A Tribute to Don Taylor
This post is a departure from our usual blog format of short pieces about research and practice in our group: it's a personal reflection (from Winnifred Louis) on Donald Taylor as a person, and his scholarship and influence.
I was a masters student with Don starting in 1994, when I wrote a thesis on reactions to gender discrimination at McGill University. I then went on to complete my PhD with him from 1996, looking at reactions to English-French conflict in Quebec. He generously involved me in projects and papers on attitudes to immigrants in South Africa and heritage language retention in Quebec, and we worked together on a paper on responses to 9/11, and then on responses to terrorism. After I graduated, he cheered me on and welcomed my students’ visits. He passed away from cancer last month, in November 2021. I can’t possibly express how much I love the guy and what he meant to me, but here is a short list of some of the key things that come to mind.
Autonomous students. Like all Don’s students I worked on projects close to my heart and my interests, I didn’t build an empire for him. He used to laugh at people who would take credit for their students’ work and say, “good supervision is when you set it up for students to steal *your* ideas!”. Students would come in rambling and riffing, and he’d point them to the relevant literatures and send them off to forage, then when they came back, distill their chaotic learnings into hypotheses and a sound research design, and loop them to repeat, as they developed “their” project. Don loved the diverse research that this approach brought to him. And when the PhD students finished, he set them up to develop new collaborations, so they could establish themselves as independent scholars, instead of milking their PhD, not matter how successful it was. “If I couldn’t totally change my research focus every seven years I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
Incredible hulk. Don was a guy who was broad-shouldered and beefy, a football and hockey player at the varsity level. His fashion sense was erratic - in our first meetings, I was alarmed by his 70s style, with shirt open to mid chest, and gold chains nestling in his chest hair. I thought this must mean he was terribly sexist – and some of his unsavory comments didn’t help allay that fear, talking about how the girls chased the players on varsity teams, or how he and a friend in grad school had planned to start a university so they could fool around with the undergrad girls. He used to wear an Australian Akubra cowboy hat and oilskins - he liked the look - and signed an email to me in 2020 with a smiling emoji wearing a cowboy hat. Even in our last ftf meeting, when he was in his late 70s, he turned up in his Akubra, and told me with glee how he’d been captured by the cult of cross-fit, referring to himself as a gym-jockey. But what I quickly learned was that for all this flamboyance - he loved attention, he loved sports, he loved physical challenges – Don was very far from the stereotypes of toxic masculinity, insensitive or domineering. Instead, he was a gentle and often a humble person. The more shy and powerless the other person, the more Don was respectful and kind, quick to self-deprecate or joke, hunching down and tilting his head, attentively listening and learning.
Support for square pegs. The transition from football scholarship to academic research saw Don scrape over class barriers that were very much alive in the 1950s and 1960s. Maybe that was why he was always ready to support square pegs to work their way into the system. Anyone who battled their way through was liable to find him ready to hold the door open into his lab – female students, or people from minority ethnic groups, at times when that was still unusual at McGill. Refugees from Iran and Rwanda. Myself as a lesbian, at a time when I didn’t know anyone at all, in all of academic psychology, who was openly gay. Quirky characters with narrow focus, and people raging against the system. He savoured the diversity and the joyfulness of people whooshing out the doors of his lab with skills and drive. “You’ve got to launch them!,” he said to me on mentoring grad students. “You don’t just churn them out, you launch them!”
Passion for teaching. At the same time Don loved and respected undergraduate teaching. Famously he never missed a class in his 40+ years of undergrad teaching, even the day after a hockey game where he had 20 stitches to his face. “You will influence many more people through your teaching than through your research,” he used to say to me and others. He would teach huge classes of 700, but always remembered to see the students as individual people. He would discard the scheduled lecture content to respond to climactic events, like 9/11. He would talk to students and he would listen to them.
I used to fear public speaking tremendously myself, to the point of blushing, trembling, and cracking voice, complete overwhelm. “You feel fear as a teacher when you are thinking about yourself,” he said to me kindly. “Try to think about your students instead - how much you want them to learn what you’re saying. Think about the content, and how much you love the content, and why you care!” Good advice - he was an excellent public speaker.
“You’ve got to live for the anecdote!,” he used to say. Don was also a story-teller who would mercilessly blow the time limits of his talks, and of his classes, in order to digress to stories that made people laugh, think and act differently. But he was also someone who, in his everyday life and his career, would turn to go down less travelled paths, stop to hear from unexpected people, and choose something strange and different whenever the choice was offered. “Live for the anecdote!,” he would say. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Don’t pass by the opportunity that won’t come again. Live with panache!
Make a difference! Don’s career was impressive in many respects, but perhaps most unusual in showing his long-term commitment to sweeping social change around the world. For five years as a PhD student, I flew up annually on seven-seater planes to Kangiqsujuaq, a tiny village in Arctic Quebec, 100s of kilometers above the treeline. I was part of a 30 year rotating team of students and RAs who learned about the North and contributed to research co-designed with Indigenous Inuit communities on language, identity, and social attitudes. Another time, with Don, I contributed to a special issue in memory of William Robinson, a language scholar who was retiring, and who lamented that at the close of his career he was disappointed that he had not overthrown the class system in the UK. Don and I laughed – but Don applauded that he had never lowered his sights. “They just don’t get it!,” Don used to say irritably, skimming the latest incremental, trivial study, or self-focused theoretical micro-dispute. The world was full of huge problems, with real people struggling - *these* problems needed attention and theorising. The big problems, the big picture – his students were always pushed to consider how our research fit into these categories. Moving beyond the WEIRD context before it was labelled as such, Don introduced me and dozens of other students and collaborators to challenges facing disadvantaged communities, and encouraged us to study them – by going there, by being there, by listening, by working with them, by following their agendas. He supported scholars from the disadvantaged communities and in the global south, and amplified their voices and their theorising.
Pragmatism and sober-minded clarity. He was woke before there was wokeness, but at the same time, he would never have presumed that others would feel the same way, or waste time being surprised if others rejected those values. Don was always really clear about the academia that we worked in as not valuing social change or positive benefits to communities, and even being hostile to them. Maybe that’s not true now in some cases – I hope so. But I still teach my students what Don taught me in the 1990s. He said, you need two lines of research: a mainstream one using mainstream methods published in mainstream journals – this will get you your job, tenure and promotion. It will get you grants. The other work, your applied work, you have to be ready to have dismissed. It has to be for the benefit of communities, so it may be slower, or grind to a halt, or blow apart due to politics. Maybe there will be no academic outcomes for years, or at all. Publication may be relegated to journals and conferences that powerful gatekeepers don’t care about at all, or even see as harmful. (In my own career, a former Head of School, which is like a department chair, once remarked, “If you’re going to publish in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, why publish at all?”) So you have to do both mainstream and applied work, to secure your future, Don would say. You have to publish. But it’s not *just* about job security. Applied work will make you a better theoretician, Don said – more alive to complexity, more aware of received wisdom that’s not actually true. Go outside the box. Look back from the outside. And also: theorising and experiments will strengthen your contribution to application – they will help to untangle causality. And they will credential you to go out to communities and speak to policy makers.
Money matters. In the same pragmatic vein, Don was always keenly aware that money matters. He learned from Wally Lambert, a social psychologist at McGill famous for his research and his own memorable stories of cheap-skatedness, to never stay at conference hotels, as being too expensive and a ripoff to the taxpayer. Over the course of his career, Don used to reflect with smugness, he’d directed thousands of dollars from his grants towards research participants and RAs, by staying in shared rooms at hostels when he travelled, or with friends, instead of living it up in luxury. He loved the vibe as well – or at least, male graduate students and RAs that’d shared with him brought back stories of Don sitting around in his boxers playing the guitar, and late nights talking theory and drinking beer. More nefariously, in his later career Don used to sneak into conferences to give his research talks without paying to register for them – something that puzzled and exasperated the conference organising teams, often made up of his former students and friends. “These are ridiculously expensive,” he said at one point when I asked him about it - I guess he decided other student and research expenses were more worthy. It’s a choice he felt was legitimate for him to make, which tells you a lot about him.
Bend the rules and make them work for you. Don understood the importance of institutions, and cultivated relationships with policy-makers for immigration, language, and race relations carefully all his career. He also kept a vigilant eye on university politics. But he despised bureaucracy and institutional politicking. So he was always ready to bend the rules. He helped set up courses at McGill for Inuttitut education that effectively became offered in intensives, creating a path that allowed Inuit students to credential themselves as teachers with less difficulty. “What kind of names are these?,” the Dean asked him in bewilderment at one point, peering at the -iaq and -miq graduands – unexpected lists of names ending in q and k. Don used to laugh happily to us as he recalled getting the system to work for the students this way. Look for ways to make what you want to do fit a label the system can live with. Look the authorities in the eye and smile blandly. Hold the door open to let others through.
