Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Heroes and Villains: Banal or Special People? Part 2 of 2
In part 1 of this post, I discussed the situationist analysis of the “banality” of evil and of heroism respectively. To recap, according to Phil Zimbardo and colleagues, both heroic acts and evil acts occur primarily in response to situational factors, rather than internal features of the person. However, on closer inspection, the situationist analysis provides inconsistent accounts of how each of these occurs. Evil actions are attributed to factors entirely outside the person, while heroism relies on the person’s inner qualities. In this post, I explore these inconsistencies in more detail and consider some relevant evidence.
The false dichotomy of dispositions vs. situations
In developing his situationist explanation of why “good” people do evil things, Zimbardo draws heavily on his analysis of the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), in which students recruited to act as guards in a mock prison engaged in abuse and mistreatment of students recruited to act as prisoners. Zimbardo has drawn many parallels between the SPE and the prisoner abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib. In both cases, Zimbardo has argued that the horrendous behavior of those involved can be explained pretty much entirely as a result of external factors and that “dispositional” factors internal to the person are irrelevant. He states:
 When you put that set of horrendous work conditions and external factors together, it creates an evil barrel. You could put virtually anybody in it and you’re going to get this kind of evil behavior. The Pentagon and the military say that the Abu Ghraib scandal is the result of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel. That’s a dispositional analysis. The social psychologist in me, and the consensus among many of my colleagues in experimental social psychology, says that’s the wrong analysis. It’s not the bad apples, it’s the bad barrels that corrupt good people. Understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systematic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that ‘little shop of horrors.’ (Emphasis added)

Was this woman just a victim of circumstance? Does the situation absolve her of responsibility?  
As can be seen from the foregoing, situationists explicitly reject what they call “dispositionalist” explanations that invoke personality traits to explain why people behaved the way they did in such situations. Supposedly, those who are inclined to a dispositional analysis want to pin all the blame on the “bad apples” involved, while ignoring the importance of the all-powerful “bad barrel” that is the real cause of all the horrendous things that were done there. As I noted previously, situationists pay lip service to the notion that behavior, including prisoner abuse is the product of the interaction between features of the situation and features of the person. (See this article by Zimbardo for example, where he responds to criticisms of situationism.) However, in practice he and his colleagues have expressed scorn for the idea that it might be worthwhile to consider the relevant personality traits of those who engaged in abusive behavior in the SPE and at Abu Ghraib.

The importance of self-selection

Specifically, personality psychologists have argued that self-selection played an important role in what happened both in the SPE and at Abu Ghraib. That is, people with certain personality traits that may predispose them to abusive behavior may be more likely than others to volunteer to either join a prison experiment or to work as prison guards respectively (Carnahan & McFarland, 2007). To provide evidence for this, they conducted an experiment to test whether people who would volunteer for a prison experiment (“a psychological study of prison life) had different personality traits from people who would volunteer for a non-specific psychology experiment (simply “a psychological study”).  (Neither one of the advertised “psychological studies” actually went ahead, as the real experiment was to see who would volunteer for each one.) Those who volunteered for the prison experiment were found to differ significantly from the control group on seven distinct personality traits related to aggressive tendencies. Specifically, the prison experiment volunteers were noticeably high on measures of aggression, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance, and also lower on altruism and dispositional empathy. Carnahan and McFarland argued that people tend to make choices to enter situations that allow them to express their personalities. Hence situations that lend themselves to abuse may be particularly attractive to people who are inclined to become abusive. The researchers were careful to point out that they were not denying the power of these situations to influence behavior. In fact, they argued that situations such as a prison where abuse is condoned act to reinforce and amplify pre-existing tendencies to be abusive (McFarland & Carnahan, 2009).

Do personal choices matter at all?
In their response to this study, Haney and Zimbardo (2009) attacked the authors for their supposed “dispositionalism” which they argued was an attempt to draw attention away from larger systemic factors that facilitated abuse while neatly blaming the actors involved, who were really just decent people caught up in terrible circumstances. Haney and Zimbardo blatantly parody the idea of self-selection, saying: “therefore, whatever extreme behavior people engage in is the product of their free and autonomous choice making, largely unencumbered by circumstance or context.” They go on to argue that most choices that people make are “highly situationally constrained” and determined less by personality than other factors such as economics. The idea that people’s choices must be ‘unencumbered’ or they have no real choice at all, strikes me as a false dichotomy, much like the false dichotomy between “bad apples” and a “bad barrel”. Ignoring the role of systemic factors at Abu Ghraib, such as policies and practices implicitly condoning prisoner abuse, would surely be a mistake. But ignoring the role of individual differences and the capacity for individual choice would also be a mistake. A comprehensive understanding of the causes of things like prisoner abuse requires attention to all the relevant variables involved.

