On the Road to Change: The Psychology of Progress

highwayThe morning after last November’s historic election, triumphant chants of “Yes We Did” drowned out the Obama campaign message of “Yes We Can.” Now only four months later enthusiasm has waned, and last Friday the President felt the need to reassure reporters on Air Force One, “I don’t think that people should be fearful about our future.”

The striking contrast highlights the fact that any long and difficult journey should be measured in two parts – the distance already traveled, and the distance still left to go. Both measurements are necessary to really understand how much progress you’ve made toward reaching your destination. Neither one alone is sufficient.

This simple idea – appreciated by many a parent during road trips with young children repeatedly asking “Are we there yet?” – has special relevance for progressives as we contemplate where we stand today. On the one hand, we rejoice that the previous administration’s unprecedented incompetence, corruption, secrecy, and lawlessness are fading in our rear-view mirror each day. On the other hand, we are sobered by the realization that the horizon ahead is clouded by a crippled economy, an inadequate healthcare system, and multiple wars with no clear end in sight.

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Selling An Indefensible Status Quo

wallstreet3Stocks plummet on Wall Street. Home foreclosures mount across the country. Shameless finger pointing and disavowals swirl in the nation’s capital. And a recent Gallup poll finds that a record-low 9% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States.

The frightening numbers and front-page headlines certainly cry out for immediate short-term solutions. But they also raise a crucial question with long-term implications: How is it that our country’s powerful and self-interested defenders of the status quo so consistently succeed at suppressing popular outrage and combating calls for broad-based, progressive social change?

In part, the answer can be found in the insidious use of psychological manipulation to build public support for status quo policies that benefit the few while creating hardship for so many. Some of today’s top peddlers have embraced a rigid ideology that seemingly blinds them to the tragic human costs of their agenda, while others are driven by a simpler unyielding pursuit of personal wealth and power. Regardless of their motivation, their persuasion strategy often depends upon exploiting specific psychological “soft targets”–namely, five core concerns that profoundly influence how we make sense of the world. These concerns, central to the daily experiences of individuals and groups alike, revolve around the issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Let’s consider the manipulation of each in turn.

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Anchors for Progressives

anchor1Imagine people randomly divided into two groups for a simple psychology experiment. Those assigned to one group are asked two questions. First, “Did Gandhi die before or after he reached the age of 140?” And then, “How old was Gandhi when he died?” Meanwhile, those in the other group are asked the same followup question, but their first question is “Did Gandhi die before or after he reached the age of 9?”

The results of actual studies just like this one are quite consistent and robust, and they may surprise you. Participants given “140 years” as their initial comparison point think that Gandhi lived much longer than those who were given “9 years” instead. Findings like these demonstrate what psychologists call the “anchoring effect”: our strong tendency to make judgments that are biased toward arbitrary standards of comparison. The plausibility of these comparison “anchors” makes no difference to us–we rely on them regardless. As another example, research subjects asked whether Einstein’s first visit to the United States occurred before or after 1992 give a much more recent estimate of when he arrived than those asked whether he visited before or after the year 1215.

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Congress Needs A Shot In The Arm

injection2Among the most important public health advances of the past century has been the development of potent vaccines against dangerous and life-threatening illnesses. Polio, tuberculosis, and measles quickly come to mind. Through a process of inoculation, a small dose of the pathogen is intentionally administered to the patient which induces immunity against the full-blown disease.

In a similar way, social scientists have demonstrated that attitude inoculation can be used to prevent the transmission of hazardous beliefs and behaviors from one person to another. For example, research reveals that adolescents can more effectively resist pressure from cigarette-smoking peers if they are given role-playing opportunities in which they rehearse their responses to students pressuring them to smoke.

But today we are in urgent need of an inoculation campaign against an entirely different threat to our nation’s health–namely, the Bush administration’s exploitation of its “global war on terror” to eviscerate the rule of law and our constitutional checks and balances; to prolong the disastrous occupation of Iraq; and to lay the groundwork for military strikes against Iran. Ever since the tragic events of 9/11 six years ago, the White House has promoted this agenda by working non-stop to spread a simple yet infectious idea: All actions taken by this president and his representatives are necessary to protect the United States from future catastrophic terrorist attacks.

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Sky Dwellers, Pie Eaters, and Their Political Enablers: Faithful Defenders of the Status Quo

jeffersons2In the mid-1970s the TV sitcom The Jeffersons portrayed the rags-to-riches story of a black entrepreneur living the American Dream. The pugnacious and overbearing George Jefferson (former neighbor of All in the Family’s Archie Bunker) becomes a dry cleaning magnate and leaves blue-collar Queens for swanky Manhattan. As the show’s theme song recounts:

“Well we’re moving on up,
To the east side.
To a deluxe apartment in the sky.
Moving on up,
To the east side.
We finally got a piece of the pie.”

But now fast-forward to 2007 and real world America. When it comes to those deluxe apartments in the sky, today’s exclusive penthouses sit atop much taller high-rises–but the chances of ever living in one (or even breathing its rarified air as a dinner guest) have shrunk considerably. And although the proverbial economic pie is much larger today as well, a relative handful of gluttons are gorging themselves while everyone else settles for leftovers and crumbs.

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Public-Servant-in-Chief: In the President’s Own Words

bushIt’s not Baghdad alone where we’re witnessing a Bush-inspired surge. The President holds ultimate responsibility for an escalation unfolding in Washington as well: namely, the rapid proliferation of administration scandals and outrages now finally finding the light of day (deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center; politically-driven purges of U.S. attorneys; FBI abuses of National Security Letters, and the list goes on and on).

Not surprisingly, today President Bush resists reasonable calls for meaningful accountability and benchmarks on both fronts. But back in his headier days of sky-high approval ratings–late 2001 to be exact–he spoke to an audience of government employees and enumerated the standards by which public servants should be measured. From the White House website (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/10/20011015-8.html):

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Beware the Wounded Bear

woundedbearWhen respondents in a mid-February Pew poll were asked to use one word to describe President Bush, the single adjective offered most often was “incompetent.” Meanwhile, a recent Newsweek poll revealed not only that Bush’s approval rating has fallen to an all-time low, but also that a majority of respondents simply wish his presidency was already over. These rebukes cannot sit well with someone who has proclaimed himself “The Decider,” who has become infatuated with the title “Commander-in-Chief,” and who once told Bob Woodward “That’s the interesting thing about being the President…I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

In short, the president and his conservative allies find themselves on very uncomfortable and increasingly shaky ground. They are beleaguered by transparent policy failures and by growing public and media scrutiny of their actions and motives. There is much irony to this current state of affairs. As I have described elsewhere, the Bush administration has thrived on manipulative appeals to our collective core concerns about vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness (an online video discussing this topic can be viewed HERE.). To promote their narrow agenda, they have sought to persuade the country that we should feel constantly fearful for our safety, aggrieved for injustices perpetrated against us, distrustful of outsiders, superior to others in our values and character, and powerful enough to accomplish anything we desire. This worked for a long time. However, as the polls noted above clearly indicate, for most of us these appeals have lost much of their persuasive power (perhaps because we’ve been fooled once too often). As a result, the White House and its propagandists are now most successful at persuading themselves. This is indeed a peculiar and limited form of success—but it still makes for a very dangerous brew. Consider the five ingredients:

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