Human at work. All of these things influenced me, and they help me now, and my students too, but the thing that speaks most loudly to my heart now is that long before the term was fashionable, Don was ‘human at work’ – he was authentic and real, and not just defined by his job. He spoke to us about his family, and he asked about mine. He came to my wedding. He played music, and sports, and coached kids’ sports, and took time off for holidays with his wife and kids – and he encouraged us to do the same: take time off for other things. Be real. Have friends and family. “It’s different now,” we used to say to him – we grad students of the 1990s – “it’s too competitive, you’ve got to work all the time and stack up publications, you can’t get by and take weekends off”. “I worry that’s true,” he used to say. But work expands to fill the time you give it. Have the best career you can, within the boundaries you set.
Don had a great career. He won national awards for teaching, for research, and for service. He was also deeply loved, as much as anyone else I know or more so. At a symposium we had in honour of Don at the Canadian Psychological Association conference in 2016, people came from all over the world to celebrate his influence and research. I came myself from Australia. He was utterly astonished – he was completely flabbergasted that so many people would go to so much effort to celebrate him and his work. I will close this tribute, as I closed the talk on the day, with these words:
Thank you Don!
For tremendous support personally & professionally for more than 20 years
…For an inspiring vision of a great life filled with joyful curiosity, research, family, sports, music, and activism
…For moral indignation always translated with determination and humour into action and alliances,
…For boundless scepticism about authorities and bureaucracy, but tremendous faith in teaching, science, and possibilities,
… And for highlighting the value of living for the anecdote !
Other tributes to Don for those who knew him or are curious:
In his own words
The Amazon is the largest and most biodiverse tract of tropical rainforest in the world, home to roughly 10% of the world species. It’s also the world’s largest terrestrial carbon dioxide sink and plays a significant role in mitigating global warming. While forest fires in this region are frequent occurrences, and typically happen in dry seasons due to illegal slash-and-burn methods that are used to clear forest for agriculture, livestock, logging and mining, the 2019 wildfires season was particularly devastating. In 2019 alone, estimates suggest over 10 000 km2 of forest within the Amazon biome was lost to the fires with August fires reaching record levels. Destruction of the Amazon doesn’t just threaten increasingly endangered species and the local indigenous populations. As the amount of carbon stored in the Amazon is 70 times greater than the annual US output of greenhouse gases, releasing that amount of extra carbon into the atmosphere would undo everything society has been doing to reduce emissions.
Satellite image of forest fires burning in the Amazon (Image from Earth Observatory: NASA)
Deforestation of the Amazon fluctuates alongside the political landscape of Brazil. Between 1970 and 2005, almost one-fifth of the Brazilian Amazon was deforested. In the 2000s, President Lula da Silva implemented programs to control deforestation, which reduced deforestation by 80% by 2012. Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, scaling back the Amazon protections and regulations in hope of stimulating economic growth, which led to a 30% increase in deforestation over the previous year. The international community was understandably displeased; verbal condemnations were made and aid payments to Brazil were cut. However, for the poor populations living in and around the Amazon, it’s about survival. Clearing land gives an immediate economic benefit in the form of cattle ranching, even if it’s an inefficient place to farm cattle due to its distance from potential markets and poor soil quality.
If money is the driver of deforestation, perhaps money will offer the solution. The landholders in Brazil could be compensated to forego the profits from converting forests to cattle. There are precedents for such environmental programs, a notable example was China’s Grain for Green program in 1999 – the world’s biggest reforestation program – in which120 million households were paid what amounted to about $150 billion over a decade to protect existing forest or restore forest. In 1996, the Costa Rica government introduced the Payments for Environmental Service (PES) to pay landowners to protect or restore rainforest on their property. With a payment of $50 per hectare, it was enough to slow and reverse deforestation rates. By 2005, Costa Rica’s forest cover has increased by 42% from when the program began.
Brazil is also warming up to this idea. One such initiative is the “Adopt a Park” program, announced last month in Brazil, which will allow national and international funds, banks and companies to pay to preserve areas equivalent to 15% of Brazil’s portion of the Amazon – an area larger than Chile. However, for such programs to succeed and attract international support, the Brazilian government would need to demonstrate their ability to stop illegal loggers and wildcat miners from decimating the landscape.
There already exists an appetite for these conservation schemes among world leaders. Norway was willing to provide roughly $100 million per year over a decade to support a non-profit dedicated to reducing Amazon deforestation. In a debate with Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president expressed similar sentiment:
I would be right now organizing the hemisphere and the world to provide $20 billion for the Amazon, for Brazil no longer to burn the Amazon.
These cash-for-conservation schemes might seem like handouts, but it is high time the world’s biggest polluters pay their dues. The Western bloc is responsible for around half of the global historical emissions (the US – 25%, the EU – 22%). Those who will suffer the most acutely from the consequences of climate change are also the least responsible – the poorest of the poor and those living in island states: around 1 billion people in 100 countries. There is a significant ecological debt owed to low-income nations from industrialized first-world nations for the disproportionate emissions of greenhouse gases. Now that the impacts of climate change are unavoidable and worsening, investment in adaptation to rising temperatures and extreme weather is more important than ever. In the drive to better humankind and amass wealth for a few, we’ve wreaked havoc on the world’s environment and put the lives and livelihoods of many in jeopardy. Now it is time for those of us in the West to use our plenitude of wealth, knowledge and technology to help those in need, and to mitigate and prepare for the consequences of our actions.
- By Hannibal Thai
From reduced air pollution to cleaner water, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a vision of hope: evidence that we are capable of rapidly changing our behaviours to build a cleaner, healthier environment. However, what is less clear is whether this vision can be translated into reality. To help investigate this question, the Network of Social Scientists convened an online workshop in late May. The group of around 30 academics and environmental professionals pooled their expertise to explore the effects of the pandemic on the environment. Through investigating the following three questions they identified a range of impacts and barriers to change, as well as techniques for sustaining positive outcomes as the lock downs ease.
What have been the environmental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic?
A diverse range of positive and negative environmental effects were highlighted by NESS experts. Many enforced changes from the lock downs led to environmental benefits: more cycling, gardening and engagement in green spaces, a reduction in food waste and greater support for local businesses and food chains were all suggested. In the workplace, a remarkable transition to an online world challenged the dominance of in-person meetings and international travel, both reducing environmental impacts and increasing accessibility and connectivity.
Attitudes may have also changed. Trust in experts was enhanced by the centrality of health experts on daily news reports and other media. Some workshop participants believed more positive attitudes towards our ability to create change had emerged, which could flow onto increased mobilization against climate change. Our ability to collectively shoulder immense economic risks to safeguard our health proved that politics can produce results in times of crisis. Some argued that this has shown that the ‘behaviour change barrier’ can be broken.
However, as many social scientists noted, behavioral changes are likely to slide as we slowly return to past habits. As well as this concern, NESS experts highlighted the range of negative environmental impacts which were resulting from the pandemic. The drowning out of attention on bushfires and climate change, the continued practice of ‘ghost flights’, a surge in internet and energy use, and the quadrupling of medical waste indicated a high level of doubt about whether any longer term positive environmental benefits will be sustained.
What barriers may prevent our ability to sustain positive environmental effects?
The UN Secretary General António Guterres hoped that 2020 would be a pivotal year for addressing climate change. Yet despite the horror of the 2019/20 Australian bushfires, media and political attention swiftly re-focused on the pandemic. As the economic and social costs of the pandemic built, NESS experts noted how political barriers resisting change may once again reassert themselves. The renewed focus on development and jobs might serve as a reason or excuse to cut environmental funding, projects and regulations aiming to protect the environment as has happened in previous economic downturns. The prioritization of a gas led recovery indicates limited political support for a fast transition to clean energy. While calls for an Australian ‘green new deal’ are growing, countering the desire to strip back environmental regulation will require a sustained and powerful collective response.
As work and holidays returns to pre-pandemic habits, emissions and other negative environmental impacts resulting from commuting and travel may rapidly rise. Turning changed attitudes and behaviours into habits will likely be difficult. A 50% increase in household waste managed by Australian Councils were foreseen by NESS experts. Pivoting back to eco-friendly behaviours such as public transportation use will be likely be discouraged. The surge in use of public green spaces in wealthier nations could be offset by increased deforestation and biodiversity loss in the Global South as newly unemployed migrant workers return to villages to survive. The economic shock of a recession may reduce public support for implementing environmentally beneficial policies. There are myriad localized and personal barriers which may make sustaining environmental positive behaviours much harder to maintain.