McFarland and Carnahan acknowledged that something like Abu Ghraib can indeed induce abusive behavior. However, they argued that a model based on “the power of the situation” is too limited because it overlooks the importance of self-selection and selection by others and treats individual differences as irrelevant (2009). McFarland and Carnahan also challenge Zimbardo’s claims that the abusers at Abu Ghraib, and people who have engaged in government sanctioned torture in Greece and Brazil, were just “ordinary, normal” people corrupted by situational forces. Although Zimbardo claimed that “virtually anybody” in the situation at Abu Ghraib would act the same way – a sweeping generalization for which little or no evidence is provided – there is evidence that at least some of the abusers at Abu Ghraib volunteered for duty and that they had predispositions to abusive behaviour. A psychiatrist who investigated Abu Ghraib concluded that both situational and dispositional factors played a role on the abuse, and cited “psychological factors of negativity, hatred, and desire to dominate and humiliate” (McFarland & Carnahan, 2009).

Who has what it takes to do evil?

McFarland and Carnahan also point out that although Zimbardo and colleagues have claimed that torturers in Greece and Brazil were just ordinary people, research on this topic has found that those who were recruited for this role were carefully screened and selected for personal characteristics such as sympathetic attitudes to the reigning military regime and for conformity and conventionalism. Those who passed the screening then freely selected to go through intensive training. They were further screened for blind obedience to authority and for their ability to endure beatings. They were hardly ‘ordinary’ in the sense of being fairly representative of men of their age. McFarland and Carnahan point out that these sort of attitudes are consistent with an authoritarian personality profile. If it were true, as Zimbardo claims, that “virtually anyone” could be made to do evil things under the right circumstances, why would those responsible for recruiting torturers go to so much trouble to select suitable candidates?

Double standards for doing good and evil
What I also find disturbing about claims about the power of the situation to overrule individual choices is that it seems to locate all moral responsibility for evil behavior outside the persons involved, as if the participants in this drama were utterly powerless to act any differently. Indeed, Haney and Zimbardo seem to imply that unless people are “unencumbered by circumstance or context” their personal ability to make choices has little or no relevance to how they behave. Yet when it comes to heroic choices, the picture presented is almost the complete opposite of this. Heroes turn out to be those who have cultivated a “heroic imagination” and who have had the courage to make difficult decisions in situations where they were under considerable pressure to turn a blind eye to wrong-doings in their environment.

