How do legislators use science? It’s not an easy question for scientists to answer. Many are hard pressed to identify even one concrete example of an evidence-based legislative action. So, we sat down with policymakers to ask them the same question. What we heard will surprise those who are pessimistic that science is used at all in policymaking. We now can identify several ways that research flows, much like a river, through the policy landscape.
First, we reached out to 123 state legislators in Indiana and Wisconsin. These legislators then nominated an additional 32 colleagues who they felt were exemplary research users. We also supplemented our sample with 13 key policy players (such as governors, heads of lobbying firms, former legislators). Confidence in our findings can be inspired by the high response rates in the hard-to-access population of policymakers (60%, 84%, and 100% respectively).
When Research is a Hard Sell
We learned there are policies and people and places that can frustrate and facilitate research use. First, regarding policies, research was less likely to hold sway on polarized moral issues, such as reproductive rights. Research was generally less influential on issues driven by ideology, such as beliefs about whether government is the problem or the solution. There was little room for research on issues driven by passion, such as tragic personal stories. As one Republican relayed, “If a bill is named after somebody . . . like Sarah’s Bill, then you know research is screwed.”
Where Research Can Have an Impact
Policymakers turned to research more frequently on emerging issues such as opioid use, concussions, and rural Internet availability. Research also was more likely to influence issues where policymakers did not have established positions or where consensus had been reached, such as with the need for criminal justice reform. Research also appeared to flow more freely on the “million . . . technical issues . . . that’s really the majority of the [legislature’s] work.” One Republican, who worked on property tax assessment and land annexation, said technical issues don’t get a lot of media attention but still comprise about 80% of the policy agenda:
“There’s no quote ‘Republican or Democratic’ theory about them and there’s no big contributor to your campaign who cares. . . It’s just like you’re stripping it down to the essence of good government. . . I think you have . . . much more ability to govern in sort of an evidence-based way.”
Who Seeks Science
However, research use varies by people. Some legislators told us they rely on intuition or gut instinct, whereas others factor in research. As an example, legislators face hundreds of bills each session, which makes it literally impossible to read and study each one. So, legislators specialize and develop expertise on a particular issue. They become known as the “go-to” legislator, whom colleagues turn to for advice on what positions to take. To attain and maintain a reputation as an issue expert, they often use in-depth research. Also, members of the minority party more often turn to research evidence; the “minority party has to win more of its arguments based upon facts” because it lacks access to other levers of power.
Right Place, Right Time
Timing also mattered. Research more often is used early on in the policy process when the issue is still a work in progress and policymakers have not yet staked out a position. Where the research was introduced also mattered. The most expertise on specific issues lies in committees, where bills are developed before hitting the floor.
Regardless of the time or place, research is used in a political sphere where decisions are reached through negotiation. So, for policy purposes, the utility of research depends not only on its credibility to allies, but also to adversaries. Policymakers screen the credibility of research less by the methods and more by the source, particularly the source’s reputation as reliable and nonpartisan. Despite its value, policymakers believe that nonpartisan research is difficult to find.
To understand research use in policymaking, we must think like a river. Policy issues infused with morality, ideology, or passion flow through narrow, nonnegotiable routes that restrict research use. However, research can navigate the policy landscape on issues that are new, technical, or open to consensus. Research use is facilitated when it enters through the port of a committee and frustrated when it enters downstream where it hits the rapids of unrelenting time pressures. To guide next steps, policymakers provided practical advice to those interested in communicating research to them. Legislators also identified multiple ways that research contributes to their effectiveness as policymakers and to the policy process. See the works listed below for more about these recommendations.
- By Karen Bogenschneider & Bret N. Bogenschneider
Karen Bogenschneider is a Rothermel-Bascom professor emeritus of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her expertise is the study, teaching, and practice of evidence-based family policy. She is known for her work on the Family Impact Seminars, and is co-author of a forthcoming second edition of Evidence Based Policymaking: Envisioning a New Era of Theory, Research, and Practice.
Bret N. Bogenschneider is an assistant professor of business law in the Luter School of Business at Christopher Newport University. His expertise is in tax law and policy, and he is author of the recently released How America was Tricked on Tax Policy.
This post is previously published on the Society of Personality and Social Psychology; Character and Context Blog
For Further Reading
Bogenschneider, K., & Bogenschneider, B. N. (2020). Empirical evidence from state legislators: How, when, and who uses research. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 26(4) 413-424. https://doi.org/10.1037/law0000232
Bogenschneider, K., Day, E., & Parrott, E. (2019). Revisiting theory on research use: Turning to policymakers for fresh insights. American Psychologist, 74(7), 778–793. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000460
This blog post aims to summarise the 12 tips provided for early career scholars on having policy impact on our policy page. That page distils the genius of three impactful social psychologists and includes links to lengthy interviews with them on a range of topics. The featured researchers are: community and clinical psychologist Eleanor Wertheim (LaTrobe university), environmental psychologist Kelly Fielding (University of Queensland), and cross-cultural psychologist James Liu (Massey University). The short version is:
1. Join Networks and Teams
A central point that all three scholars made is not to imagine you can do it alone - teams are more impactful. Try to find people with like-minded passions, and try to find people with an established track record as mentors, Eleanor Wertheim advises. In general, international collaborations are more impactful. James Liu adds: seek to be part of a team or system – e.g., look for internships – you can't be out there alone.
In an ideal world you might even consider policy networking before you choose your PhD advisor. Have they a record of making a difference, of disseminating research? Don't just look for publications. But even if your PhD research ends up as part of a narrower discovery-oriented vision, you can also start to look around for additional role models and mentors during your PhD and as an Early Career Researcher.
Opportunities come up to join networks and teams on professional e-lists and as you start to make yourself known at conferences and through publications. A critical point is that if you see an invitation to a meeting, as Kelly Fielding advises, turn up! Go to the meetings, sit down, be friendly, be open, and be excited - show enthusiasm. This is how you signal to others that you are a like-minded person that could be part of an ongoing network.
2. Plan and Learn
A closely related point is that like “doing great research”, “having policy impact” requires planning and lots of acquired skills and knowledge. Think about what difference you want to make in the world - aside from career and reputation, what difference will you make? If you already know a general area you want to contribute to, plan for this. Research and join organisations and interest groups. You should also be aware of who is working in the field and approach them to introduce yourself and explain your interests. Think of being in a global network: follow people on Twitter, follow them on google scholar, and join the e-lists of the major NGOs and Institutes that work on the issues you care about.