What insights from social science can help leverage COVID-19 to achieve positive outcomes for the environment?
NESS experts suggested three techniques which could be used to overcome the barriers which will drive a return to ‘business as usual’ as our communities emerge from lock down.
First, there is evidence from past pandemics that highlighting the positive personal benefits of changed behaviours can spur lasting change. Past pandemics using this frame drove the development of more green spaces, enabling healthier urban environments alongside increased access to nature. Organisations seeking to advocate for permanent post-pandemic changes could seek to frame their messages referencing the personal benefits of clean air and quieter cities, the benefits to health and personal safety, and the financial and time savings to people and firms from reduced travel costs.
Second, NESS experts highlighted the value of capitalising on the momentum we have already built in achieving short term changes. Research on dynamic or change norms highlights that the mere knowledge that a growing number of others have been doing a certain behaviour will increase intentions to adopt that behaviour.
Third, NESS experts recommended the use of trusted messengers to communicate about environmental change. Celebrate local businesses cementing in more sustainable post-COVID-19 practices. Capitalize on the increased profile of health experts by amplifying messages from groups such as Doctors for the Environment. Work from within organisations to accelerate change and demonstrate the value of a cleaner and healthier world. COVID-19 has powerfully demonstrated the differences in the power of trusted leaders and voices to mobilise, compared to contested or outsider voices.
Already the environmental effects of the pandemic have begun to be documented through a range of academic papers and opinion pieces. Whether for good or ill, the pandemic has shown us that we do have the power to change the impact we have on the world. The challenge is now to build a new reality from this brief moment of hope.
The summary report from the workshop is available here.
- By Dr. Robyn Gulliver
This article was originally posted by NESSAUSTRALIA (Network of Environmental Social Scientists).
How to stay calm and manage those family tensions during the coronavirus lockdown
The coronavirus restrictions are slowly being eased but the pressures on families at home still probably lead to many tears of frustration.
It could be tensions about noise and clutter, keeping up with home schooling and mums and dads torn between parenting and their own work duties.
So to make sure our memories of being locked in with our families are as positive as possible, here are some evidence-based tips for calming down, preventing conflict and dealing with any sibling rivalry.
Take a deep breath
If you feel yourself getting angry at something, breathe in while counting to three. Then breathe out slowly counting to six (or any patterns with a slower out breath). If you do this ten times you should notice yourself becoming calmer.
If you’re too agitated to breathe slowly, put your hands on your heart and simply wait until you feel more relaxed. Try counting to ten or 100 before you react.
Leave the room and take a break. Plan to deal with the niggle another time. When you’re on break, do something to distract yourself like make a drink, listen to music, look at a beautiful picture or play a video game that is absorbing.
Call a friend or professional helpline to help you get another perspective, especially if you feel scared or hurt.
Different strategies work for different people, so try them all. Encourage your kids to keep trying if they don’t initially succeed. You need to practise any skill to make it feel natural. For younger children, taking a break may be simpler to master.
Ease the tension before things blow
It’s good to calm down from explosions but it’s even better if you can reduce the build-up in the first place.
Take time to share some of the problems upsetting people and see if as family you can negotiate a solution.
It’s likely everyone in your family is more tense because of the COVID-19 crisis. Many aspects can’t be easily fixed, like lost work or money stress, but others can, such as creating new routines or sharing space, resources or chores.
Work out different ways to get exercise indoors, like games or apps. Plan ahead for the times that need extra care, like when people are tired, or if difficult tasks need finishing. Let others know what to expect.
And importantly, lower expectations for everyone. What used to be easy might now be hard, and that’s okay.
Control the emotions
Help everyone work on managing their emotions. Just because you are experiencing extra distress doesn’t mean you should snap at your loved ones.
You need to grow your toolkit of things that make you feel calmer and happier when you’re under pressure.
It could be spending time talking about what is going right and what is okay, working with your hands, meditation or prayer, time with your partner, reading or learning something new.
Every day, take time do something from your toolkit to chill out.
Talk to each other
When the tension is lower, quiet family conversations can help by naming any stresses. Naming things like “this is a stressful time” or “I’m a bit grumpy about work today” helps children process emotions.
It’s important to actively listen to others and celebrate strengths.
Listening and repeating back what others say makes people feel heard, and so does acknowledging shared feelings (“I miss my friends too”). When parents calmly talk about how some things cannot be easily changed, it builds acceptance.
Over time, the most powerful thing to prevent explosions is to notice when anger is building so you can deal with it before things escalate.
It’s useful to reflect on questions such as “Will this matter in 20 years?” and “Am I taking this too personally?”
You can help children by exploring what might really be bothering them. That argument about a toy might be about feeling sad. Try to listen for the deeper message, so they feel understood.
Calm that sibling rivalry
If sibling rivalry is driving you to distraction, the good news is it does not mean there is something wrong. Low-level sibling bickering is common during times of tension and boredom.
But you should step in when the volume goes up with nasty name-calling or physical contact.
Acknowledge emotions, help the kids express what they feel and encourage empathy. Try to help them decide what’s fair, instead of imposing your view.
More serious incidents require you to stop the interaction. If there is harm, separate the kids, care for the hurt child and consider a consequence. Use time-outs to calm things down, not for punishment.
But like all conflict, prevention is better than punishment. Does one child need more attention, exercise, stimulation or structure? Do certain toys need to be put away, or shared?
Depending on the age of your children, you can help older kids to learn to react gently to provocation. Praise children when they take steps to manage their stress.
Remember, these are stressful times for many families around the world. If we can use this time to stay patient, manage tension and act with goodwill towards our loved ones, our families will be better equipped to weather COVID-19, and many other storms that will follow.
For more help and information see our website or go to 1800Respect and No To Violence.
- By Winnifred Louis, Tori Cooke, Tom Denson, and Peter Streker
Tori Cooke is the Head of Workforce Development at No To Violence.
Tom Denson is a Professor in Psychology at the University of New South Wales who researches anger regulation and aggressive behaviour.
Peter Streker is the Director of Community Stars.
This article was written with help from Carmel O'Brien at PsychRespect, and the University of Queensland’s students Ruby Green and Kiara Minto.
This post was originally published in The Conversation.
Facing COVID-19, communities are trying to strike the balance between locking each other out and keeping each other safe. As government experts and political commentators examine the art of public health messaging for effective behaviour change, lessons could and should be drawn from the most devastating health emergency in recent times: the 2013-2016 Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) epidemic in western Africa. EVD had an incredibly high death rate (50%) and broke out in countries with severely under-resourced healthcare and little public health access. During the EVD epidemic, communities faced similar challenges as with COVID-19, though with even more deadly consequences.
Multiagency reports show that early in 2014, EVD public health messaging was understood, but failed to motivate meaningful behavioural change. For example:
Why comprehension may not result in action
During an emergency, the individual’s ability to shape what is happening to them is severely reduced. This loss of control leads to a perceived reduction in personal efficacy (an inability to produce desired effects and forestall undesired effects by their actions), leaving individuals with little motivation to act. Social psychological researcher Bandura argues that due to an increasingly interdependent world, people will turn to their communities to accomplish what they cannot individually. Perceived collective efficacy will subsequently determine how confident or discouraged they are to tackle bigger societal problems.
In countries with strong emergency infrastructure, however, individuals may turn to state proxies instead of the collective. They may call an ambulance, fire services, or police to assist them in overcoming a challenge they cannot, rather than a neighbour. The proxy replaces the collective. Therefore, it may be argued that collective action during an emergency is made redundant by the state-led initiative. If this were the case with COVID-19, epidemiologists speaking from a government platform via the national broadcaster should command public compliance. Yet, in many cases they do not.
Similar patterns were also borne out during the EVD epidemic. Studies confirm that the disconnect between individual comprehension of public health messaging and meaningful behavioural change, was due to a failure of national and international responders to address community practices. That is, national and international leadership overlooked potential collective solutions at the community level, with fatal consequences for those communities.
In the latter part of 2014 community health workers and local journalists intervened. To confront EVD, these groups translated public health messaging through a community lens, directly addressing rumours and misinformation. Within six months of community interventions, humanitarian agencies reported significant improvements in prevention measures; over 95% of EVD patients presented to health facilities within 24 hours of experiencing symptoms. Emergency response organisations were able to leverage understanding of local explanatory models, history of previous emergencies, beliefs, practices, and politics through community health workers. Contact tracing and education campaigns were undertaken by local volunteers. Together with religious authorities, new burial practices were enacted.