Just how “banal” is heroism really?
Consider an example of the “banality of heroism” that occurred at Abu Ghraib, described in an article on Zimbardo’s website. (Scroll down to the last page of the document, and see the sidebar story, “The Prison Guard’s Dilemma” by Jason Marsh.) This describes the story of Sergeant Joseph Darby, a prison guard at Abu Ghraib who became aware of prisoner abuse and made a brave decision to report it instead of turning a blind eye. According to the article, Darby decided to act in spite of the culture of the prison which “persuaded everyone else to perform or accept prisoner abuse.” He did this because he believed it was his moral duty, even though it meant that for a month and a half he “lived in a state of perpetual fear” of retaliation by the other guards if they found out what he had done. Since then he has been hailed as a hero, yet vilified by others, and now lives in hiding after going into protective custody.
Here we have a case of a man who performed a very brave action that put his own safety at risk because he believed that it was the morally right thing to do. Yet this is described as “banal” because apparently he was just an “ordinary” man. (As opposed to what, a superman?) To my mind, the “banal” (i.e. common, ordinary) response in this situation would be to go along with the crowd and cave in to pressure to do nothing. Furthermore, far from being “unencumbered by circumstance or context,” he was under considerable situational constraint, yet still managed to resist the power of the “bad barrel” that corrupted many others who did not show his courage. It is far from clear to me how this example can be explained in terms of purely situational factors that pushed the man in question into acting heroically.
Another case of heroism cited by Franco and Zimbardo illustrates the ability of individuals to make conscious choices to resist situational forces in order to uphold moral values. Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul official in Lithuania in 1940, assisted more than 2,000 Jews to escape the Nazi invasion, in spite of direct orders by his government not to do so. Franco and Zimbardo point out that not only was this a difficult decision for him, but it was one that he thought about carefully over a long period of time. Discussing Sugihara’s personal history, they point out that:
These incidents suggest that Sugihara already possessed the internal strength and self-assurance necessary to be guided by his own moral compass in uncertain situations. We can speculate that Sugihara was more willing to assert his individual view than others around him who preferred to “go along to get along.”
Franco and Zimbardo therefore acknowledge that internal features of the person such as “internal strength and self-assurance” are needed to make moral decisions in difficult situations. This is in direct contrast to Zimbardo’s statements implying that heroism is a result of external circumstances and is unrelated to internal qualities of the person.
The importance of character
Franco and Zimbardo acknowledge that they do not actually know what prompts some people to take action when heroism is called for. They even consider briefly that those who do so may be more conscientious or they may be less risk averse. Conscientiousness and risk aversion are personality traits, so it seems that “dispositional” explanations are no longer completely off the table. However, they spend much more time discussing the importance of the “heroic imagination” and ways in which it can be nurtured so that ordinary people can learn to become heroes. They define the heroic imagination as “the capacity to imagine facing physically or socially risky situations, to struggle with the hypothetical problems these situations generate, and to consider one’s actions and the consequences.” They then go on to enumerate a number of steps a person can take to foster this. These steps amount to developing the willingness to hold to a code of ethical conduct and act with integrity even when under pressure rationalise inaction or justify evil deeds. Additionally one must be able to “transcend anticipating negative consequences associated with some forms of heroism, such as being socially ostracized.” To my mind, these things sounds much like what lay people would call developing “character,” the inner strength to act with integrity and the courage of one’s convictions. In other words one must develop the ability to resist external situational forces and follow an internal moral compass. Ultimately, Franco and Zimbardo state that there must be “a hero’s willingness to accept any of the consequences of heroic action—whether the sacrifices are physical or social.”
Heroes need the strength of character to resist evil forces
I find much of what Franco and Zimbardo are saying about heroism to be commendable, particularly the concept of willingness to accept the consequences of one’s actions. However, now I need to ask how this is compatible with the view that when people do evil it is because they are the victim of circumstances and forces outside of themselves? If ordinary people have the capacity to become heroes who take a stand against injustice, then surely they are responsible for their actions when they choose instead to do evil. If ordinary people can develop the strength of character to resist situational forces, then does not this imply that those who do not so resist are of weak character? Why not hold evil-doers and heroes alike to the same moral standards of accountability for their actions? I do not mean to imply that situational forces that act upon a person should be disregarded. What I am arguing is for a balanced perspective which takes into account the nature of the person who responds to these forces, including their capacity to make responsible choices. Personality psychologist David Funder (2006) has argued that situationist accounts appear to condone an ideology of victimisation in which people are not to blame for their actions because the real causes lie outside themselves. He contrasts this with a more person-centred approach that favours being true to oneself and the human capacity to develop a consistent self that seeks to control one’s destiny rather than remain a pawn of situational forces. An ideology of victimisation is also incompatible with the development of the heroic imagination.
Please consider following me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Image Credits
Photo of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Frodo Baggins by sykaaa at DeviantART

Carnahan T, & McFarland S (2007). Revisiting the Stanford prison experiment: could participant self-selection have led to the cruelty? Personality & social psychology bulletin, 33 (5), 603-14 PMID: 17440210
Funder, D. C. (2006). Towards a resolution of the personality triad: Persons, situations, and behaviors. Journal of Research in Personality, 40(1), 21-34. doi:
Haney, C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2009). Persistent Dispositionalism in Interactionist Clothing: Fundamental Attribution Error in Explaining Prison Abuse. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(6), 807-814. doi: 10.1177/0146167208322864

McFarland, S., & Carnahan, T. (2009). A Situation's First Powers Are Attracting Volunteers and Selecting Participants: A Reply to Haney and Zimbardo (2009). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(6), 815-818. doi: 10.1177/0146167209334781

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Heroes and Villains: Banal or Special People? Part 1 of 2
What moves a person to become a hero or a villain? Do people perform heroic actions, acts which involve genuine risk to themselves, because they are special people, or is it just a matter of circumstance, being in the right place at the right time? Do people who perform evil actions do so because of flaws in their character, or are they just victims of an evil system that corrupts the innocent, inducing otherwise “good” people to do terrible things? Those who subscribe to situationism, such as Phil Zimbardo, have argued that given the proper circumstances virtually anyone could either become a hero or an evil-doer. Zimbardo has argued that the “banality of heroism” mirrors the apparent “banality of evil.” That is, people choose to perform either heroic or evil deeds mainly according to the circumstances in which they find themselves, rather than because of any inner qualities of goodness or pathology they might possess. However, a closer examination of Zimbardo’s writings on the subject reveals apparent double standards for good and evil, in that evil actions are attributed to external forces imposing upon a person, whereas heroic actions are attributed to internal qualities that empower a person to resist situational pressures towards apathy and inaction. Zimbardo’s own writings on the subject suggest that heroism is far from banal because heroic action involves doing the brave thing in situations when the more commonplace response would be to do nothing. Since heroes take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, does that not mean that evil-doers are responsible for their choices too?