3. Seize opportunities
While research has a long term horizon and discovery (blue sky) research is slow, policy changes happen in fits and starts. Often opportunities only open for change in a country for a window or moment. You will need to learn from your mentors what the state of play is in your area, and what part of the policy cycle people are in. It is a lot easier to spot chances for leverage or learn about needs as part of a network than on your own.
Relatedly, you will need to look not just at what you’re interested in, but what government and funding bodies and inquiries and policy-makers are interested in. Think of how you can find common ground. But don’t just think alone – as James Liu says, get advice from your mentors about how to position your research. You will want to practice with mentors how to frame a pitch in terms of what you can bring to particular industry, NGO, or government audiences.
Policy impact is not a metric that feeds into getting a job in academia, and it doesn’t help you to get promoted or tenured. It is possible that a policy focus during your PhD could help you to get a job in industry or government, but seek advice if this is your aim – often times that type of job is few and far between. Winnifred Louis advises, to reduce risks in your academic career, you might aim for one line of work that is more predictable, mainstream, and published using methods other high status people in your department/ discipline recognise and value, and in journals people recognise and value. Ticking the boxes in that mainstream area allows you to take on policy work, which has uncertain timelines, controversial topics, mixed methods or under-valued methods, and may go to under-valued journals, or be disseminated in totally different formats (e.g., like websites or workshops) that others discount or see as ‘unscientific’.
So, with that caveat in mind, if you’re interested in policy work, ignore the advice to focus narrowly during your PhD. That advice is designed to make sure you get publications and finish, but you will take responsibility to do the former while also jumping at the chance to work with people from different disciplines and outside of academia. Seek to develop pluralistic methods – learn both qualitative and quantitative approaches, etc..
Dealing with conflict and negative feedback
Search for impact can bring you into contact with difficult personalities, and into arenas of passionate, bitter conflict between parties with different interests and values. There is no easy solution to this, but you can seek to become self-reflective about your own interests and values, and to upskill on conflict and change for individuals, groups, and societies.
Another important point is that much like research and academia in general, in policy work you generally encounter a very high rate of negative feedback. This is especially true early on in your career. You’ll want to practice getting used to the heat of the kitchen – people telling you what you are doing wrong is not a sign that you are failing, it’s a sign that you’re doing challenging work that not everyone values or understands, plus you have a steep learning curve to climb. Mentoring and peer support can help to get over the heavy ground when it all seems too much.
Manage your expectations and sustain your motivation
A related point is that policy changes happen in fits and starts, and like research, a lot of projects fizzle and fail. So go in with low expectations – outreach increases your chance of impact, but there are no guarantees. James Liu adds, it’s important to understand that you can't control a situation when you are out there in the field – the rigor of the research can be compromised, but this may open you up for insight. You have to be flexible, and be responsive to community needs. Community-engaged and policy-relevant research rarely goes as you planned. It’s a great adventure that keeps you growing as a person.
In summary, advice to keep your motivation during times of crushing disappointment includes having a long-term focus, sharing social support with like-minded people, having a growth mindset where you focus on learning and progress not outcomes alone, and having a values mindset where your focus is on how you can do what you can to enact your values with the opportunities that are available. And finally, recognising with humility that there are many factors that you do not control: you’ll need this skill repeatedly, and it will greatly improve your well-being.
- By Winnifred Louis
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.
Protest is a common approach to the pursuit of societal change and a legal and protected procedure under the democratic system. Mobilising people to come together and express their opinion on social issues can, in some cases, push the government to create new policies. It can also attract the broader public to become engaged with particular movements (e.g., animal rights, marriage equality, clean and transparent political processes, etc.).
However, some protests, especially when they involve a huge number of people are seen as a threat to public order. In many countries (e.g., Egypt, Hong Kong, Turkey, Ukraine, and Indonesia), this perceived threat to public order became the justification for handling public protest with a repressive strategy in the hope that people would withdraw their involvement in the protest. Repression is not only about the physical violence, but also the narratives produced by the government against protestors. For example, this September saw massive student protests in Indonesia, against a new act allegedly weakening the Independent Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). In response to these protests, a repressive approach was employed by the police and authorities, not only against the protestors, but also the ministry of higher education, research, and technology, intimidating university leaders for letting their students join the protest.
Despite being used by several governments, social psychology studies have revealed that repressive approaches in handling public protests are not always effective. Instead of stopping the protest by activating feelings of fear, repressive or even violent strategies employed by the authorities can drive the action to become more sustainable and garner increased participation and support for the movement.
When is repression is not effective?
The repressive approach exploits the power to intimidate, press, threaten or even injure. Authorities may take this approach to deal with protest actions, especially when the protest is focused on responding to political issues and perceived to threaten the interests of the political elites.
Evidence shows that repressive narratives or violence conducted by the authorities can increase perceived risks in a protest’s participation. Other than that, repression can also lead to the feeling of fear and being oppressed.
According to the authority’s perspective, the fear is expected to reduce or even stop the intention to participate in the following protests. Indeed, fear can be a deterrent to protesters, and violence and imprisonment can drive them off the street. However, repressive acts from the authorities are also able to strengthen the participants’ engagement with the action. Violence and repression can undermine the perceived legitimacy of the state, not just in the eyes of protestors, but in the broader community. In addition, the shared experience as victims of oppression can grow the sense of familial ties amongst protestors, as shared anxiety or fear can bring people together and strengthen the bonds of protestors. To put it simply, the previous ties that might be based on the same demands or interests are replaced by a form of kinship ties, adding a new emotional intensity to previous perceptions of solidarity.
This sense of fusion or family ties creates a feeling of agency for the group, manifested in a strong tendency from every individual within the group to do something more significant on behalf of the group.The participants will be more motivated to protect their own, even risking their own life to become a shield for their fellow protestors.
In the more extreme context, when the kinship bond is built amongst the protestors, and the real threats appear from the authority (e.g., police), then the tendency to make a counterattack will rise and the protest might develop into a riot. The riot is caused not just by protestors’ escalation of tactics, but by the mutual radicalisation of the police and security forces, who may cease to see the crowds as citizens worthy of protection.