Especially in countries with developed health systems, the COVID-19 response has largely overlooked community responses. The focus on unified top-down policy is important, but the efficacy may be limited as during EVD. Collective efficacy is key to mobilise to save lives and keep each other safe.
- By Siobhán McEvoy & Laura K Taylor
Laura K. Taylor (PhD) is an Assistant Professor, School of Psychology, University College Dublin (Ireland) and Queen's University Belfast (Northern Ireland). Her research integrates peace studies with developmental and social psychology to study how to promote constructive intergroup relations and peacebuilding among children and youth in divided societies.
Siobhan McEvoy is a humanitarian consultant specialising in social mobilisation and community engagement with people displaced due to conflict. Her work has included tackling misinformation during migration of refugees in southern Europe, understanding the use of Rohingya language in responding to health emergencies in refugee camps in Bangladesh and creating strategy for community mobilisation in South Sudan to prevent the spread of Ebola virus disease.
The illusion of consensus
Consider this troubling fact: an analysis of blogs that focus on denying climate change found that 80% of those blogs got their information from a single primary source. Worse, this source—a single individual who claims to be a “polar bear expert”—is no expert at all; they possess no formal qualifications and have conducted no research on polar bears.
No matter what side of the debate you are on, this should concern you. Arguments built on false premises don’t help anyone, regardless of their beliefs or political leanings. But does this sort of widespread misinformation—involving the mere repetition of information across many sources—actually affect people's beliefs?
To find out, we asked research participants to read news articles about topics that involved different governmental policies. In one experiment, participants read an article claiming that Japan’s economy would not improve, as well as one or more articles claiming the economy would improve. Unbeknownst to our participants, they were divided into three groups. The first group read four articles claiming the economy was going to improve—and importantly, each of these articles cited a different source. The second group read the same four articles, except in this case, all of the articles cited the same source (just like the climate-change-denying blogs all cite the same “expert”). And to establish a point of comparison for the other groups, the third group of participants read just one article claiming the economy would continue to improve.
You might expect that when information is corroborated by multiple independent sources, it is much more likely to sway people’s opinions. If this is the case, then people who read four articles that each cited a unique source should be very certain that Japan’s economy will continue to improve. Furthermore, if people pay attention to the original sources of the information they read, then those who read four articles that all cited exactly the same source should be less certain (because that information was repeated but not corroborated). And, finally, people who read only one article claiming Japan’s economy will improve should be the least certain.
Indeed, people were much more likely to believe that Japan’s economy would improve when they heard it from four unique sources than when they read only one article. But, surprisingly, people who read four articles all citing the same source were just as confident in their conclusions. Our participants seemed to pay attention only to the number of times the information was repeated without considering where the information came from. Why?
Perhaps people assume that when one person is cited repeatedly, that person is the one, true expert on that topic. But, in a follow-up study, we asked other participants exactly this question: all else equal, would you rather hear from five independent sources or one single source? Unsurprisingly, most believed that more sources were better. But here's the shocking part: when those same participants then completed the task described above, they still believed the repeated information that all came from the same source just as much as independently sourced information—even for those who had just said they would prefer multiple independent sources.
These results show that as we form opinions, we are influenced by the number of times we hear information repeated. Even when many claims can be traced back to a single source, we do not treat these claims as if we had heard them only once; we act as if multiple people had come to the same conclusion independently. This “illusion of consensus” presumably applies to virtually all the information that we encounter, including debates about major societal issues like gun control, vaccination, and climate change. We need to be aware of how simple biases like these affect our beliefs and behavior so that we can be better community members, make informed voting decisions, and fully participate in debates over the public good.
We wanted to finish this article with a fun fact concerning the massive amount of information that people are exposed to each day. So, we asked Google: "How much information do we take in daily?", and we got a lot of answers. Try it for yourself. You'll see source after source that says you consume about 34 gigabytes of information each day. You may not know exactly how much 34 gigabytes is, but it sure sounds like a lot, and several sources told you so.
What's the problem? All of these sources circle back to a single primary source. And, despite our best efforts, we weren't able to find an original source that was able to back-up these claims at all. If we weren't careful, it would have been easy to step away believing something that might not be true—and only because that information was repeated several times.
So, next time you hear a rumor or watch the news, think about it. Take one moment and ask, simply, "Where is this information coming from?"
- By Sami Yousif, Rosie Aboody, and Frank Keil
Sami Yousif is a graduate student at Yale University. His research primarily focuses on how we see, make sense of, and navigate the space around us. In his spare time, he also studies how we (metaphorically) navigate a world of overabundant information.
Rosie Aboody is a graduate student at Yale University. She studies how we learn from others. Specifically, she’s interested in how children and adults decide what others know, who to learn from, and what to believe.
Frank Keil is a professor of psychology at Yale University and the director of the Cognition and Development lab. At the most general level, he is interested in how we come to make sense of the world around us.
This post is previously published on the Society of Personality and Social Psychology; Character and Context Blog
For Further Reading:
Yousif, S. R., Aboody, R., & Keil, F. C. (2019). The illusion of consensus: a failure to distinguish between true and false consensus. Psychological Science, 30, 1195-1204.
I want to start by acknowledging our group’s successes
In 2019, the lab saw Tracy Schultz and Cassandra Chapman awarded their PhD theses (whoohoo!). Tracy Schultz is working grimly but heroically in the Queensland department of the environment and Cassandra Chapman spent a year as a post doc in UQ’s Business School before securing a continuing T&R position there. Well done to both! It was also great fun welcoming Morgana Lizzio-Wilson as a post doc off our collective action grant (and hopefully continuing to work on the voluntary assisted dying grant in 2020): Morgana brought lots of vital energy to the lab, and I’m very grateful.
2019 also saw many other students working through their other milestones, including Hannibal, Liberty and Robin who were successfully confirmed (huzzah!), and Gi, Zahra, Kiara, Susilo, and Robyn who pushed through mid-candidature reviews and are coming up to thesis reviews. I also welcomed a new PhD student, Eunike Mutiara, who is working with Annie Pohlman in the School of Languages and Cultures at UQ on a project in genocide studies (I am an Associate Advisor). We had big health drama, with me and Tulsi both spending a lot of time away from work due to health concerns. Here’s hoping 2020 is healthy, happy and productive for us and for the group!
I also want to pass on a special thank you to our volunteers and visitors for the social change lab in 2019, including Claudia Zuniga, Vladimir Bojarskich, Hema Selvanathan, Jo Brown, Tarli Young, Sam Popple, Michaels White, Dare, and Thai, Elena Gessau-Kaiser, Lea Hartwich, and Eleanor Glenn. Thank you everyone! And here’s hoping that 2020 is equally fun and social!
Other news of 2019 engagement and impact
With our normal collective plethora of conference presentations and journal articles (see our publications page for the latter), I continued to have great fun this year with engagement.
In the environment space, I gave a few talks to universities but also state environment departments and groups such as the WWF (World Wildlife Fund). The talks argue that environmental scholars, leaders and advocates need to develop an understanding of the group processes underpinning polarisation and stalemates, because this is the new frontier of obstacles that we are facing. I reckon many established tactics of advocacy don’t actually work as desired to create a more sustainable world. We need to focus on those that avoid polarisation and stalemates, and instead grow the centre and empower conservative environmentalists. We should use evidence about effective persuasion in conflict to try to improve the outcomes of our advocacy and activism. As the year turns and the bush fires burn, as the feedback loops become more grimly clear in the oceans, ice caps, and rain forest, and as the global outlook looks worse and worse, I feel there is more appetite for new approaches among those environmental scientists, policy makers, and activists who are not drowning in despair and fury. J To mitigate despair and fury, I draw attention to new work by Robyn Gulliver coming out re what activists are doing and what successes they are obtaining. I also see a continued and increasing need for climate grief and anxiety work and I draw attention to the excellent Australian Psychological Society resources on this topic.
Looking at radicalisation and extremism: thanks to the networks from our conference at UQ last year on Trajectories of Radicalisation and Deradicalisation, I was invited to a groovy conference on online radicalisation at Flinders organised by Claire Smith and others. I reconnected with many scholars there, plus meeting heaps more at the conference and at the DSTO (the defence research group) in Adelaide. I am looking forward to connecting more widely - the interdisciplinary, mixed-methods engagement is exhilarating. It was also excellent at the conference to see the strong representation from Indonesian scholars like Hamdi Muluk, Mirra Milla and their colleagues and students. There is a lot to learn from their experience and wisdom, and I am excited to visit Indonesia this year.