Sometimes people must choose between good and evil. But how do they decide?

Personal power and situational power: opposed or complementary forces?
One of the more generally accepted theories in psychology is that behavior results from an interaction of the internal features of the person (e.g. their personality, motives, and values) and the external features of the situation, such as social pressures to behave a certain way. However, according to the school of thought called situationism, there are situations that are so powerful that they pretty much compel people to act in certain ways, regardless of their internal dispositions or even their moral values. This view is particularly associated with Phil Zimbardo, who claimed that “A large body of evidence in social psychology supports the concept that situational power triumphs over individual power in certain contexts” (2007). I am not sure what body of evidence exactly he is referring to with this statement, as a meta-analysis of 100 years of research in social psychology found that the average effect size of social influence on behavior was actually smaller than the effect of personality (Richard, Bond Jr, & Stokes-Zoota, 2003).[1] Zimbardo has argued that powerful situations can induce “good” people to do evil things. In particular, he has claimed that abusive behaviors that occurred in the (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment (which I have analyzed in a previous post) and at Abu Ghraib prison can be explained in terms of external situational forces rather than the personal characteristics of those who were involved. More recently, Zimbardo has argued that situationism can explain not only the extremes of evil but the extremes of good as well:
The banality of evil is matched by the banality of heroism. Both are not the consequence of dispositional tendencies, not special inner attributes of pathology or goodness residing within the human psyche or the human genome. Both emerge in particular situations at particular times when situational forces play a compelling role in moving individuals across the decisional line from inaction to action.
In this view, situational forces move people, pushing some people to do evil, others to turn a blind eye to evil-doers, while still others act heroically to right wrongs at great personal risk. In an article arguing for this situationist explanation, Zeno Franco and Zimbardo stated that “Some situations can inflame the ‘hostile imagination,’ propelling good people to do bad deeds, while something in that same setting can inspire the ‘heroic imagination’ propelling ordinary people toward actions that their culture at a given time determines is ‘heroic.’” (Emphasis added.)
The real life Braveheart: was he just an ordinary guy after all?
Situations as a personality test
In the language of social psychology, the situationist view attributes behavior mainly to external, rather than internal forces. Hence, heroism and villainy are unrelated to individual differences in personality or even conscious decisions based on one’s values. This seems to imply a rather passive view of human behavior in which people are largely at the mercy of circumstances outside themselves, rather than rational actors capable of making choices. However, if features of the person can be disregarded in favour of situational forces, then it is very difficult to explain why it is that the same situation can elicit completely opposite responses from different people. This would seem to suggest that situations elicit either heroic or villainous responses in a random way that cannot be predicted, or that situational factors alone are insufficient to explain the choices that people make in difficult circumstances. An alternative view is that situations do not so much suppress the individual personality, as reveal the person’s latent potential (Krueger, 2008). Therefore, a dangerous situation for example might reveal one person’s potential for bravery and another’s potential for cowardice.
Within you, without you: The incongruity within situationism
As I noted earlier, most psychologists believe that both situational and personal factors need to be considered in understanding why people behave the way they do. Franco and Zimbardo actually acknowledge this in one of their articles: “Just as in the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram studies, the situation and the personal characteristics of each person caught up in the situation interact in unique ways.” When I first read this I thought it was a remarkable admission considering that Zimbardo and his colleague Craig Haney responded with hostility and dismissal (Haney & Zimbardo, 2009) to the suggestion that the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment could have been influenced by the fact that people with certain personality traits might have been more likely to volunteer for such an experiment than others (Carnahan & McFarland, 2007). Furthermore, it appears difficult at first to reconcile an interactionist view with statements that Franco and Zimbardo have made that that extreme behavior involving either heroism or evil is best understood as a product of external circumstances and not of internal dispositions. However, in practice, situationists seem to offer a double standard when it comes to explaining evil versus heroic behavior. Evil behavior is explained in terms of external situational and systemic forces that compel otherwise “good” people to do bad things. Zimbardo explains that prisoner abuse is not due to a few “bad apples” but a “bad barrel” that corrupts whatever is put into it. He even goes so far as to say that “you can’t be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel,” implying that people in such circumstances are passive victims without any moral agency. On the other hand, heroism is explained in terms of the “heroic imagination,” something internal to the person that enables them to actively resist external pressures to turn a blind eye to injustices. And such heroes can even emerge in an “evil barrel” like Abu Ghraib. Hence, people respond to the very same situation in either good or evil ways. When some do evil, the situation is blamed, yet when others do heroic deeds, at great risk to themselves, it reflects the strength of their own character. This seems like a very unbalanced view that appears to reflect ideological biases more than objective analysis.
In the second part of this article, I will explore in more detail the situationist analysis of evil and of heroism respectively, and will argue that a more balanced view that takes into account personal responsibility and moral agency is needed to understand these extremes of human behavior.
Further Reading

[1] For the statistically minded, the average effect size of social influence was r = .13, compared to the effect size of personality which was r = .21. This was brought to my attention in a book review by Krueger (2008). 

