel so so sad. Sad to see people pointing fingers at each other, sad to hear overly simplistic assessments of a complex situation, sad to see people citing other crimes by other people as if it validates or invalidates what’s happened in anyway. Mostly it makes me sad to see people pushing away from each other, rather than coming together. It makes me sad, but I also understand. Having an education in social psychology, I can appreciate the complex factors that come together to create situations like this. This knowledge makes me feel far less judgmental, and far more empathetic when something like this happens. That’s why I truly believe that social psychology should be a required and fundamental aspect of every person’s education.  So for what it’s worth, I thought I would write a little crash course in social psychology to give some perspective on the events in Ferguson. Let’s first look at some of the ways prejudices are perpetuated and affect our behavior.

Confirmation Bias

To save energy, our brains take shortcuts (called heuristics) to quickly navigate the overwhelming amount of information presented by our environment. One shortcut our brains make is to seek information that supports the beliefs we already have. It takes less mental energy to continue believing the same thing, than it does to re-evaluate and adapt our beliefs. This is called Confirmation Bias and is one of the main ways that stereotypes and prejudice persist. For example, if I’m convinced Asians are terrible drivers I’ll notice every time a terrible driver happens to be Asian, but I’m not on the look out for all those Asians who aren’t causing any trouble on the roads. We find what we already believe.wpid-photo-jul-19-2012-1059-pmIf I think a black man is likely to be a criminal, my belief is reaffirmed every time I hear a story about blacks committing crime, but I give less weight to experiences that contradict my belief (i.e. all the black people around me every day not committing crimes). If I believe cops are racist, I’ll pay more attention to accounts that prove me right, and overlook instances of police officers treating people of different races with respect.

In-group/Out-group Bias

Back in our tribal days it was important for us to be able to quickly differentiate between “our peeps” and “outsiders”. So another energy saving trick our brains play is to categorize people into In-groups (groups I belong to) and Out-groups (groups I don’t belong to). Due to the homogeneity effect, we overestimate how similar members of out-groups are to each other, and recognize more individual differences between members of our in-group. It’s probably not surprising that we also tend to regard our in-groups with more positive attributes than out-groups, but you might be surprised by how arbitrarily we can make these attributions. For example, one researcher split strangers into two groups based on a coin flip, and participants still reported liking their groups members more, assumed they had nicer personalities, and were better workers (Tajfel, 1981). thMuzafer Sherif’s famous Robbers Cave Experiment was intended to examine the influence of group membership. He randomly assigned 22 white middle-class boys in summer camp to one of two groups. The two groups were separated from each other and encouraged to bond with members of their own group. The two groups were then brought together to compete in various activities for prizes. Before long the two groups engaged in name calling and taunting… then in vandalism and theft… then in such aggression that researchers had to physically separate them for two days. When asked to describe each group, the boys would describe their group favorably and the other group derogatorily.


Many other social psychology studies have demonstrated how easily we identify with a certain group, and develop biases in favor of our groups and against other groups. Think about the hatred some sports fans have towards fans of opposing teams. If identification with something as superficial as a sports team can cause such bias and result in extreme behaviors like rioting, think about the influence of something as personal as the color of your skin. Consider how much your perspective of any situation might be affected by who you see as part of your in-group or part of an out-group.

Fundamental Attribution Error

The Fundamental Attribution Error refers to the social psych. finding that we are prone to disproportionately attribute a person’s behavior to innate character traits, and underestimate the influence of the situation. In a study by Jones and Harris (1967), participants were told to read articles for and against Fidel Castro. Even when participants were told that the authors were assigned to write for or against Castro based on a coin toss, they still rated authors of the pro-Castro articles as having more favorable opinions of Castro. In other words, they were unable to fully consider the situation, and couldn’t stop themselves from making assumptions about the authors’ personal beliefs. Social experiments have shown that we’re more likely to attribute our behavior to the situation, but other people’s behaviors to their personality. So when I cut people off in traffic it’s because I’m really in a rush, and it’s not something I would normally do – but when someone else cuts me off in traffic it’s undoubtedly because they’re characterlogically a big d-bag. th-1We are more likely to make attributions consistent with our own prejudices. For example, an analysis of over 50 studies showed that when men failed to accomplish a task, it was assumed they didn’t work hard enough. When women failed it was assumed the task was too hard for them. Thus interpreting the same situation differently due to a bias that women are innately “less able” than men. We are also less likely to consider the influence of the situation on members of out-groups. So when a white cop shoots an unarmed black man – If I more strongly identify with the white cop, I’m more likely to consider how the situation influenced his behavior, but attribute the black man’s behavior to his character. If I identify more strongly with the black man, I’m likely to consider how the situation influenced his behavior, and attribute the cops behavior to his character. In reality, the situation influenced both of their behaviors more than I probably realize.