Also on extremism, as part of my sabbatical, I visited the conflict centre at Bielefeld led by Andreas Zwick, with Arin Ayanian and others. It was truly impressive to see their interdisciplinary international assembly of conflict and radicalisation researchers, including refugee scholars sharing their expertise. I wish there were more of a consistent practice of translating the German-language output though eh. (Is it crazy to imagine a crude google translate version posted on ResearchGate, or at a uni page?) J I also visited Harvey Whitehouse’s group at Oxford, and greatly enjoyed the opportunity to give a talk at the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion and to meet some of his brilliant students and post docs. And at St Andrews, Ken Mavor and Steve Reicher put together a gripping one day symposium on collective action: it is exciting to see the new Scottish networks that are coming together on this topic.
On the sabbatical so far, I also visited Joanne Smith at Exeter, Linda Steg and Martijn van Zomeren at Groningen, Catherine Amiot at UQAM, Richard Lalonde at York, Jorida Cila and Becky Choma at Ryerson, and earlier Steve Wright and Michael Schmidt at Simon Fraser. It is very fun to spend time with these folks and their students and colleagues, and I look forward to my 2020 trips, which are listed below. Just so people know, right now as well as trying to publish the work from the DIME grant on collective action (cough cough), I am trying to work up new lines of work on norms (of course!), (in)effective advocacy and intergroup persuasion, and religion and the environment. I welcome new riffing and contacts on any of these.
In other news, our lab has continued to work to take up open science practices in 2019 and to grapple with the sad reality – not new, but newly salient! – that sooo many hypotheses are disconfirmed and so many findings fail to replicate. We are seeking further consistency in pre-registration, online data sharing, transparency re analyses, and commitment to open access. Looking at articles, though, it still seems extremely rare to see acknowledgement of null findings and unexpected findings permitted, and I think this is still the great target for reviewers and editors to work on in order to propel us forward as a field.
Socialchangelab.net in 2020
Within the lab, Kiara Minto has been carrying the baton passed on by Cassandra Chapman, who started the blog and website in 2018, and Zahra Mirnajafi, who also worked on it in 2019. Thank you to Kiara and Zahra for all your great work last year with our inhouse writers, our guest bloggers, and the site!
I also am still active for work on Twitter, and I hope that you will follow @WlouisUQ and @socialchangelab if you are on Twitter yourself. In the meantime, we welcome each new reader of the blogs and the lab with enthusiasm, and hope to see the trend continue in 2020.
What the new year holds
In 2020, for face to face networking, if all goes well, I’ll be at SASP in April in Auckland, and at SPSSI in June in the USA. Please email me if you’d like to meet up. I’ll also be travelling extensively on the sabbatical – to Chile, Indonesia, New Zealand, and within Australia to Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. I hope people will contact me for meetings and talks if interested.
Due to the sabbatical until July, I won’t be taking on new PhD students or honours students this year, but welcome expressions of interest for volunteer RAs and visitors from July onward. I’m not sure that I have as much energy as normal, what with all the travel and health dramas, but I am focusing almost exclusively on writing, talks and fun riffing until the sabbatical ends in few months, so let’s not let the time go to waste. J In Semester 2 2020, I’ll be teaching Attitudes and Social Cognition, a great third year social psychology elective, so I’m looking forward to that too.
All the best from our team,
Reflections on Cardinal Pell and Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Allegations
In Australia, with the recent failed appeal of Cardinal Pell, the problem of child sex abuse in institutions has again been thrust into the media spotlight. Surprisingly, many continue to stand by Pell. Several prominent figures including former prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard publicly supported Pell. In addition, even after the failed appeal, many members of the Catholic Church have continued to argue for Pell’s innocence and the Catholic Church has refused to remove a plaque of Cardinal Pell from St Mary’s Church in Sydney despite protests. This begs the question of how can Pell’s supporters persist in believing in his innocence despite his conviction and failed appeal?
My research into institutional responses to child sexual abuse may provide some insight into the question of why some continue to support Pell. We are all members of various groups and some of these groups are more important to us than others. Our group memberships can influence and bias how we respond to allegations of wrongdoing against other members of our groups. In the instance of Cardinal Pell who is one of the most powerful figures in the Catholic Church, membership in the Catholic Church may influence people’s judgements of the allegations against him and even his conviction.
A theory called the “black sheep effect” suggests that when a person engages in wrongdoing, they will be judged most harshly by members of their own group in order to reject them and their behaviour and protect the reputation of the group. However, this effect is typically found in cases where the guilt is certain. In the case of Cardinal Pell, with some of the evidence withheld from the public, and as Pell maintains his innocence, the guilt cannot truly be considered certain. My research suggests that when there is any uncertainty in the guilt of the alleged offender, we are likely to see the opposite of the “the black sheep effect”. Specifically, Catholics are more likely to be protective of the accused and sceptical of the accuser. This is in line with efforts of the Catholic league to invalidate the allegations against Pell by maligning the character of the accusers.
According to my research findings, the desire to protect Pell and the scepticism of his accusers would be particularly strong amongst those who identify strongly as Catholic, regardless of the quality of the evidence available. As a public figure, and staunch Catholic Tony Abbott may be particularly motivated to maintain Pell’s innocence and disbelieve allegations of child sex abuse as accepting Pell’s guilt would reflect negatively on himself and his religion. Similarly, although John Howard is not a Catholic, he is a Christian and has been personally acquainted with Cardinal Pell for several decades.
Whilst it is likely that many supporters of Pell are unwilling to consider the possibility of his guilt due to subconscious biases motivating their judgements, it is also important to note that when speaking to leaders of the Catholic church, Justice Peter McClellan (head of Australia’s royal commission into child sex abuse) found that some argued that child sex abuse was a moral failure rather than a criminal act. Consequently, accepted allegations were often met with an inadequate response and the offender remained in the ministry.
Recommendations for the future
Given what we now know about child sex abuse in institutions, it’s clear that there has been a systematic failure for decades. My research suggests that allegations would be best dealt with by those not invested in the group of the accused. This is backed up by the recommendations of the royal commission; that those intending to enter the ministry should be subject to external psychological testing and should be removed from the ministry permanently if an allegation of sexual abuse is substantiated. Essentially, organisations should not be solely responsible for policing themselves.
If you have experienced abuse within the Church or elsewhere, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or one of the other help services recommended by the Royal commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
- By Kiara Minto
3 things completing a PhD taught me that had nothing to do with my research topic
When you think about what you might learn by completing a PhD, it’s natural that you might focus on the most obvious outcome: expertise in the research topic. Sure, it is true that by the end of your PhD you will know a lot about your chosen topic but what you might not realise is that, along the way, you will also learn other important skills that are completely unrelated to the research topic. Here are the top 3 things that I learnt:
1. Dealing with uncertainty
By the very nature of a research PhD, you aren’t sure what the outcome of your research is going to be when you start. The reason why you are doing the research in the first place is to answer an as yet unanswered question! Importantly however, you will realise that while sometimes your studies work out and sometimes they don’t, your PhD rolls on regardless of the outcome. So you learn to deal with the uncertainty and push on. This is a great skill to have when you are starting a new job or a new project. During such times you will inevitably feel unsure or uncertain but knowing that, with hard work and perseverance, the moment will pass is reassuring.
2. Dealing with the imposter syndrome
I originally titled this sub-heading ‘Overcoming the imposter syndrome’ but that would not be true. By the end of my PhD I had not overcome the imposter syndrome but I did get to a place where it would not stop me from doing what needed to be done. What I learnt was that EVERYONE suffers from imposter syndrome, from students through to professors. Those that succeed in their careers have simply learnt how to ‘handle it’. Some tips that have helped me to ‘handle it’ are:
3. Time and project management skills
For 99% of people, completing a PhD will be the longest, hardest and most complex project that they have undertaken in their career to date. So don’t underestimate the skills that you gain in terms of time and project management. You might have to learn some of those lessons the hard-way but by the end of your PhD you will have a greater understanding of what it takes to manage your time and what project management systems (software, lists, charts etc) work for you.
In the end, like an increasing number of PhD graduates, I now have a job outside of academia unrelated to my PhD topic. Not once have I felt that those years were wasted. I use the skills that I learnt and draw almost daily from the countless amazing people that I met throughout my PhD. And mostly I am grateful for the opportunities that completing a PhD afforded me, beyond my topic expertise. And if you ever need to talk to an expert in community engagement with stormwater imagery – you know where to find me ;-)
- By Tracy Schultz
According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), one-third of women globally have experienced some form of domestic abuse at some point in their lives. Domestic violence has become a global epidemic, and it’s not just a problem for women. Men too can be victims of domestic abuse.