Please consider following me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Image Credits 
The One Ring - courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
William Wallace portrait - courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Carnahan T, & McFarland S (2007). Revisiting the Stanford prison experiment: could participant self-selection have led to the cruelty? Personality & social psychology bulletin, 33 (5), 603-14 PMID: 17440210
Haney, C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2009). Persistent Dispositionalism in Interactionist Clothing: Fundamental Attribution Error in Explaining Prison Abuse. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(6), 807-814. doi: 10.1177/0146167208322864
Krueger, J. I. (2008). Lucifer's last laugh. The American Journal of Psychology, 121, 335-341.
Richard, F. D., Bond Jr, C. F., & Stokes-Zoota, J. J. (2003). One Hundred Years of Social Psychology Quantitatively Described. Review of General Psychology, 7(4), 331-363. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.7.4.331
Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (1st ed.). New York: Random House.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Blasphemous art and attitudes towards censorship: Examining an apparent double standard
Blasphemy is a naturally controversial subject. In modern Western countries there is a tension between the liberal democratic tradition upholding the right to freedom of expression on the one hand and the desire not to offend religious sensibilities on the other. This tension has been highlighted in a number of high profile cases in recent years involving artistic works that satirise images that are held sacred in various faiths. Threats and assaults against artists who have criticised Islam in particular have prompted debate about the limits of freedom of expression. Notable examples include but are not limited to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the violent responses to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, the murder of Theo van Gogh, attacks on Swedish artist Lars Vilks, and the extraordinary worldwide response to the Innocence of Muslims video clip (which I have previously discussed). A number of recent events suggest that there appears to be a double standard operating in the Western media regarding which religions it is acceptable to offend. I find this particularly interesting considering the results of a recently published study finding that non-religious people were more likely than Christians to endorse a double standard regarding offending Muslims as opposed to Christians with blasphemous artworks. Why this would be the case is not entirely clear, although a number of possibilities deserve further exploration.

In modern art there has long been a custom of artists using shocking or disturbing images in order to provoke a response from viewers. Artworks that depict sacred religious images in profane ways seem to elicit the most controversy. Artists and their supporters defend such works on the grounds of artistic freedom, while critics complain about the offense to deeply held beliefs. A striking example is Piss Christ, a 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano depicting a crucifix immersed in what appears to be the artist’s urine, which still provokes intense criticism today. Although well received by art critics, the work has provoked death threats and physical vandalism, while the Catholic Church in Australia attempted to prevent it from being publicly exhibited in a national gallery in 1997. Artworks depicting sacred Islamic images in a profane way seem to provoke even more extreme reactions. For example, Roundabout Dog, a drawing by Lars Vilks depicting Muhammad with the body of a dog, was refused for entry in a public exhibition to which Vilks had been invited to contribute for fear of violent reprisals. These fears were well founded as following publication of the drawing in a newspaper editorial on freedom of expression and the right to ridicule religious symbols, death threats were made against the artist and the editor of the newspaper. An Islamic extremist group has even offered a bounty of $150,000 for the murder of Vilks. Lars Vilks has since continued to defend the importance of free expression, stating: “I'm actually not interested in offending the prophet. The point is actually to show that you can. There is nothing so holy you can't offend it.”

Worth dying for? Channel Four broadcast this partially censored image

The question of whether freedom of expression, including artistic expression, should be curbed in order to avoid offending religious believers provokes a wide variety of responses, and a recent incident in Britain is illustrative in this regard. A British political candidate named Maajid Nawaz became the focus of controversy in January this year after tweeting a cartoon depicting Jesus and Muhammad (from the web based series “Jesus and Mo”) – ironically to demonstrate that as a moderate tolerant Muslim he did not consider such images to be particularly blasphemous or offensive, and that the media should not bow to pressure to censor them. Predictably, he has received death threats, presumably from those with less moderate views on the subject. Additionally, a petition calling for his dismissal as a parliamentary candidate was started, although the leader of his party has supported Mr Nawaz’s right to express his views. What I found most interesting though was the way the media has chosen to report the incident. The BBC and the national press have apparently refused to show the image at the heart of this controversy at all, even though reporting news is supposed to be their job.[1] Britain’s Channel 4 decided to compromise by showing a partially censored image in which the face of Jesus remains visible but the face of Muhammad is completely obscured by a black oval. The response of one journalist, Nick Cohen, to this is that it seems that if Christians are offended by the cartoon they are expected to take it on the chin, but the network will not dare take the risk of offending Muslim extremists.