This pattern can be observed in the protest events in Hong Kong. Following the repressive approaches from the police, the protestors’ solidarity seems to be even greater. The individuals who do not know each other personally, through their participation in repressed protests, even become sau zuk (Cantonese term to express a very strong tie, etymologically means ‘hand and feet’) with each other. It also appears that the broader relationship between the community and the state has become more polarised and oppositional.
In conclusion, activists’ efforts to create an expected social change are of course part of long-term processes. People mobilisating to raise public awareness or to encourage authorities to create more favorable policies often experience a backlash from the government, in the form of stigmatisation or even violence. In many cases, especially in a less democratic country, this repressive approach is employed out of a desire to stabilise the situation. However, an important point to consider is that this approach is often not effective. Instead of stopping their actions, the protestors experiencing collective fear and anxiety may strengthen their feelings of kinship ties and escalate their action’s intensity; the police and state actors may radicalise away from the protection of citizens to commit human rights abuses; and the broader community may come to feel the state itself is less legitimate as an authority. These are not trivial risks for a government to run.
- By Susilo Wibisono
Will Saying Something Matter? Curbing Stereotyping and Prejudice through Confrontation
In the early stage of my career, I attended an evening social event arranged as part of an annual meeting of a flagship society in social psychology. Along with a couple of hundred social psychologists and many non-psychologists (if I recall correctly, we shared the event with insurance conference attendees), I sat down to enjoy what promised to be roaring, hilarious comedy show. However, first came the warm-up comedian.
His entire act consisted of jokes about gay and lesbian people. He played on stereotypes, tugged at emotions like disgust, and flamboyantly acted out stereotypic caricatures. My fellow social psychologists and I sat with stunned expressions. I decided to leave, and my route out took me past the stage. Without forethought and in front of everyone, I caught the attention of the comedian and asked, “Do you have a different act? This one is awful! Don’t you have something that isn’t offensive, that doesn’t play on stereotypes?” He responded, “Oh, are you a lesbian?” I stormed out of the room. Others told me that he hobbled to a finish, and the main act that followed was great.
Meanwhile, I was shook. I did not regret speaking up. In addition to being personally committed to egalitarianism and non-prejudice, I knew that research had shown repeatedly that disparaging humor about groups creates, maintains, and perpetuates bias and discrimination. However, what would people think of me? Would I be branded a troublemaker, overly sensitive, and overemotional?
No doubt, part of what spurred me to confront the comedian derived from the fact that I had recently embarked on research concerning the power of confrontation for curbing group-based biases. I have continued this line of research, along with many other researchers, across the past 15 years or so. We now know a good deal about how to navigate successful confrontations.
Confrontation of stereotypes and prejudice is important for two reasons. First, confrontation can help people become aware of their own biases. Often people may not realize they have said or done something that reflects stereotyping or prejudice, and they may be personally motivated to change when a confrontation helps them to become aware of their biases. Second, confrontation makes social norms against bias salient. Even if someone personally has no problem with their biases, a confrontation can signal that such biases are neither socially acceptable nor tolerated. For “the average person” (e.g., excluding extremist hate groups), note is taken of the norms, and the desire to fit in can encourage less biased responding.
The bottom line from confrontation research is that confrontation curbs people’s expressions of bias. For instance, studies have shown that participants who are confronted about their stereotypic inferences (for example, assuming a Black man who is described as being around drugs a lot is a “drug addict” or “criminal” rather than as a “pharmacist” or “doctor”) feel disappointed with themselves and guilty. These emotions motivate them to recognize situations in which they may respond in biased ways later and to redirect to respond in non-biased ways.
However, findings also suggest that some confrontations are more effective at curbing bias than others. When Blacks confront racism, or when women confront sexism, people may dismiss the confronters as overreacting. However, when Whites confront racism, or men confront sexism, they are taken more seriously and are ultimately more effective at curbing others’ bias. This research underscores the critical role that allies can play. People may think, “What would my saying something actually do?” Studies show that speaking up can do much good.
We also find that confrontations of racism curb bias more readily than do confrontations of sexism. Whereas social norms against race bias are very strong, many people (men and women alike) assume they cannot possibly be biased against women (“But I LOVE women!”). Consequently, studies indicate that providing people with evidence that their inferences, judgments, or behaviors actually are unfair and discriminatory is critical to the effectiveness of confrontation in the case of sexism. In my lab, we think of this as a greater burden of proof being required for effective confrontations of sexism.
Finally, studies have revealed one should be assertive in confrontations, and that confrontations with a motivational framing are more effective than simply pointing out bias. For instance, saying, “That’s prejudiced” may even backfire, because people react poorly to having their non-prejudiced self-image impugned. However, what does work is framing a confrontation as having the choice to be fair and egalitarian. For instance, if someone says something stereotypic about Latinx people, you might say, “You may not be aware, but that’s just a stereotype of Latinx people that we see in social media. We can treat people equally by not stereotyping Latinx people in that way.” This sort of statement may lead to dialogue in which the stereotype, fairness, and treating people equally can be discussed further.
Knowing about these findings is important because people are more likely to confront bias if they believe that other people can and often do change. Getting a confrontation started can be challenging; perhaps the opportunity slips by while we consider our words. However, confrontations can occur through conversations that start with, “Wait, what did you say?” and then continue with dialogue that unfolds with the use of assertive but non-threatening language. People also can prepare themselves for confrontation by practicing or role-playing confrontation scenarios.
At this point you may ask, “All of this is fine and good, but what about the costs you mentioned earlier? I can’t afford to be thought of as a troublemaker or as oversensitive!” Studies do indicate that people confronted by a stranger evaluate their confronter more negatively and are less desirous of future interactions, relative to someone who did not confront. However, these negative interpersonal outcomes do not interfere in the least with bias reduction. So yes, there are social costs, which means a question remains: is it more important for you to be liked as much as possible or to have a chance to change their behavior?
So if you are seeking change, be a confronter. As American novelist Margaret Halsey wrote in 1946 in relation to racism, “One of the less dismaying aspects of race relations in the United States is that their improvement is not a matter of a few people having a great deal of courage. It is a matter of a great many people having just a little courage.”
- Guest post by Margo Monteith
Margo J. Monteith grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, attended Moorhead State University (B.A.) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Ph.D.). Her academic posts have been at Texas Tech University (1992-1994), University of Kentucky (1994-2006) and Purdue University (2006-present).