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to combating domestic violence is that a significant majority of the victims are afraid to speak out — with less than 40 percent of survivors seeking help of any kind. Domestic violence can take many forms but at its core, it’s all about power and control.
Tech abuse, a new breed of domestic abuse enabled by technology, is on the rise as exhibited by the increase of news stories and articles focusing on how abusers use technology to coerce and control their victims. However, while technology can be used by abusers to violate, exploit, monitor, coerce, threaten, and harass their victims, it can also be a helpful resource for survivors of domestic violence.
Technology has the potential to be a double-edged sword for those experiencing domestic violence. Victims of domestic violence can use tech solutions to protect themselves from tech-facilitated domestic abuse. In this article, we’ll look at how technology can be used to facilitate abuse and how survivors of domestic violence can leverage it to regain control of their lives. Read on to find out more.
Five Examples of Tech-Enabled Domestic Violence
Let’s start with examples of how technology can be used to facilitate domestic abuse. It is not surprising that technology now plays a major part in domestic violence given the ubiquity of digital communications. Some of the most common instances of tech-facilitated domestic abuse include:
The act of harassment, tracking, and monitoring through technological devices can heighten the victim’s sense of isolation and imprisonment in the relationship. Even after the relationship has ended, technology-enabled domestic violence can make a victim feel as though the abuser is omnipresent in his or her life. So, what can survivors of tech-enabled domestic violence do to regain control over their lives?
Five Ways to Regain Control From Tech-Enabled Domestic Violence
1. Ensure That There Are No Bugs in Your Device
Often, abusers install surveillance apps and spyware onto their victims’ devices (smartphones and computers) so that they can track their whereabouts and know what they are up to at all times. If you are in suspicion that someone has installed tracking software or spyware on your device, restore factory settings to get rid of it.
2. Sweep for GPS Trackers in Your Car
If you are not a car expert, it may be hard to detect any physical modifications to your car. Hire a professional (a mechanic, for instance) to sweep for bugs and GPS trackers in your vehicle.
3. Encrypt Your Communications
Always use encrypted communication platforms when possible. A majority of messaging apps such as Viber, Telegram, and WhatsApp have encryption features that make it impossible for stalkers and abusers to access your messages even if they take control of your phone.
4. Secure Your Online Accounts
This includes your email, online banking, and social media accounts. Perpetrators of domestic violence often use social media to stalk their victims. Use two-factor authentication to prevent the intrusion of your online accounts.
5. Secure Your Bank Account
As stated earlier in the article, domestic violence is all about exerting tyrannical power and control over others. When an abuser takes control of your finances, it's easy for them to keep you under their control. That’s why survivors of domestic violence should strive to secure their bank accounts and maintain financial independence.
Domestic violence is a global epidemic affecting millions of people in different parts of the world. Domestic violence ruins lives and, in some cases, it takes them. Today’s technology gives abusers a myriad of ways to stalk, isolate, and control their victims. The good news is that survivors of domestic violence can use the same tech to fight back and regain control of their lives.
- By Ophelia Johnson @https://www.techwarn.com/
Note – Techwarn reached out to socialchangelab.net about publicising some of the problems and solutions available for technology facilitated abuse. We don’t know Ophelia personally, but we are excited to support awareness-raising in this important area. Thanks for your contribution Ophelia and Techwarn!
Lean in! Take a seat at the table! Show the will to lead! Women are often told that this is the way to get ahead in the workplace and overcome inequality. So, what opportunities are available for women in academia to lean in? We know that, within academia, women are more likely to be asked, and to take on, so-called service roles. These roles might indeed lead to a seat at the table, but research shows that these roles are often under-valued when it comes to career progression. But if you’re asked to take on a leadership role – or if, like me, you actually like academic leadership – how can you ensure that ‘leaning in’ enhances your career?
Here are six ‘top tips’ gleaned from my experiences:
1. Be selective
In academia, women are more likely to be asked to take on more ‘nurturing’ roles. This often reflects commonly held stereotypes about what both women and men are ‘good at’. But I’ve found that academic leadership works best if you’re genuinely passionate about your role. When I took on the role of Director of Education in 2012, I truly believed that we could do things better in the department and wanted to focus my energies to improve the student experience. For other people (and I’m going to name drop some of my amazing colleagues here) their passion might be promoting increased access to higher education (Lisa Leaver – also speaking in Soapbox Science Exeter 2019) or promoting women in science (Safi Darden – one of the amazing Soapbox Science organisers).
If you’re asked to take on a leadership role, don’t be afraid to negotiate (especially if it’s clear that none of your colleagues want the role!). Many women don’t negotiate because they recognise, consciously or subconsciously, that negotiating is fraught for women in ways that it is not for men. Indeed, research suggests that women are equally likely to negotiate than men (e.g., asking for a raise), but are much less likely to be successful. Sadly, you are unlikely to get a pay raise for taking on an academic leadership role, but you might be able to negotiate for other benefits, such as a period of study leave at the end of your tenure or additional research support or access to training opportunities (e.g., the Aurora program).
Full disclosure here: I am very bad at delegating…but this was one of the key lessons I took from my first leadership role as Director of Education into my second role as Director of Research. There are many reasons why it’s important to delegate: if you don’t, and you try to do everything yourself, you will burn out! But delegation is also about communicating trust and confidence in the people around you – that you believe that they will do a good job (even if it’s not exactly the way you would do it!). Delegation is about empowering others. So, if people offer help – take it!
4. Say no
Full disclosure again: I find it very hard to say no…but we (women) need to do it more often. Throughout my career, I’ve often been rewarded for saying ‘yes’ – sometimes this has led to new collaborations or opportunities and people like you more if you do. But as you progress in your career, saying no to some things allows you to say yes to other things. In the last year, I’ve had a ‘no support group’ with some of my friends – each week we share the tasks we’ve said no to, and we congratulate each other on how we’ve protected our time or saved ourselves from a future obligation.
5. But it is OK to say yes
As I’ve said, I find it hard to say no, and often end up saying yes. I confessed this to my ‘support group’ and my very wise friend noted four considerations when deciding whether to say yes. First, could the person do it themselves, even if it’s inconvenient or difficult? Second, can you do it without neglecting your own responsibilities, relationships, or self-care? Third, are you happy to do it or will you resent it later? Finally, will it help them to be independent or will it make them more dependent in the future? By thinking about these questions, you might find yourself saying yes to optional tasks, but you will be more mindful about it.
6. Do it well
To return to the idea of ‘leaning in’, it’s not enough to take your seat and keep it warm. For academic leadership to enhance your career, you need to get stuff done and make a difference. When you take on a role, take time to think about how you can make your workplace a better place (however you define better) and how you can achieve it. Make sure that your achievements are visible (to help your career) and ensure that you’ve put structures in place that will make any impact sustainable after you leave the role (see #3).
Being an academic leader is one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of my job – every day I feel like I’m making an important contribution to my discipline and I get to support my colleagues, especially early career researchers, to achieve their goals.
- Guest post by Joanne Smith (Twitter: @jorosmith)
Joanne Smith is an Associate Professor and Director of Research in the School of Psychology at the University of Exeter. She was also Director of Education from 2012-2014. Joanne studies how the groups that we belong to influence our behaviour and how we can harness insights from social psychology to promote behaviour change. She studies social influence and behaviour change across multiple domains, with a focus on health and sustainable behaviour. Joanne will take part in our Soapbox Science Exeter event, on Saturday 29th July 2019. There she will talk about “With friends like these: How groups influence our behaviour for better…or for worse”.
This blog post is previously published on Soapbox Science
Polarization in society (division into sharply contrasting groups), can be based on race (e.g., White vs Black), nationality (Australians vs Immigrants), religion (Catholics vs Protestants in Northern Ireland), political ideology (conservatives vs progressives), or even a choice in temporary political contestation (Trump’s supporters vs Hillary’s supporters).
How does polarization develop?
The trajectory of polarization and conflict does not just happen all of a sudden, but rather goes through stages. Professor Fathali Moghaddam has outlined the three main stages of polarization:
Political elections are ripe grounds for polarization as the competition elections allows for each group to intentionally highlight differences that create the “us” vs “them” mentality. In this process biases such as a tendency to interpret evidence as being more robust if it is in line with prior beliefs are used to gather people’s support.
Information access and fake news
One process which has the potential to accelerate polarization is the distribution of fake news. During the 2016 US election campaign, hundreds of websites were published in order to strengthen support for one candidate and bring the opposing candidate down. Social media users also propagated a huge number of messages that distorted the facts to voters. However, this is not just a problem in the United States. In Brazil’s 2018 presidential election, a fake voting machine video was retweeted by thousands of social media users after being shared by a right-wing politician. This video was later found to be a hoax.
