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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Five Questions and Their “Yes, BUT” Answers

saddam-statue-w-flagMy work as a psychologist suggests that five core concerns often dominate our individual and collective lives. These concerns revolve around issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Briefly, for most of us nothing is more powerful than the desire to protect and provide security for the people and things we care about (vulnerability). We often react to perceived mistreatment with anger and resentment, and an urge to right wrongs and punish those we hold responsible (injustice). We tend to divide the world into those who are trustworthy and those unworthy of our trust, in an effort to avoid harm from people with hostile intentions (distrust). We frequently aspire to be better than others in some important way—perhaps in our accomplishments, or our morality, or our destiny (superiority). Finally, we strive to avoid the experience of helplessness, and instead do our best to control the important events in our lives (helplessness).

Political leaders should be responsive to these five core concerns in identifying broadly shared goals and pursuing positive social change. Unfortunately, the Bush administration and its supporters have instead chosen to exploit these concerns in an effort to promote their own narrow ideological agenda. Perhaps the most tragic example is the profoundly ill-advised and costly war in Iraq.

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Dangerous Ideas

My research, writing, and consulting focus on how five key issues—and the beliefs we hold about them—profoundly influence our personal and collective lives. I believe that concerns revolving around vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness are crucial contributors to how we experience and make sense of the world, and that they are also the key lenses through which we evaluate information and form judgments about appropriate priorities, policies, and actions. Here’s a very brief description of each domain:

Concerns over personal and collective vulnerability are central to our lives. For most of us, nothing is more immediate than the desire to protect and provide security for the people and things we care about, including ourselves.

We are strongly affected by perceptions of injustice, both in our personal lives and in our group attachments. Most of us react to perceived mistreatment with a combination of anger and resentment, and often an urge to right wrongs and punish those we hold responsible.

We tend to divide the world into those who are untrustworthy and those worthy of our trust. If our judgments are accurate, we can select our associates and allies wisely, and we can try to avoid harm from those who have hostile intent or are merely unreliable.

We frequently compare ourselves to other individuals and groups, and conclude that we’re better than they are in some important way—perhaps in our accomplishments, or our morality, or our destiny. At times we focus on what we consider worst about others, which serves to further persuade us of their inferiority.

We strive to avoid the experience of helplessness, and instead do our best to control the important events in our lives. And when we’re overcome by despair and resignation we usually fail to achieve our goals.

With this blog I hope to offer my personal observations applying this framework to current events. Please do check back again, and I look forward to your comments.