This post is previously published on the Society of Personality and Social Psychology; Character and Context Blog
Changes of Political Identities during Conflict and Uncertainty: A Real-World Example from Thailand
Historically, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with a prime minister serving as the head of government since the democratic revolution in 1932. However, throughout the almost 90 years since the revolution there has been a tradition of military seizure of power from the civilian government. As part of this tradition, Thailand has now been governed by a military junta for more than 5 years.
The most recent political turmoil began in 2005 when the previously popular, second term prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra sparked a large public protest due to his financial dealings. The prolonged protest steered Thailand back under military rule and Thaksin ended up fleeing the country. This event led to political friction for the Thai people between the so-called Yellow and Red shirts (those who were against the Shinawatra family versus those who supported them, respectively). Alternating protests against one another continued over eight years, followed by a series of violent responses from the government against their opponents.
After a few years without military control, political turmoil peaked again in 2013 due to the announcement of a proposed amnesty bill by the Yingluck government in an attempt to help bring her brother Thaksin home. This ignited a large demonstration by the opponents (the Yellows) which advocated for, and eventually led to, another military coup.
Until that point in time, Thailand’s politics were informally seen as a two-party system. However, party identities of Thai people were not only tied by personal attitudes and ideologies, but were also tied to morals and non-political identities such as social class. As a result, disputes over politics could potentially put a person at risk of losing friends or jobs.
This year (2019), after 5 years under the military regime, Thailand managed to hold another election. One of the important occurrences during this election was a dramatic drop in popularity of the two major political parties. According to unofficial election results1, both parties had lost about 40% (16 million votes) of their supporters compared to the previous election in 2005. The lost voters had swung to support several newly formed parties. Of those new parties, Anakodmai (meaning ‘new future’) was the most popular party2 which successfully won 80 seats in the parliament in its first election. The party was portraying itself as a fresh ‘new blood’ party and offered to be an alternative choice for people who had lost trust in old-style politics.
The success of this new party has unleashed the country from a two-party system. Even though Thailand’s democratic status is still unstable and ambiguous, the 5.8 million votes (out of about 35 million eligible votes) Anakodmai received are at least indicative of ongoing political transitions. At the moment there is not enough data on what motivated Thai people to change their political identity and support. However, this phenomenon suggests that political identity change is possible3 even in a country that has suffered from seemingly unsolvable conflicts. Perhaps a brand-new, alternative choice might be a factor that helped facilitate the process of change in political identity under difficult circumstances.
- By Gi Chonu
1 Official results of the 2019 general election have not yet been released.
2 Anakodmai is the only popular party led by a civilian who has never been appointed to a previous political position.
3 Chonu, G. K., Louis, W. R., & Haslam, S. A. (2019). Comparative Motivations behind Political Identity Change versus Continuity. Manuscript in preparation.
Perceiving intolerance... how perception can influence reality in social change movements
The grass is not always greener in my neighbor’s garden… At least, that’s what people seem to think. In fact, when asked about others’ opinions toward sexual minorities’ issues, people tend to overestimate the level of intolerance in their society regardless of their personal views. In Switzerland, for example, residents thought that most other residents, including their neighbors, were intolerant toward same-sex marriage and same-sex parenting. Yet, this was not the case; Swiss residents were actually much more tolerant than what people thought (Eisner, Spini, & Sommet, 2019; Eisner, Turner-Zwinkels, Hässler, & Spini, 2019).
You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that this perception of intolerance might impact on sexual and gender minorities’ well-being. To illustrate, perceptions of an intolerant climate toward sexual and gender minorities might raise expectations of rejection and, therefore, lead to concealment of one’s sexual orientation/gender identity and internalization of stigma. Moreover, perceptions of an intolerant climate might also affect social change processes themselves. Indeed, if you perceive that others in your society are intolerant of sexual and gender minorities, you might be discouraged from engaging in support for social change: “People aren’t ready for social change, thus, a social movement won’t be successful. So, let’s wait a little bit longer before pushing toward greater equality for sexual and gender minorities”. On the other hand, the intolerance you perceive might make you angry. This may lead you to believe that social change cannot be achieved without action: “This situation makes me so angry, we need to engage now because the situation is not getting better”. Hence, perceptions of intolerance could discourage or encourage support for social change.
What did we do?
While perceived climate might be relevant in all social movements, perception of others’ intolerance might particularly impact countries in which there are striking legal disparities. In Switzerland (and this might surprise you) sexual and gender minorities still suffer from many legal discriminations, such as being denied the right to marry and adopt. The legal discrimination goes so far that a single person can adopt a child, but as soon as you are in a registered same-sex partnership, you are not allowed to adopt children anymore. Importantly, while both sexual and gender minorities face many legal inequalities, the legal challenges of both groups are different.
The present research was tailored to sexual minorities (e.g. homo-, bi-, pansexual people) since up-coming public voting regarding same-sex marriage affects sexual minorities. We tested the basic question of whether perceiving intolerant others discourages and/or encourages support for social change toward greater equality for sexual minorities in Switzerland. We gathered answers in our online questionnaire from sexual minorities (1220 participants) and cis-heterosexuals  (239 participants).
What did we find?
Perceiving others to be intolerant actually has a paradoxical impact on one’s support for social change:
What does this mean?
Our research shows that the following detrimental effects of perception of an intolerant climate on support for social change must be key considerations when mobilizing for social change:
- Léïla Eisner & Tabea Hässler
This blog post is based on: Eisner, L., Spini, D., & Sommet, N., (2019). A Contingent Perspective on Pluralistic Ignorance: When the Attitude Object Matters. International Journal of Public Opinion Research. https://doi.org/10.1093/ijpor/edz004
Eisner, L., Turner-Zwinkels, F., Hässler, T., & Spini, D., (2019). Pluralistic Ignorance of Societal Norms about Sexual Minorities. Manuscript under review; Eisner, L., Hässler, T., & Settersten, R. (2019). It’s time, act up for equality: Perceived societal norms and support for social change in the sexual minority context. Manuscript in preparation.
 The term cis-heterosexuals denotes heterosexual individuals whose gender identity corresponds to their assigned sex.
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
People often categorise themselves as either politically conservative or liberal. From a social psychological perspective, we often categorise ourselves and compare ourselves with other people. We like to identify who we are, and we do this by distinguishing ourselves from people who belong to other groups.