Group Dynamics

In the good ol’ days before ethics boards, Philip Zimbardo wanted to study how much the behaviors of prisoners and prison guards were influenced by innate personality, but ended up conducting one of the most important studies of group membership, power vs. oppression, and the influence of situation. The Stanford Prison Experiment involved a make-shift jail in the basement of a campus building, and 24 “psychologically stable and healthy” middle class male participants. Zimbardo randomly assigned participants to be a “prisoner” or a “guard”. Guards dressed in a uniform, carried batons, and wore tinted glasses to prevent eye contact. Prisoners were given identification numbers, smocks, and a chain around one ankle. stanford_prison_experimentThe study was supposed to continue for 2 weeks. After 6 days the experiment had to be called off, because the situation had gotten out of control. After the first day, prisoners revolted against the guards’ authority by refusing to follow directions, barricading their cells, and cursing at the guards. Guards then attempted to assert their control over the prisoners with increasingly sadistic methods. They attacked prisoners with fire extinguishers, stripped them naked, made them do push-ups (while they sat or stepped on their backs), refused to let them use the bathroom (instead making them defecate in a bucket in their cell and refusing to empty it), removed their mattresses, and put them in solitary confinement. One prisoner had to be released from the study due to a mental/emotional breakdown involving disordered thinking, uncontrollable crying, and uncontrollable rage. spic63If such chaos can unfold after only 6 days of otherwise equal people being assigned roles of power vs. oppression, think about the consequences extrapolated across centuries. If 6 days of having your rights taken from you can cause someone significant emotional distress, what’s the effect over generations? If 1 day of make-believe guards asserting authority over you can cause average people to revolt, how do you expect people to act when it’s a part of their every day lives?

Crowd psychology

This subject can easily fill an entire book, and involves many social psychology phenomena in combination, but the point returns to the power of the situation. Groupthink causes the a desire for conformity and cohesiveness in the group to overpower rational thinking and behavior. People experience de-individualization, and thus anonymity in crowds. groupthinkDiffusion of responsibility means the more people involved, the less responsibility any one person feels. The less responsibility any one person feels, the more they’re likely to do (or not do) things congruent with their morals. Group polarization is the tendency for groups to think and act in more extreme ways than individuals. So if the individuals that make up a group wanted to rebel, together they are going to be extremely rebellious. If the individuals that make up a group wanted to be punitive, together they are going to be extremely punitive. It’s worth mentioning that uniforms also de-individualize, particularly helmets, visors, glasses, masks, shields – things that are covering a person’s face and thus their identity. When our identity is concealed, we feel less inhibited and less personally accountable for what we do.
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Fight or Flight

This is not a social psychology term, it’s a biological term. When we feel threatened past a certain point, our reflexes kick in and our bodies decide to either fight or flee. When this happens, the emotional center of our brain is on autopilot, and is not taking the time to consult with the rational part of our brain about whether or not we are making good decisions. The reason it’s important to include this in the discussion, is because it’s another way a situation affects our behavior. If I’m in a situation where I feel I’m in danger or my life is being threatened – whether it’s because someone I think is a criminal is coming towards me, or someone with a gun is trying to overpower me – my body reacts before I can think about what I’m doing.

The situation does NOT absolve personal responsibility

But before we pass judgements, I think it’s important to remember that we are all susceptible to the influence of the situation, and that other people’s behaviors are influenced by the situation more than we tend to think. People of all races commit crimes against all types of people for all types of reasons. In my opinion, none of these crimes justify the existence of any of the others. But the situation is such that white people experience power and priveledge daily, while black people and other minorities experience oppression and discrimination daily. Thus, in interracial conflicts white people’s behavior is often influenced by  power and privileged, and black people’s behavior is often influenced by oppression, and the behaviors of both parties are influenced by biases.