The decision by Channel 4 to engage in this partial censorship is paralleled by the results of a recently published paper (Dunkel & Hillard, 2013) that examined people’s attitudes to artworks that desecrate sacred images in Christianity and Islam respectively. One of the studies reported in the paper asked American participants to complete a questionnaire on their “Views on controversial art”. The questionnaire had two versions, so that with a simple change of wording participants could be asked about their views on art that offends either Christians or Muslims respectively. Sample items include, “Art that upsets Christians/Muslims should not be made because it is insensitive to their religion,” and for the opposite view, “People have a right to produce art that insults Christians/Muslims.” Participants were also asked their religious affiliation and their degree of acceptance of Christian beliefs. In this particular sample, participants happened to be either Christians or non-religious; no other religions were represented. One of the findings was that people with Christian beliefs were equally as willing to censor art that offended Muslims as well as art that offended Christians. Perhaps this indicates that Christians tend to feel that sacred images in general should be respected even if they derive from non-Christians religions. However, what I found more intriguing was the result for non-religious participants. These indicated that compared to Christians they were much less willing to censor art offensive to Christians, but they were equally as willing as Christians to censor art that offended Muslims. This seems like a very inconsistent stance to take and the reasons for it are not clear, although a number of explanations come to mind.

Piss Christ by Andres Serrano. Is it alright for people who are offended by images like this to try to prevent it from being exhibited? 

The authors discussed the possibility that non-Christians, who are a minority group in the USA, might have different attitudes to Christianity, the mainstream religion, compared to Islam, a minority religion. Non-religious people might be antagonistic to mainstream religion perhaps because they feel that their rights as a minority group need to be protected, and hence they wish to protect their right to criticise Christianity. On the other hand, the non-religious might feel more sympathy to society’s other religious minorities, even if they do not share their beliefs. Some tentative evidence in support of this view is indicated by the fact that some members of the political left-wing, which traditionally has a secular orientation, have allied with Islamist groups, in spite of the latter’s right-wing values, in the name of multiculturalism. (Something which is strongly criticised by other members of the left though, such as Maryam Namazie, as a step backwards.) If it is true that non-religious people tend to see Muslims as a potential political ally against mainstream Christians, then supporting censorship of anti-Muslim art for this reason might be a futile endeavour. The results of the study by Dunkel and Hillard indicate that Christians support such censorship to the same degree, so Muslims would have little to gain from an alliance with the non-religious in that respect.

Another possibility is that non-religious people are particularly responsive to intellectual fashions current in modern Western culture. There is a trend for non-religious people to be somewhat more intelligent than religious people, and it has been argued that highly intelligent people are better at detecting and espousing the values that are normative at a particular time (Woodley, 2010). Multiculturalism has become politically fashionable in Western countries in recent years and perhaps willingness to censor anti-Islamic art reflects a liberal concern to uphold respect for “cultural diversity.” Personally, I think this would also be an unfortunate stance for intelligent people to take as radical Islamists do not reciprocate the same respect and tolerance and if allowed to have their way would impose their own values on others. The study by Dunkel and Hillard did not assess participants’ political views or their attitudes towards multiculturalism, so further research measuring these would help determine if inconsistent attitudes towards censorship are related to such social and political concerns.

On the other hand, inconsistent attitudes to censorship appear to exist in countries that are much more secular than the USA, such as those in Western Europe and Australia. Even though Western European countries are generally nominally Christian, surveys have found that belief in Christianity has considerably declined in recent decades. As a result, non-religious people do not have the same kind of minority status they have in the USA. In spite of increased secularization, there has been a trend in recent years to stifle freedom of speech in order to prevent offense to religious people. There have been a number of well-publicised cases in Europe of people actually being prosecuted for criticising Islam in particular (see this site for examples). An example of a double standard protecting Islam occurred in Australia in 2013 when a student newspaper ran a series of satirical infographics criticising Catholicism, Scientology, Mormonism, Judaism, and Islam respectively. Even though the first four articles were published without any controversy, when the article satirising Islam was published the newspaper staff were forced to remove it by university administrators, who cited concerns that the piece might pose a threat to the reputation and security of the university. What these cases seem to indicate is that even in largely secular countries there appears to be an attitude that offending Muslims is much less acceptable than offending Christians.