Conservatism and liberalism are opposite ends of the political spectrum; in our perception nowadays, they are worlds apart. However, conservatism and liberalism are relative, and sometimes even cultural. For example, people in new generations often refer to themselves as less conservative and more liberal than older generations. Westerners may refer to themselves as less conservative and more liberal than Easterners. Being conservative in the American context might be considered liberal in the Chinese context.
What does it actually mean to be more or less conservative (or liberal)? Is this a difference in cognitive processing? Or a social difference that we have picked up from the society around us?
Protecting vs. Providing Motivation
Liberals and conservatives differ in what motivates them. Studies with Western samples show that political lefties (liberals or progressives) tend to support policies that provide welfare for societies, whereas political conservatives tend to support policies that aim to protect their country from external harm. Such differences are rooted in the psychological distinction between approach and avoidance motivations.
Approach motivation focuses on how we can gain benefits. In general, this motivation seeks to provide well-being by doing good things for ourselves and for others (prosocial behaviours). People with approach motivation are likely to support individual autonomy and social justice.
In contrast, avoidance motivation focuses on avoiding harms, and what we should not do. Generally, this motivation seeks to prevent harm and to stop bad behaviours. People with avoidance motivation are likely to be responsive to threat and support social regulations.
However, this does not mean that people have only one type of these motivations and not the other. We all have some degree of both motives, and all react to changing situations by adjusting our current motives, but may lean towards one side more overall.
More vs. Less Negative Sensitivity
Neurologists and psychologists have found a link between people’s political orientation and sensitivity to negative environments. This is known as the negativity bias. A negativity bias means that humans generally tend to pay more attention to negative things. For example, we are generally quicker at recognising angry faces than happy faces. Even though we all have a negativity bias, the degree of negativity bias may be different from person to person.
Researchers found that people with more conservative thoughts are more responsive to negative environments than their counterparts. These people are more likely to support policies that minimise harmful incidents (e.g., anti-refugees) or promote their country’s stability (e.g., support military enforcement, support local businesses).
In contrast, people with more liberal thoughts are more willing to support policies that provide social welfare (e.g., free access to medical care) or challenge conventional use of power and authority (e.g., rehabilitation of criminals).
It is important to note that the negative bias is evolutionarily beneficial, and everyone has it to a certain degree. People who live in more conflict-ridden and more dangerous environments may show more negative biases compared to people who live in a safer environment.
In summary, conservatism and liberalism are relative; they represent tendencies of thinking and behaviours, rather than absolute, unchanging characteristics. Those tendencies are rooted in individual psychological and physiological differences. However, they are also shaped by the cultural context and responsive to situational forces as well as group norms and leadership. In diverse environments, both conservatism and liberalism can be beneficial to a country.
- Gi Chonu
This blog post is the third summarising a special issue of PAC:JPP on the role of social movements in bringing about (or failing to bring about!) political and social transformation. I co-edited the special issue with Cristina Montiel, and it is available online to those with access (or by contacting the papers’ authors or via ResearchGate). Our intro summarising all articles is also online ‘open access’ here, along with the first two blog posts, dealing with tipping points or breakthroughs in conflict and the non-linear nature of social transformation and the wildly varying timescales. Some of these themes are also dealt with in a 2018 chapter by our group *.
The overall aim of the special issue was to explore how social movements engage in, respond to, or challenge violence, both in terms of direct or physical violence and structural violence, injustice, and inequality. As well as the six papers summarised previously, there were four fascinating additional pieces by Montiel, Christie, Bretherton, and van Zomeren. Together the authors take up important questions about who acts, what changes, and how social transformation is achieved and researched, which I review below.
Who can participate in the scholarship of transformation?
Montiel’s (2018) piece “Peace Psychologists and Social Transformation: A Global South Perspective,” identifies barriers to full participation in the scholarship of peace. These barriers often include a relative lack of resources, and exposure to military, police, and non-state violence and trauma. In publishing, scholars and universities in the Global South face a difficult political environment in which both their silence and their speech may affect their careers and even their lives. More routinely, selection bias by journals to privilege the theoretical and methodological choices and agendas of the Global North marginalises the research questions that are most pressing, or most unfamiliar to WEIRD readers (Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic; Heinrich et al., 2010). In the short term, Montiel calls for professional bodies to open schemes for developing academics from the Global South; and for peace psychologists to co-design projects and conduct analyses and writing with southern scholars to allow a wider range of voices and ownership of the project.
What is it that changes in social transformation?
Van Zomeren’s (2018) piece “In search of a bigger picture: A cultural-relational perspective on social transformation and violence”, takes up his selvations theory as a springboard for understanding social transformation. He conceives the self as akin to a subjective vibration within a web of relationships (a selvation), which would both influence and be influenced by changing societies. Drawing on his earlier work on culture and collective action (e.g., van Zomeren & Louis, 2017), he suggests that the central challenge of the social psychology of social transformation is keeping the micro, meso, and macro-level variables in the same frame, and allowing emergent relationships within theoretical models.
In the van Zomeren model, the decision-making self is embedded within relationships, with the regulation of those relationships a central goal of the actor. Thus relational norms for violence (or peace) become proximal predictors of change – which in turn rest on wider social norms and expectations of opponents’ actions (see also Blackwood & Louis, 2017). Violence may affirm or contradict the relationship models of the actors creating social change, which manifests as changing relationships with others: movement co-actors, targets, and the broader community. Christie and Bretherton, below, also echo the contention that it would be useful for scholars and practitioners to consider more deeply how social change involves changing relationships and the self.
Five Components of Social Transformation
Christie (2018) presents an analysis of effective social transformation movements, arguing that there are five components that campaigners and scholars must engage. A systemic approach is the foundation of social transformation, he proposes: transformation entails the creative construction and destruction of existing relationships and the development of more or less just and violent new ones.
Sustainability is a second component: both the outcomes of a movement and its processes will last longer over time or less so. Momentary failures (and successes) are common; it is also the case that in the face of countervailing forces and counter-mobilisation, to sustain a positive status quo may require constant renewal and refreshment of social movement support.
Third, a movement must also have the capacity to scale up, which often requires new skills, leadership, and institutional support – or more broadly, the ideological and organisational foundation to build new alliances and engage new topics and opportunities without compromising its values and direction.
