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Conservatives forget Psych 101

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Unreasonable passion, irrational exuberance

Conservatives forget Psych 101

Daniel Yudkin

Every once in a while on Twitter you come across one of those fun little backwaters where hashtags like #idiot and #asshole get flung back and forth across the fence like monkey poo at a zoo. Inevitably, what triggers these battles is some political issue like religion or abortion or race.

Sometimes I enjoy scrolling through these epic back-and-forths, marveling at the sheer amount of vitriol some people are capable of squeezing into 140 characters.

One expert pot-stirrer is blogger Matt Walsh. I’d never heard of him until recently, but I’m assuming he has at least some clout in conservative circles judging by the fact that there’s another popular blog, called whatismattwalshwrongabouttoday.com, which is devoted entirely to saying why what he says is moronic.

Whenever I read conservative blogs I feel like an anthropologist studying a strange and unfamiliar way of life. I try to be respectful, observing the creatures in their natural habitat without disrupting their precious and fragile ecosystem.

If we ever want to reach some sort of consensus between right- and left-wing people, Walsh’s blog is a great place to start. He’s young, he’s opinionated, and he’s not dumb. So far so good.

Walsh is also not a bad person. He says some really controversial stuff about abortion and homosexuality, but it’s obvious he’s not coming from a place of hate or self-promotion or anything. He’s religious, and conservative, and I think about him in the same way that I think about my family in Kansas: I’ll never believe in the things he does, but I can understand them.

I can understand, for example, why he thinks abortion is murder. The idea is that if we’re going to draw a line about when cell stuff (mitochondria and amino acids and nuclei) turns into a person, that moment when the egg meets up with the little swimmy things and undergoes a genuine electrochemical reaction isn’t a bad place to start. It’s not the only plausible moment at which life begins, but it’s a plausible moment. I can understand that.

So far so good. Walsh, though controversial, is comprehensible.

But then he goes on to say things like,

I’ve seen a lot of people today insist that we ought not concentrate on the folks stealing, vandalizing, and setting fires over in Ferguson. We should instead discuss what “caused” it. Ok, let’s do that. They are human beings with free will who chose to commit evil because it suits their own ends. That’s what caused it. Period. No need for further analysis.

And later,

We always hear about how the black community is being held down and oppressed, as if black men don’t willfully choose to abandon their children.

 Wait a second, Mr. Walsh; I was beginning to think we had some sort of understanding! What sane, intelligent person would ignore the pervasive racism, systemic injustices, asymmetrical opportunities that are clearly at the root of the problem of race in America and blame it on black men?

But then I read some of Matt’s other posts.

He’s written elsewhere:

-       "Robin Williams died from his choice"
-       (To a Wal-Mart employee): “You are at the bottom because you choose to be there.”

What these statements make clear is that Matt is an extreme believer in Free Will. Matt believes that everyone has complete control over their lives and outcomes.

This is an admirable philosophy to have. It goes hand-in-hand with lots of faith in human beings and an optimistic attitude about what we're capable of and responsible for. The problem is that it runs counter to what fifty years of research in social psychology suggest. 

Consider a famous series of studies on helping behavior by Darley & Batson, done in 1973. They wanted to know who would stop to help a needy guy by the side of the road.

Who helps the needy guy? Obviously just, like, helpful people, right? People who choose to help? Wrong. In fact, people’s personality—their internal tendency to make helpful/not helpful choices—has no effect. Rather, what really matters is whether subjects are in a hurry or not.

What this illustrates is the power of the situation. Being in a hurry is an external constraint on someone’s behavior. The experiment thus illustrates that people’s disposition—what Matt considers Free Will—doesn’t determine what people do so much as what situation they’re placed in.

What does this have to do with the plight of black people in America? What Matt’s forgetting is how huge a role the situation plays in black communities.

It’s a fact in America that on average black people are poorer than any other ethnic group. The median net worth of an average white household in America is $110,729. The median net worth of a black? $4,955. That’s an insane 2200% difference.

What you have to understand is that the experience of poverty is a situation in itself, in the same way that being in a hurry is a situation. It’s a situation called scarcity. Two psychologists have shown, for example, that when people are feeling the effects of scarcity, they are more locked into the present, making impulsive choices that lead to bad consequences, like risky sexual behavior that leads to having kids out of wedlock. When money’s on your mind, you’re shackled to the Now.

The point is that anyone is susceptible to this type of scarcity mindset: white, black, men, women. Put someone in a situation in which they endure systematic discrimination, poor education, and consistent poverty, and they’ll show the same behavior.

It’s sad but true: we don’t have total free will. We are often at the whim of our environment. But recognizing this fact, and then focusing our energy and attention on identifying and alleviating the kinds of environmental factors that lead to suboptimal behaviors, we may begin to heal what has obviously become a broken system. Matt Walsh, and other conservative bloggers, should consider digging out their old Psych 101 textbook.