Many people, including myself, have become concerned that an attitude of fear has become prevalent in Western countries in response to multiple violent incidents involving Muslim extremists seeking to punish anyone who dares to publish any material they deem disrespectful of Islam. An increasingly common response by secular authorities to this fear has been to placate extremists and to chastise anyone who feels bold enough to provoke them. Perhaps this has seeped into the thinking of even non-religious people who would not otherwise be inclined to grant respect to “sacred” figures in whom they do not actually believe. Hence, non-religious people might understandably feel that at the present time satirising Christianity is a safer way to express their lack of respect for religion compared to satirising Islam, which is accompanied by a much higher risk. If correct, this is a very unfortunate situation, as it sends violent religious bullies the message that standover tactics will be effective in silencing their critics. It is also an erosion of a fundamental right at the heart of Western civilisation in the name of placating people who have no respect for Western values of tolerance and freedom. Dunkel and Hillard’s study did not examine whether fear actually does play a role in the thinking of those who would support censorship, so further research would help determine if this is correct.

Another limitation of Dunkel and Hillard’s study is that it used a rather small sample of non-religious people from a single country. Larger samples drawn from other more secular countries such as those in Western Europe would help determine how broadly their results can be generalised. Additionally, “non-religious” people are not homogenous, so it would be helpful to have more fine grained information about what views these people have about religion and about art. That is, non-religious people have a wide array of attitudes towards religions, including indifference, hostility, even sympathy, and it seems likely that these different attitudes would be associated with differing views on censorship of “blasphemous” art. Many non-religious people, including famous atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, are quite outspoken about the importance of free expression and the right to criticise Islam in particular. Further research would be needed to identify what characteristics distinguish those who consistently reject all censorship from those who support a double standard.

[1] Further examples of the BBC’s reluctance to say or do anything that might upset Muslims in any way, even if this means censoring the news, are discussed here

Please consider following me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.   

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else. 

Further reading
Is Insulting Religion "Extremism"?
My views on how people choose to respond to provocative religious insults.

Pew Research report on Blasphemy, Apostasy, and Defamation of religion laws around the world.  

Criticism of blasphemy laws and support for freedom of speech:
Pair of articles by PT blogger Gad Saad:

Masturbating With a Crucifix in a Film… No Riots?

Please consider following me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.   

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Dunkel CS, & Hillard EE (2014). Blasphemy or art: what art should be censored and who wants to censor it? The Journal of psychology, 148 (1), 1-21 PMID: 24617268
Woodley, M. A. (2010). Are high-IQ individuals deficient in common sense? A critical examination of the ‘clever sillies’ hypothesis. Intelligence, 38(5), 471-480. doi:

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Facebook as a conduit for misinformation and racism: The role of shallow information processing
In a previous post, I discussed how there seems to be a trend today to regard having a Facebook account as a sort of quick and dirty indicator of normal social adjustment, and that some employers – very unfairly – regard people who choose not to use the site as somehow “suspicious.” I noted that such a view is unfounded and also pointed out that Facebook usage can be problematic for some people under some circumstances. In fact, some research suggests that Facebook is associated with a culture of shallow information processing that might facilitate uncritical acceptance of problematic social attitudes, such as racism. One study in particular found that people who spend a great deal of time on Facebook are more likely to agree with racist messages posted by another user compared to people who spend less time on the site. This raises the possibility that Facebook might be a particularly apt medium for spreading poor quality information generally. Whether this is because Facebook usage actually degrades the quality of a person’s information processing capacities or because individuals who are prone to shallow information processing have a high preference for using this medium remains unclear.

With the growth in popularity of Facebook, a great deal of research has examined the motives and characteristics of users. People mainly use Facebook to connect with others, although many people also use it secondarily to share news and information. One study found that people who preferred using Facebook, compared to those who preferred using Twitter, were more sociable and more neurotic, but had a lower need for cognition (Hughes, Rowe, Batey, & Lee, 2012). Need for cognition refers to a person’s desire for intellectual stimulation and enjoyment of effortful thinking. A lower need for cognition would suggest that people with a stronger preference Facebook do not generally desire to think too deeply about the information they encounter online, whereas Twitter users may be more critical thinkers. In addition to lack of critical thinking, the need to feel a sense of belonging, a common motive for Facebook usage, may mean that frequent Facebook users may agree more or less indiscriminately with messages they encounter online compared to less frequent users (Rauch & Schanz, 2013).