The fourth component of socially transformative movements is the inclusive involvement of those who are more powerless and marginalised: without active outreach and proactive inclusion, many movements re-invent old hierarchies and affirm old power structures.
Finally, Christie closes with an interesting reflection on the metrics of social transformation, and the different conclusions that one might draw in mobilising to achieve greater lifespan, wealth, well-being, and/or cultural peace.
Social Transformation: A How-To For Activists
Bretherton (2018) elaborates the implications for practitioners and activists, with practical tips on how to deal with power and (de)humanization within social movements. Two central messages are that social movements need to articulate their positive vision as well as what they are opposed to, and that they need to understand and articulate the structural or cultural violence that legitimises particular incidents or relationships.
In articulating their positive vision, the group develops the foundation for resilience and change as their movement grows in power and support. As new opportunities open up, a positive vision helps steer the direction of the movement towards its ultimate goals. In addition, social movements’ clear communication of the structural conditions which underpin violence or inequality has two further functions. A system-level analysis allows actors to avoid fixating on symptoms of structural inequality that cannot be effectively targeted in isolation. Also, such an analysis allows people who are disadvantaged by structural inequality to make external attributions for the harm and disadvantage they undergo, rather than lacerating self-blame, that can paralyse progress and make it harder to form coalitions and alliances. Symbolic affirmations of connectedness and equality can play a powerful role in de-legitimising violence and hierarchy.
Finally, beyond these core messages, Bretherton closes with tips on the ‘action research’ cycle of designing campaigns. Drawing on the special issue articles as well as a long career, Bretherton clearly lays out a series of wise insights. The four steps of the action cycle are preliminary observation and analysis of the social context, planning for campaign action (including developing the leadership team, building coalitions, and choice of tactics), implementation (including responding to unplanned problems), and review (e.g., proactively creating a culture of celebration and reflexivity). Managing expectations for a cycle of organisation, success, counter-mobilisation, and a longer term, ongoing struggle is also important, as Bretherton concludes.
I really enjoy the richness of the special issue, and it is exciting to see new scholarship in this emerging field (e.g., the recent special section of BJSP). The topic is vital from an applied perspective, but it is also incredible generative theoretically – the gaps are clearly evident when the literature is reviewed, and the potential for interdisciplinary synergy is high. I look forward to many more papers and journal issues in this vein.
- Winnifred Louis
* Louis, W. R., Chonu, G. K., Achia, T., Chapman, C. M., Rhee, J. (in press). Building group norms and group identities into the study of transitions from democracy to dictatorship and back again. In B. Wagoner, I. Bresco, & V. Glaveanu (Eds.), The Road To Actualized Democracy. Accepted for publication 12 December 2016.
(Don't) Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free: Understanding hostile attitudes towards immigration
In the past week, we have seen horrifying pictures from the U.S.-Mexico border where U.S. Border patrol has fired tear gas on asylum seekers from Central America. This is part of a new stance on immigration by the American White House, which includes deploying 5,000 US troops to the southern border, and giving the green light to use lethal force. While many are outraged at the use of such force by the government, others have been quick to defend the “America First” strategy. More broadly, anti-immigration sentiments have been expressed more frequently in a range of countries around the world, from France introducing stricter guidelines for asylum to Australia, where a sharp rise in anti-immigrant sentiment has been reported.
How can we explain antagonistic views towards immigrants and asylum seekers? While understanding perspectives on both sides is complex, recent research sheds light on the challenges associated with the reception of immigrants and refugees in Western countries.
“America First” ... the role of national identities
What we believe about who we are has a strong role in shaping our views of the world. In the U.S., proponents of using excessive force on asylum seekers justify this approach as putting America’s national interests first. What we know from the science is that those who believe being an American is an extremely important part of who they are, in other words, those who have a strong American identity, also are likely to have more negative attitudes towards immigrants.
Is connecting pro-America feelings with hostility to foreigners inevitable though? No.
First, it turns out that the link between stronger American identity and welcoming foreigners can also be positive for some! Americans who define the nation inclusively are more welcoming to newcomers, whereas those who have a narrower view of the country are more hostile.
When we are tough on immigration, are we tough on all immigrants in the same way?
Being tough on immigration is not applied the same way to White immigrants as it is to people of color. In one study, White Americans reported that the use of harsh punishment for a suspected undocumented immigrant was more fair when the suspect was Mexican, than when the suspect was Canadian.
Earlier we spoke about the content of identities, and that discussion is also relevant here. The more people understand being American as being Anglo, the more lenient they are with those who look Anglo. Around the world, the broader and more inclusive our understanding of what it means to be a citizen of a country, the more diverse people we would be willing to welcome as new immigrants and refugees.
The language we use has serious consequences
Finally, it is striking how the language used to describe asylum seekers and immigrants by politicians or news media can conjure up images of hordes of animals, scurrying towards us. This type of language is dehumanizing, and research shows it has serious consequences. Endorsing harsher immigration policies is one outcome of dehumanizing language and using dehumanizing language can increase anger and disgust towards immigrants. The use of vermin metaphors to describe Jews during the Holocaust comes to mind when we think of how dehumanizing language has been used to justify atrocities. Indeed, the use of such language is one of the precursors of genocide. Therefore, while news reports describing immigrants in animalistic language may go unnoticed, the reality is that this language has the potential to lead to dire consequences for the world we live in.
The topic of immigration is complicated and the challenges and opportunities of migration are important for both immigrants and the host societies that receive them. An evidence-based approach to understanding the issues and the sentiments on both sides are needed for our societies to move forward to a more socially cohesive and peaceful world.
- Zahra Mirnajafi
As societies have developed, technological advances and medical discoveries have increased life expectancy and made our lives seemingly easier.
But this development is not experienced equally by all people.
In general, industrialised nations have a high quality of life. Yet stark differences remain in how wealth and benefits are spread across society. This is called income inequality.
Sadly, income inequality is a global phenomenon. The distribution of wealth across the globe shows that 71% of the world’s population hold just 3% of the global wealth. On the other hand, 8% of the population hold over 84% of the world’s wealth.
Income inequality is especially pronounced in the United States, where the income gap is twice that of the rest of the industrial world.
So you might be thinking, why is this important? Here are 3 reasons why you should care about income inequality:
1. Less happiness and life satisfaction
The more wealth a society has the happier that society will be, right?
Well, not quite.
In 1974, Economist Richard Easterlin showed that Americans were not happier during periods of high economic growth.