The character of any individual involved in such events usually has less impact than you probably think. I don’t know officer Wilson, I don’t know Michael Brown, and I don’t know exactly what happened that day. Chances are that both Wilson and Brown are people who have done some very good things and some bad things. Chances are that depending on the situation, they’d both be capable of doing terrible things that they would regret, and that weren’t in line with their character. Chances are that they both had beliefs and engaged in behaviors that were influenced by biases, sculpted by the environment that they grew up in. None of which changes the fact that what happened is terrible, and tragic, and representative of a much bigger problem than this singular event.

While I have some understanding of why people behave the way they do, and have my own opinions about what behaviors are right and wrong, I hate seeing the country divided rather than united against the situational factors that underlie such events. As far as I’m concerned, the events of Ferguson are the product of a society that we all participate in, and thus we all share some of the responsibility. Instead of pointing fingers, how about living our lives in such a way so as to reduce the devisions between us, and increase solidarity of the only true race – the human race.

To me, a large part of the puzzle is increasing our awareness of our own biases, as awareness is the first step to change. To that effect, I hope this helped a little.

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8 thoughts on “The Social Psychology of Ferguson

  1. On the confirmation bias bit: I think it would be fairer to draw attention to positive examples (things that happen) we ignore rather than negative ones (things that don’t happen). You spoke about one ignoring poor drivers who are Asian and failing to notice Asians who are driving just fine. This can be explained by other reasons (we don’t notice *most* people who are driving just fine). Instead, perhaps point out we fail to catalog Caucasian drivers who cut us off in traffic, etc. It’s more *memorable* to be cut off by an Asian driver because it confirms our opinion.

    Thanks for the level-headed analysis. Refreshing.

  2. I’m also a social psychologist. I’d encourage consideration of just world hypothesis, as I think many of these other concepts detract from the bigger issue. Police are allowed to murder people without going to trial. Nobody else can do that. That’s not justice, but many people are still clinging to the idea that it is.

    • Please show a little more responsibility as a “social psychologist”, that last bit seems to imply that you clearly did not understand the point of this article.

  3. Anonymous, December 9, 2014 at 2:47 pm. This article wasn’t to attack any group, and as a police officer I want to defend others in by profession who are doing it for the right reasons (not the ones who abuse their position). Injustice does happen, and people are sometimes wrongfully killed by police (and hopefully held accountable). When police officers have to use deadly force they are investigated, many departments (mine included) do small investigations every time a weapon is pointed at a person, a taser is used, pepper spray is used, or a person has to be taken to the ground and restrained. When the investigation is completed they decide if the use of force is justified. If charges are warranted, charges will be filed, that is the same for the public. Police are less likely to get arrested on the spot after use of deadly force. People who rightfully use deadly force are not always charged like you imply. I’m not looking for an argument, and won’t be drawn into one, I don’t want to fill the comments up with that noise, this will be all I have to say.

  4. I am from St. Louis, and this article is very refreshing to read. A job very well done by submitting an article that is very informative while also being unbiased. Kudos and keep up the good work!

    Sincerely,

    Guy that still has faith in humanity

  5. The statement you made along the lines of “white people experience power and privilege* daily and blacks and minorities experience oppression daily” was the only biased statement you made. There is no sociological or psychological study that can prove or measure the experience of oppression, discrimination, etc. This is because we unfortunately cannot read minds yet. The above statement includes 2 stereotypes. Not all white people get power and privilege (there is also no standard measure or definition of either of those terms) and not all minorities have been oppressed. Also “daily” is a stretch and also unprovable. To state that as fact was presumptuous. Also, is there possibly some bias in considering blacks and minorties as two different categories? You said “blacks and other minorities” like blacks are their own category and not considered a minority. This also implies that other minorities are not as significant as blacks. I hate to see all the division just as much as you do, but saying that all whites get treated a certain way because of their skin color is racist and untrue. You may not have intended for anything to be interpreted this way, but here lies another lesson in touching on such sensitive topics — the way we phrase things can skew their interpretations. When writing, we should use tact as to make no remarks that potentially imply bias or prejudice.

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