Social media allows people to opine about any subject they like, including topics that are generally regarded as being of low social acceptability. As a result, people with racist views take the opportunity to express negative opinions about different ethnic groups, and racist memes and rants on Facebook are not uncommon. Some racist messages argue for the superiority of, say, white people over other races. However, a more subtle for of racism argues that whites are victims of discrimination by minority groups. Victim based racist arguments seem to have wider appeal than ones based on blatant superiority and are less likely to be immediately rejected. As a result, extremist groups frequently portray themselves as victims of oppression in order to elicit fear and anger at the supposed injustices inflicted upon them by an unfair society. A recent study therefore looked at whether a person’s frequency of Facebook usage and their motivation to seek information was associated with more agreement with racist messages read online (Rauch & Schanz, 2013). This was tested in an experiment in which participants read one of three messages: an egalitarian, anti-racist message; a message of white superiority over blacks; or a message portraying whites as victims. Participants were asked how much they agreed with each message, and how they might respond to it, e.g. whether they would share it with others, or if they would either friend or unfriend the author of the message.

Racist poster displayed on the Facebook page of the Republican National Committee for nearly a week

On the whole, people were more likely to agree with the egalitarian message than either of the racist ones, although people tended to be somewhat more sympathetic to the victim message than the superiority one. People’s behavioural intentions to the egalitarian and victim messages did not differ, although they generally had a more negative response to the superiority message. However, there were noticeable differences between high and low frequency users. The more frequently a person used Facebook, the more likely they were to agree with each of the racist messages, particularly the superiority one. High frequency users were also more likely to act on either of the racist messages compared to less frequent users. There were also differences between those who were strongly motivated to seek information compared to those with less of this motivation. High information seekers had a more positive attitude to the egalitarian message and more negative attitudes to the racist messages than low information seekers. High information seekers were also more likely to act on the egalitarian message than the low information seekers. This seems to suggest that Facebook users with higher information seeking motives may process information more critically than those with lower information seeking motives.

The results of this study suggest that high frequency Facebook users and those with low information seeking motives appear to be rather undiscriminating in how they respond to online communications, as they had reasonably similar responses to both racist and anti-racist messages, almost as if they were agreeing blindly. On the other hand, less frequent users and those with high information seeking motives showed more clearly differentiated responses to each message, suggesting they gave more thought to their responses. A striking feature of these results is that the messages that participants read originated from a stranger, yet certain users readily agreed with their views. It seems likely that messages from friends would be even more persuasive, considering that most Facebook users seem to be motivated by a need to belong.

The reasons these results occurred are not completely clear. One possibility is that people who choose to spend a lot of time on Facebook and/or who are not motivated by information seeking have personal characteristics, such as low need for cognition, that predispose them to agree uncritically with messages they read online. On the other hand, it is also possible that engaging in high levels of Facebook usage could degrade a person’s capacity to think critically, perhaps due to something about the nature of the activity itself. Further research could help make the causes of this effect clearer. For example, experiments could be conducted where people are asked to use Facebook for long periods of time and then tested to see if this has any effect on their ability to think critically compared to alternative activities, such as using other websites.

The study also raises an issue about whether Facebook is a particularly apt medium for transmitting misinformation in general. Misinformation is very common on the internet and many hoaxes have been widely believed and circulated via the web. Future studies could compare whether Facebook users are more susceptible to misinformation than users of other media. For example, an experiment could be done in which people are exposed to misinformation on either Facebook or Twitter and then see how users of each site respond, perhaps after a substantial delay when they have had enough time to process the information. For example, participants might be retested after a few days to determine if they still believe the information and if they have made any attempt to check it with independent sources. If it is true that users of Twitter for example are more critical thinkers than Facebook users, then they might be expected to be more sceptical about what they believe. This would help determine if frequent Facebook users actually are less discriminating in what they accept compared to other people, or if they are not much different from internet users generally.

The study by Rauch and Schanz is one of several indicating that in some people at least Facebook usage can be problematic, much like other activities that people might engage in to excess. I think this shows that using something as simple as whether or not someone has a Facebook account is a sign of how “normal” they are is both foolish and very unfair. Treating Facebook usage as a shorthand indicator of “normality” is little more than a lazy way of sorting people into categories with as little effort as possible, and is itself a sign of uncritical thinking. In the spirit of fairness, I want to also point out that the results of studies such as the ones I have cited indicate general trends only and do not necessarily imply that all people who spend a lot of time on Facebook have problems, only some of them.  

Please consider following me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Other posts about Social Media
Twitter and Mortality: To Tweet or Not to Tweet? Extroverts but not introverts use Twitter to ward off existential anxiety

The Misunderstood Personality Profile of Wikipedia Members Contrary to a widely reported study, Wikipedians are not close-minded at all. 

Image Credits

Hughes, D. J., Rowe, M., Batey, M., & Lee, A. (2012). A tale of two sites: Twitter vs. Facebook and the personality predictors of social media usage. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(2), 561-569. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2011.11.001
Rauch, S. M., & Schanz, K. (2013). Advancing racism with Facebook: Frequency and purpose of Facebook use and the acceptance of prejudiced and egalitarian messages Computers in Human Behavior, 29 (3), 610-615