In Indonesia, a politician tweeted about seven containers in one of the ports which were allegedly storing ballot paper pre-marked with votes for one of the candidates. Through his twitter, this politician later asked the police to investigate the information. The tweet raised massive controversy and incited public debates. One group took the information to be fact, while the opposing party reported the politician to the police, accusing him of using technology to spread misinformation.
While it is easy to delete a tweet that has been shown to be false, the downstream effect of misinformation is more difficult to fix. It is also challenging to prevent the initial polarization that occurs over a specific issue from developing into more widespread and extreme polarization.
As explained by Professor Moghaddam, extreme polarization develops through extreme in-group cohesion. Ingroup cohesion exacerbates polarization as it creates “social bubbles” in which we only hear information that is in line with our group’s beliefs. Within this process, a closed mindset takes place within a group as a consequence of being bombarded with information with a partisanship bias, or even fake news. As the fake news provides increasing “evidence” of outgroup threat and ingroup superiority, each side becomes more wedded to its own distorted perspectives.
Preventing the effect of fake news
Stopping fake news from being spread is difficult, and some use it for their own political gain. But, what can people do to protect themselves from the unexpected effects of fake news?
We know from studies that education is can be an antidote to fake news. However, we also know that highly educated people can be fooled. For example, some educated people distributed fake news related to politics and religion in the Indonesian elections. Education is extraordinarily important as a buffer against hoaxes and fake news, but the educational process must encourage healthy skepticism for it to be effective. Without active, educated dissent from misinformation campaigns (even when these favour the ingroup), we can expect the cycle of polarization and mutual radicalization to continue in future.
- Susilo Wibisono
Growing up in Divided Societies: Children’s Understanding of Conflict-related Group Symbols
‘Who am I? Who are you?’ Kids’ understanding of social categories has implications for conflict resolution. How and when children recognize names, symbols and social cues influences how they understand and identify with relevant social groups. How they identify with one group also affects their attitudes and behaviours toward ‘others.’ This effect can be even stronger in settings with a long history of conflict.
Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Macedonia, for example are rooted in a history of conflict. The two dominant social groups in each setting have remained notably segregated across neighbourhoods and schools. Although the overt conflict has ended, it has left a lasting effect on post-accord generations. Understanding these effects can help research-based reconciliation and peace-building projects. In the long-term, this can build a healthy and cohesive society.
The Helping Kids! project explored how children from five to eleven years old in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Macedonia perceive prevalent social cues – such as names or icons – associated with conflict-related groups. Across all three settings, children readily recognized cues belonging to conflict-related categories. This recognition increased with age. For example, in Northern Ireland, children identified the poppy as belonging to the Protestant/British community, while the shamrock represented the Catholic/Irish community; in Macedonia, children distinguished between celebratory foods as Macedonian or Albanian; and in Kosovo, children recognized various murals and pop artists as either Albanian or Serbian.
The more aware children were of conflict-related group markers, the more they preferred their own groups’ symbols; those who preferring in-group symbols also shared fewer resources (e.g., stickers) with the outgroup. Thus, the way children thought about conflict-related groups had behavioural implications even at early ages. The bright side is that children’s previous experience seems to counteract this pattern. If a child reported more positive experiences with outgroup children, he/she was more likely to share resources with the outgroup.
Previous work in Northern Ireland has identified similar patterns. Children from segregated neighbourhoods in Belfast distributed more resources to ingroup members, especially when they held a strong group identity. Moreover, youth in Belfast who had higher quality and quantity contact with outgroup members had higher peacebuilding attitudes and civic engagement.
From this we know that children know about and have preferences for social cues related to conflict-related groups. This knowledge and preference has influences how resources are shared with others, an important first step in peacebuilding. Fostering more positive outgroup attitudes and opportunities for outgroup helping may have promising, long-term implications for more constructive intergroup relations.
The Helping Kids! lab is working to apply these findings in other contexts. As such, these findings may have implications for the 350 million children living in conflict-affected areas.
- Guest post by Dr. Laura K. Taylor, Dr. Jocelyn Dautel, Risa Rylander MSc, Dr. Ana Tomovska Misoska, and Edona Maloku Berdyna MSc.
*This phase of the Helping Kids! project was funded by the School of Psychology Research Incentivisation Scheme (RIS) and the Department for the Economy (DfE) - Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF) Award [DFEGCRF17-18/Taylor].
Coercive control is when an abuser consistently or repeatedly uses a pattern of behaviours to insert themselves into, and control, the abused partner’s life. It is a pattern originally identified by Evan Stark in 2007, which aims to strip the victim of independence and self-confidence. Coercive control is associated with long-term harm and can pose significant risk from the abuser even after the relationship is over. Given the role that coercive control plays in understanding and responding to intimate partner violence, below are 4 things everyone should know about what it is and how it functions.
1. What does coercive control in romantic relationships look like?
Coercive control involves abusers attempting to dictate every aspect of their partner’s lives, and does not necessarily require physical violence. Some examples of non-physical, abusive behaviours are:
2. The impact on health and well-being.
The gradual loss of independence that comes with coercive control, and the consistent experience of stress and tension, can have a lasting negative impact on the health and well-being of victims. The road to recovery from non-physical elements of coercive control and the destruction of self-esteem, are often reported as a challenge as great as recovery from physical violence. For victims, a considerable struggle after leaving their abusive partner is regaining confidence and faith in themselves.
3. The risk of retaliation.
Even after leaving a relationship with coercive control there is a risk of retaliation from the abuser. Risk of retaliation is associated with the amount of coercive control an abuser has over their victim, rather than the physical or non-physical nature of the previous abuse. The risks are clearly illustrated by the cases of Claire Hart in the UK, and Tara Costigan in Australia. Although neither Claire nor Tara experienced physical abuse from their partners during the course of their relationships, both were tragically murdered after taking steps to leave their controlling abusers. In less extreme but still very damaging cases, victims experience continued abuse from their former partners such as harassment or stalking. In cases with children in particular, abuse can continue through court proceedings.
4. Coercive control and the law.
It can be particularly difficult to prosecute coercive control involving non-physical abuse in a legal system that presses criminal charges based on single instances of criminal behaviour. The UK recently implemented a coercive control offence in an attempt to remedy this problem. Unfortunately, the results of this law do not appear to be as positive as might have been expected.
As we progress in our understanding of intimate partner violence it is important to develop a deeper understanding of coercive control. We need to further our awareness of the warning signs, the harms it causes, the risks it poses, and the complexities of this issue. It is clear from what we now know that a lack of physical violence doesn’t necessarily reduce the harm or risk of retaliation for those who have experienced abuse. We need to move away from a black and white understanding of abuse that discounts the severity of non-physical abuse to come to grips with the true nature and scale of the problem.
- Kiara Minto
2016 was a year of unexpected political events. Britain decided to leave the European Union (“Brexit”), and Donald Trump became the president of the United States.
People without university degrees strongly favoured Trump and Brexit
Exit polls following both Brexit and Trump votes revealed that University education was one of the strongest predictors of voting patterns.
According to a BBC report, wards where the population had lower numbers of University graduates tended to vote for Britain to leave the European Union. In fact, of the main demographic information collected in the most recent UK census, the proportion of University graduates in a given ward was the best indicator of whether people voted in favour of Brexit.
Similarly, Trump won 44 of the 50 counties with the lowest rates of tertiary education in the US. In contrast, only 10 of the 50 counties with the higest rates of tertiary education voted for Trump.
So why did British and American citizens without a University degree vote in favour of Brexit and Trump?
In the U.S. the disparity in job availability between people with and without University Degrees has risen since the 2008 recession
A prominent complaint among Trump voters was that the previous government had been “out of touch” with the working class. At least one aspect in which this appears to be true is in relation to unemployment numbers following the recession of 2008. In his final State of the Union address President Obama proudly proclaimed that America was in the middle of “the longest streak of private sector job creation in history”, and that anyone claiming America’s economy is in decline was “peddling fiction”.
It is certainly true that America saw significant growth in private sector jobs during Obama’s presidency. Yet there is increasing evidence that these jobs disproportionately went to people with University qualifications. According to a recent study conducted at Georgetown University, U.S. workers with Bachelor’s degrees or higher lost 187,000 jobs in the recession, but then recovered around 8.4 million jobs in the years since. In stark contrast, workers with a high-school diploma or less, lost 5.6 million jobs in the recession, and recovered only 80,000 to date. From the perspective of these Americans, who lost their jobs during the recession and never got them back, it is easy to imagine how Obama’s statements on jobs growth could be perceived as “out of touch”.