Some countries, however, do show increased happiness with increased economic growth.
What can explain this difference? Income inequality.
In a study of 34 countries, researchers found that when income inequality is high, increased economic growth is not associated with increased happiness.
When economic inequality is high and people can see the wealth of others, it may make their relative lack of economic prosperity more obvious.
We become aware of the differences in our own economic gains, and the difference in our lifestyles. This, in turn, can reduce our sense of happiness and wellbeing.
Reflecting on how we consume social media, platforms such as Instagram give us daily access to the life of the rich, through accounts like the rich kids of instagram, which boasts “They have more money than you and this is what they do.”
2. More obesity and related health problems
When thinking about how income inequality affects health, it’s reasonable to think that your personal wealth would be the main determinant of your personal health.
You may conclude that income inequality only affects the health of the poor, but you’d be wrong.
Higher obesity and related health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease are present amongst all social classes in societies with higher income inequality.
Regardless of personal wealth, people living in countries with greater income inequality experience poorer health outcomes than their counterparts in more equal societies.
People in a laboratory setting, who were made to feel relatively poor, ate 54% more calories, rated the high calorie food as more enjoyable, and were more likely to want to buy higher calorie food in the future that those who were made to feel rich.
Outside of the laboratory we also find that the more income inequality, the higher rates of obesity in a society.
This shows us that inequality has a direct effect on our lifestyles.
3. Less generosity and trust
Higher income inequality makes the wealthy less generous and breeds a sense of entitlement—the belief that one is more important and deserving than others. However, in more equal societies, the wealthy are just as generous as the poor.
People in areas with high income inequality also trust each other less. When there is less trust in society, people are more likely to only look out for themselves, and their families.
We’ve established that inequality has detrimental effects for all. Yet it is not always communicated as something that is bad.
Politicians often frame inequality in a way that hides the full picture. They highlight economic mobility—the sense that everyone can move up the wealth ladder—and related concepts such as the American Dream.
For example, Rick Santorum recently said: "There is income inequality in America, there always has been, and hopefully, and I do say that, there always will be. Why? Because people rise to different levels of success based on what they contribute to society.”
Be aware that this framing has profound effects on our psychology. People become more tolerant of income inequality the more they perceive economic mobility. In truth, economic mobility is not as widespread as people think.
So next time you hear politicians praise inequality, remember the burden falls not just on the poor, but on all of society.
- Zahra Mirnajafi
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.
From Indonesia to Australia, many modern States face demands by majority religious groups to have their beliefs institutionally prioritised.
For example, in their submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Melbourne Gospel Assembly stated that the Australian government is obligated to respect the Christian religion as its first and foremost responsibility.
Similar calls have been made by Islamist groups in Muslim majority countries. The poll investigating whether the Sharia (Islamic social order) should be made the official law in Muslim majority countries revealed a widespread support, with 99% in Afghanistan, 83% in Morocco, and 71% in Nigeria.
Followers of a religion may identify with their religious group. Likewise, citizens of a country may identify with their national group.
In many countries, religion plays its role in providing values that delineate nationalism. However, there are also religious movements that utterly reject nationalism and struggle instead for a religion-based state.
So what makes religious and national identities support one other? And what makes them destroy each other? My research points to 3 key factors.
Historical context shapes ideas about the relationship between religion and nation
A state must emerge from the collaboration of many groups who work together.
Indonesian history, for instance, has been constructed by many groups representing various tribes, political ideologies, and religions. Islam, as the religion of the majority in Indonesia, has strongly influenced the establishment of the Republic.
As a result, most Indonesian Muslims today believe that their Islamic faith and Indonesian nationalism are two sides of the same coin, even though Islamic social order does not formally rule the country. This belief stems from the historical consensus that established divine values as the primary foundation of the Indonesian state. Further, most Muslims perceive that the Indonesian state is the outcome of the early Muslims' struggle.
Such historical beliefs strengthen the connection between religious and national identities, meaning an individual’s self-image may be developed based on both religion and nation. This pattern might be found in many countries where religious values supported the struggle to establish the state.
Not all countries, however, show this reciprocal relationship between religious belief and national identity.
A study conducted across thirty European countries showed that nationalism influences religious values only where there is a high concentration of religion. Further, nationalist ideology only affects religious beliefs where a dominant religion exists.
What factors support religious movements to reject their nationality and demand a radical change of the existing state?
Religious fundamentalism may lead to national dis-identification
Religious fundamentalism has been proposed as a factor influencing the relationship between religious and national identities.
Religious identification and religious fundamentalism are not the same.
We define fundamentalism here as one set of cognitive schemas that filters the selection of information to provide a framework for interpretation. This set of schemas promotes beliefs that religious rules allow only one interpretation and must be prioritized over secular laws. It can also lead to bigotry and hostility toward outgroups.
Religious beliefs have been demonstrated to promote national dis-identification among people high in religious identity. People who are high in fundamentalist beliefs about their religion (i.e., belief that God has given humanity a complete, unfailing guide, which must be totally followed) may identify more with their religion but less with their nation. Such people conceive religious norms as God’s rules, while national rules are seen as political outcomes representing particular interests.
Perceived discrimination can promote dis-identification
Some European countries are facing difficulties in integrating the religious and national identities of their immigrants within their national identity.
Low political participation in a general election can be an indicator of dis-identification with the nation. Many efforts have been exerted to improve civic engagement among immigrants, for example through the mobilisation of mosques.
However, societal factors such as perceived discrimination and injustice also play a role in national dis-identification.
Group based discrimination and injustice can be a catalyst for heightening tensions, provoking anger and disappointment. Even when discrimination is not sanctioned by the state and is only promoted by a small group of political actors, the negative feelings can be attributed to the imagined concept of the nation. On a certain scale, group-based anger can be expressed in reluctance to provide political participation.
In this way, immigrants who are highly identified with their religion, and who perceive discrimination based on religion, may become dis-identified with the nation. In contrast, feelings of freedom and inclusion can create a positive association between religiosity and nationalism.
To summarise, the relationship between religious and national identities is complex. Historical contexts may fuse national and religious identities, while fundamentalist beliefs or societal tensions and group discrimination may cause them to diverge.
Exploring the difference between religion as a bridge and religion as a wall is part of the focus in my PhD.
- Susilo Wibisono
Making political change happen
Around the world, people are marching.