Workers with more than a high school education gained almost all of the jobs added in the recovery
(Source: Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, America's Divided Recovery)
The views of university educated people are over-represented in government and the media
One notable aspect of this divided recovery since the recession is that, in both the U.K. and U.S., university educated people are still a minority. In fact, according to census data from both countries, the proportion of all adults holding a University degree is around 33% in the U.S., and 20% in the U.K. If the voices of people without University degrees do indeed represent the majority, how did democratic government policies (which are meant to be influenced by majority opinion) lead to so many falling through the cracks during the years following the recession?
One explanation may be that the under-representation of non-University educated individuals in government and the media meant that these institutions were not properly equipped to understand the needs of non-University graduates. At least 90% of members of parliament in both the U.S. and the U.K. have University degrees. A study in the U.S. also found that over 90% of journalists are University graduates. It is also possible that this over-representation of University educated interests was an underlying driver of one of the key themes in both the Trump and Brexit elections – a desire to overthrow the political establishment.
What does this mean for Australia?
Senator Pauline Hanson (leader of the One-Nation party) has often been compared to Trump. Indeed, a study conducted by the ABC, found that, like in the U.S. and U.K., people living in areas with low tertiary education levels were more likely to vote for One-Nation in the 2016 Federal Election.
Although not as pronounced as the U.K. or U.S., Australia is also experiencing disproportionate job growth for University educated workers. To a certain extent, this disproportionate increase in jobs requiring a University degree may be an unavoidable reality for many modern industrialised nations. As countries get more developed, higher basic wages often mean that it becomes less viable for companies to continue manufacturing goods there. Higher wages also mean that companies are driven to adopt automation in order to cut costs.
However, in the face of such rapid changes, we also need to ensure that our political institutions adapt accordingly, so that they do not become out of touch with the interests of certain sections of our society. As with the U.S. and U.K., the disproportionate increase in jobs requiring tertiary degrees, combined with a lack of representation of the voices non-University graduates in our institutions may lead to the division of our own politics by University education.
The first step in communicating across this divide is realising that lack of representativeness is a problem. It is also essential to ensure that there are conventional institutional avenues in government and the media by which less well-educated communities can express grievances and needs, and meaningfully participate in public discourse.
Understanding group conflict and moral polarization is a major focus of my PhD.
- Joshua Rhee
Joshua Rhee is a PhD Candidate at The University of Melbourne's School of Psychological Sciences. He completed his Honours research in the Social Change Lab in 2016.
Every day we see people in need. Often we want to do something to help.
Whether voting to ensure equal rights for others, donating to the latest flood appeal, or giving up our seat on the bus for a stranger, we are constantly presented opportunities to help others.
Helping, however, can be fraught.
From voluntourism and effective altruism to the Syrian refugee crisis and marriage equality reform, people disagree on the best ways to help, or even whether helping is warranted.
Here are three reasons why helping decisions are difficult and some advice for helping better.
1. Too much empathy
Empathy allows us to feel what others feel. It has a focusing effect—drawing our feeling and response towards the individual who we see suffering.
It’s wonderful that we have the capacity to care about others in this way. Yet the psychological qualities of empathy can cause problems.
For example, studies show that people will donate more to an identifiable victim; or to save the life of one child than two children.
When large numbers of people suffer, our empathy doesn’t know how to relate. As Paul Slovic says: “Numbers represent dry statistics, “human beings with the tears dried off,” that fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action.”
We can overcome this emotional spotlight by using empathy to guide our care, rather than direct our donation.
For example, when you feel moved by one child’s struggle with cancer, notice how empathy guides your care. Instead of (or in addition to) donating directly to that one family, find a way to give to a hospital or charity that provides that same care to children just like them.
Or when you see images of earthquake devastation that break your heart, consider donating to an emergency relief fund that responds to all disasters, including the one you’ve been moved by.
With this approach, you ensure your empathy moves you to help more people in need, not only the ones you empathise with.
2. Helping can keep others down
Being a helper intrinsically signals power. And how you choose to help can give or take power from others.
People tend to give dependency-oriented help—the total solution to a problem—when they feel the beneficiaries are not highly competent. And people receiving help pick up on this cue.
On the other hand, giving (and receiving) autonomy-oriented help—which helps the beneficiary cultivate skills to help themselves in the long-term—both communicates competence and helps build it.
Consider the best way to help. Sometimes, like after a disaster, it’s important to provide food and shelter directly. Other times, like when communities are trying to build independence in the long-term, it’s better to teach people how to grow more food or build better shelters.
Next time you donate, think about what you can give and what it might communicate in terms of power.
3. Giving what we want to, not what others need
From “Junk for Jesus”, to blood donor preferences, people often give what’s easiest, rather than what makes the biggest difference. This is closely related to the point above—because donors have power to choose what is offered.
The best way to overcome this challenge, and closely related to power, is to simply ask people how you can best help.
Whether we’re allies to disadvantaged groups or donating for international development, the best outcomes in terms of long-term social change will be driven by beneficiaries themselves.
People usually know what will make a difference in their lives. Why not ask?
If you’re donating, do a bit of research and find an organisation that develops their programs through local community engagement. Many international NGOs—like Oxfam and ChildFund—take the lead from the people they serve in communities abroad.
It’s wonderful we’re helping. Let’s take the challenge and help better.
We must keep on helping others. After all, that is the way this world will change.
The most important thing is to do something: do what you can. Give what you can. Help where you can.
Let’s also challenge ourselves to help smarter.
If we start with a positive intention and are willing to step back and examine our feelings and actions, we will make a more positive impact in the world.
- Cassandra Chapman
A new perspective on learning
Humans are endlessly learning. How to walk, which brand of coffee is tastiest, the best way to calm an angry child – you name it, humans are learning it.
Some learning is informal, while some is institutionalised. The education system – from kindergarten to university – provides a formal learning environment that can shape life-long outcomes, including job opportunities, salary, health and well-being.
Given the importance of learning, we’d better we sure we’re doing it right.
What shapes learning outcomes?
Is it intelligence, effort, genes, or something else that makes a successful learner?
We know that people function better when they feel good about themselves and feel socially connected to others. That’s just common sense, right?
Humans flourish when they feel they belong and when they feel appreciated for who they are.
So, what does this have to do with learning? Well, let’s think for a moment about schools and universities and other learning institutions… classes, friends, crowds, teams, noise – education is always delivered in incredibly social contexts.
If a person’s ability to learn is affected by their sense of belonging and connection to others, are education systems unduly privileging those students who ‘naturally’ fit in?
Unfortunately, the statistics would answer ‘yes’ to that question.
Social class, race, sexuality, and gender are still significant predictors of academic outcomes. And recent international surveys of tens of thousands of high school children revealed that about one fifth of them report feeling that they do not fit in at school.
The irony of education is that when we think of academic achievement, we often make the assumption that it is all about individual intelligence. The question of fit or belonging, rarely enters the equation.
And every week…every semester…and every year, grades, percentages and GPAs, accumulate to create an indelible academic profile, which either opens doors, or quietly but firmly shuts them.
A sense of fit
So, what does it mean to fit in? And how do we help students who feel they don’t fit it?
Fitting in is feeling like to you share something with the people around you, feeling that your sense of who you are – your identity – is positively aligned with the group.
Feeling that being a student is an important part of who you are, and that you identify as a student, is therefore vital for successful learning. So how can we help people claim their student identity, and feel more able to fit within their educational setting?
In a recent book chapter, we investigated this very question. We asked over 300 university students to rate how independent, appreciated and connected to others they felt, and then we asked them about how much they identified as a student, and also how satisfied they were with their academic performance. The data was collected at different time points across the semester.
Results showed exactly what we suspected – when students felt that their life at university promoted a sense of positive autonomy, and feelings of competence and appreciation, both their level of identification as a student and their academic satisfaction was reported to be higher.
Learning, both formal and informal, shapes both who we are now and who we can be in the future. And yet we often assume that learning is an individual endeavour, and we rarely stop to think about learning from a social perspective.
In fact, learning is one of the most social activities that humans do!
Looking at learning in this new way not only allows us to understand why some students get left behind, but will also help us to come up with ways in which we can design educational programs to ensure real learning opportunities for all.
- Sarah Bentley
Read the full article:
Greenaway, K., Amiot, C.E., Louis, W. R., & Bentley, S.V. (2017). The role of psychological need satisfaction in promoting student identification. In K. I. Mavor, M. Platow, & B. Bizumic (Eds.), Self and Social Identity in Educational Contexts, pp. 176-192. Routledge : New York, USA.
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.