They’re marching to overthrow dictators. Some are defending religious viewpoints, or drawing attention to climate change. Others want less immigration, or better working conditions.
Does all this activity really achieve anything? One of the factors that affects movement success is the way that confrontational and moderate groups define themselves and relate to each other, within a broader movement.
When movements define “us” and “them” it affects who wants to join
A movement that garners support from policy makers and the public is in a better position to achieve success.
Movements can grow their supporter base if they pay careful attention to how they position themselves. Framing a movement as aligned with (or opposed to) the broader community’s values and interests has real consequences.
In the short term groups that grow the fastest are often more confrontational. That is to say, they may oppose traditional values or approaches.
We define confrontational groups here as aiming to eliminate a particular behaviour that still has strong support, or to defeat an enemy respected by many. We contrast this with moderate movements, aimed at winning over opponents through persuasion. In both cases, we are referring to non-violent groups aiming for system change – but they don’t always work well together.
A confrontational group grows quickly towards the extremes
Confrontational groups often appeal to people with strong pre-existing views.
A clearly identified problem. A policy strongly condemned. A clearly defined line of attack. These tactics are more likely to appeal to people with strong views. To them, the moderate group may seem waffly or uncommitted.
Clarity of focus often leads to swift success for confrontational groups, because committed activists’ time, energy, and moneys flow to the groups that best express their strong views and values. So they grow quickly.
A confrontational group draws attention to a cause. For many simple problems, this may be enough to achieve social change. But an impasse can be reached when the group needs to reach out to the centre or to opponents to create enough momentum for a breakthrough.
A confrontational group can’t easily compromise
The past strong attacks and views of the confrontational group may have made it unattractive to the unaligned or centre voters, and lead to alienation of their political opponents.
When mistrust and negative views take hold, it is extremely difficult to progress an agenda. Persuasive communication to win over swing voters or opponents may be viewed with scepticism. Genuine attempts to reach out may be seen as insincere or offensive.
Confrontational movements may also be reluctant to entertain the idea of trade-offs with their enemies, because they are defined by their strong, pure rejection of those enemies.
If a conciliatory leader does emerge in a confrontational movement, it may be hard for him or her to gain traction. A conciliatory leader of a confrontational movement sometimes can’t persuade their own group easily to compromise, and they can’t persuade the other group to deal with them either, because of the past history of conflict.
Moderate groups grow slowly toward the centre
With more genuine mutual respect, and less past baggage to carry, the moderates may be both more attractive to uncommitted or centrist members of the public. They are also more able to build trust with political opponents of the cause.
Successful moderates build trust with opponents in part by condemning, tempering, or reining in the savage attacks of more confrontational groups. They also highlight shared values between themselves and their political opponents. These steps create the impression among members of political opponents that moderates are people that can be dealt with.
At the same time, successful moderates have to maintain a clear agenda to make progress towards a stated cause – they have to achieve measurable, clear outcomes. Unless there is both clarity of purpose and progress towards the movement’s ends, moderates may be seen as giving away too much in attempting to obtain leverage.
Confrontational groups should attack the other extreme, not the centre
As moderates achieve frustratingly minute, incremental changes, it is common for moderate groups to attract derision and hostility from confrontational groups for the same cause.
This negativity misunderstands the potential for positive synergies between the two types of groups.
If the confrontational group attacks the moderates, the partisan divide between the sides widens. It is common for stalemates to persist.
Political opponents who are more hostile and polarised can surge to power, dragging the centre away from the movement’s desired change.
The confrontational movement should instead focus its criticism on the other extreme, targeting the most reactionary and hostile members of their political opponents.
By seeking to undermine the most hostile opponents and alienate them from the middle ground, the confrontational movement is well placed to increase the momentum for change.
- Winnifred R. Louis
* * *
This blog builds on some ideas from a chapter that I wrote with some students (Louis, Chapman, Chonu, and Achia, 2017), covering the key themes from a keynote that I gave in Cebu, at the Asian Association of Social Psychology.
The Rise of Donald Trump
After the recent US election people on the political left went into a frenzy mulling over all the reasons why Trump won.
Is America just full of racists? Are people scared of their economic prospects for the future? Are people sick of political corruption and want to “drain the swamp”? Has Government regulation gotten out of hand?
You heard all the discussions on the news, between your co-workers, and in your Facebook feed. Everyone had an expert opinion.
But what does the science actually say? Here are three factors that psychological and political science suggest explain Trump’s popularity.
1. Opposition to immigration rises in times of prosperity, not recession
We typically think that countries become more restrictive in their immigration policies when they suffer economically. Yet in the 4 years leading up to the 2016 election, the United States had steady growth in GDP, the job sector, and hourly pay rates.
With the economy doing so well, why did we see anti-immigrant sentiments flaring in this election cycle?
Despite common beliefs, research shows that that societies are actually more likely to oppose immigration when they are doing well economically. From America to Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, we see right-wing parties rising to power during periods of economic prosperity.
2. It’s not just the poor; the rich also oppose immigration
After the election you probably heard that the working poor of America were the ones that supported Trump because of his tough stance on immigration. They thought immigrants would steal their jobs.
But it’s not just the working poor, but also those doing quite well economically that are likely to oppose immigration. The research shows that, indeed, those with higher disposable income are just as likely to oppose immigration as those who have the least disposable income.
It’s suggested that this is partly driven by fear of future deprivation. However, the idea that the poor vote conservatively is not supported by data. In fact we find the median income of Trump supporters was $72,000 (compared to the national median of $56,000).
3. Conservative nostalgia for the ‘good old days’
“Make America great again” was the central slogan of Trump’s campaign. This glorification of the past is a common thread in the rise of right-wing parties.
Right-wing politicians tend to glorify the past and highlight how bad we’re doing in the present (even when it’s not objectively true). This creates a sense of urgency.
When people hear this type of talk they are more likely to support drastic changes and the right-wing parties that propose these changes.
The following clip, from Ava Duverney’s documentary the 13th (available on Netflix), highlights glorification of the past and the need to be tough in Trump’s election campaign (as well as the link to racist policing and crowd violence). Warning: strong language and violence.
So next time you hear your friends, family and media pundits arguing the rise of Trump and the Right, you’ll know at least three factors based on research as to how these parties, and these politicians rise to power!
- Zahra Mirnajafizadeh
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.