What on earth is going on?

Our editor Jon Sutton follows a trail of destruction and intolerance through the first day of the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

Beginning his keynote to officially open the American Psychological Association’s gathering in Denver, Jonathan Haidt said ‘We come together at a time that is confusing’. Haidt’s focus was the political polarisation, violence and intolerance in the US and beyond, but perhaps he was also acknowledging the aftershocks of the Hoffman Report into the Association’s complicity with ‘enhanced interrogation’, described by current President Susan McDaniel here as an ‘organisational tsunami’.  

From my own personal perspective, adapting to the sheer scale of my first APA conference, I wondered if I could chart a path through the potential confusion of this opening day. In my own admittedly idiosyncratic choice of sessions, could I pull out connecting threads that are holding psychology together in its response to major societal challenges?

Well, perhaps the first is that some of the greatest minds psychology has to offer made no great claims for the privileged nature of their knowledge. Psychology doesn't have all the answers. But where it is perhaps unique, Albert Bandura argued via Skype link, is as a ‘core discipline’ that integrates knowledge from several other professions. So it was heartening to see poets, political scientists, philosophers and many more pulled into service to understand the issues. And while some speakers reached deep inside for explanations of violence – with Diane Gartland, for example, drawing on psychoanalytic concepts to suggest that for a terrorist, the path to orgasm may run through death, not love, with the explosive incident as the climactic event – others were well schooled in social and historical antecedents, with Aaron Beck considering extremism as a carry-over of events that happened centuries ago, when (with some justification) Muslims started to perceive colonial powers as oppressive.

Haidt too demonstrated a keen knowledge of politics and social history, outlining many changes and trends which have interacted with our tribal nature. The 1990s in particular saw political parties in the States realign and ‘purify’ their offerings, with the advent of cable TV only increasing the ‘echo chamber’ nature of debate. A loss of the common enemy at the end of the Cold War, increased immigration and racial diversity and other polarising trends have been a ‘ten car freight train crashing down the line of our democracy’, Haidt said, and figures on both sides of the political divide have been powerless to stop it. The destination is tribal politics – we are far more full of ‘passionate intensity’ (Haidt invoked the W.B. Yeats poem ‘The Second Coming’).

One way this manifests itself is in the language we use about the ‘other’ group. Aaron Beck drew on observations from his early years in private practice to show how couples in marital counselling often had the image of the other person as highly unsavoury – ‘demons’ and ‘devils’. ‘Minds had been hijacked by a violent way of perceiving each other’, Beck said, biases grotesquely destroying the image of another person. ‘Perhaps what I learned in my practice with individuals and couples has some bearing on this wider context of conflict, violence, war, genocide,’ Beck pondered. ‘When a group is in competition with another group, each group seeing themselves as the victim, each group show the same kinds of distortions I had seen in the couples.’

How does this play out in the current US political context? Albert Bandura strayed from his policy of not devoting any time to analysing Donald Trump by suggesting that ‘his dominant mechanism is dehumanisation. He attacks people mercilessly, and this gets him in the media. Who wants to listen to moderates?’ This shouldn't be news to any of us, but it was still surprising and shocking to see Haidt’s graph showing that through the Bush and Obama years, warmth toward the other party has nosedived, the gap between that and warmth for own party growing by the year. Haidt is bracing himself for the more recent data.

For both Haidt and Bandura, morality appears to be the key. Quoting Voltaire, Bandura said ‘those who can get you to believe absurdities can get you to commit atrocities’. The recent National Medal of Science winner is taking the fight to various industries that spread this moral disengagement, including the gun lobby and the tobacco industry. Take the latter. ‘If you’re going to be killing half a million people annually,’ Bandura said, ‘this is going to require a vast collection of disengagers’ – that includes farmers, advertisers, lobbyists, lawyers, legislators… All making use of mechanisms which allow them to distance themselves from the affective reaction of self-contempt that usually keeps us in line with moral behaviour. For Haidt, the key point is that ‘morality binds and blinds’.

Drawing on nature to illustrate this, Haidt showed that large structures in nature – think termites, bees - are always built by siblings, driven by that parental loyalty. Not so with humans. The first large structures we see in our societies are always temples: ‘we circle around sacred objects and principles’, Haidt explained. Or, as  Durkheim put it, ‘ritual generates social electricity’. The problem is, circling around shared values creates a ’moral electromagnet’, where everything one side is all good and everything the other is all evil.

Extremist groups and political parties have learned to manipulate this, ramping up the ‘us vs them’ rhetoric. Bandura might call it ‘palliative comparison’: in simple terms, terrorists see themselves as freedom fighters against evil forces of oppression. And Haidt described Donald Trump’s campaign as a very open attempt to echo Richard Nixon’s 1968, appealing to the Conservative who values authority, loyalty and sanctity in ‘troubled times’. Here, Haidt acknowledges the influence of Karen Stenner’s thinking on the ‘triad of racial, political and moral intolerance’ that marks the authoritarian conservative out from the ‘laissez faire’ and ‘status quo’ varieties. Haidt’s own data suggests this is playing out with Trump’s current support, and he concludes that ‘some people have an alarm button on their forehead – when that button is pushed, then they become authoritarian.’

Now, we can see a lot of these ideas playing out beyond the US as well. Haidt referred to the rise of far right parties across Europe, and demonstrated the centrality of morality in the fascinating stat that views on the death penalty predicted Brexit voting far better than income did. But given that I’m in the US, could I pull out another connecting thread that might be specific to this nation? Aware of the risk of falling under its spell myself, could it be grandiosity? Earlier in the day, looking to understand acts of mass violence from a psychoanalytic perspective, Frank Summers argued that US culture treats violence as banal but glorifies it at the same time, trumpeting the overwhelming force of ‘shock and awe’ while quietly ignoring the people killed. Summers pointed the finger at the ‘self adulation’ of Americans. ‘The US is alone as viewing itself as a nation without flaws,’ he claimed; ‘any politician that ran on the basis that the US has good points and bad points would be laughed at. Military might has become embedded in the concept of exceptionalism, of grandiosity’. Then again, this might not be America’s problem alone, with Aaron Beck musing that mass murderers in general often seem to have ‘grandiose ideas that they will have their day in the sun.’

So what do we do about all this? Can I find crumbs of comfort at the end of this path? Aaron Beck seemed positive. Learning from the historical antecedents, he said, we do have supernational organisations that have decreed that colonialism and expansionism is no longer acceptable. ‘Peace is the natural state of the world’, and ‘the kind of killing that takes place today is simply a drop in the bucket’, he said. Beck used the example of Vietnam: during the conflict, training programmes would show grotesque images of the enemy to overcome a natural inhibition against killing them. Decades later, Vietnam is a popular travel destination: education and experience has tackled that ‘distorted negative image’ and‘we see that they are no different from us’. Beck called for more integration of various populations of the world, a view shared by Haidt with an important proviso based on Stenner's ideas: the focus should be on an abundance of common and unifying beliefs, not on ‘multiculturalism’.

As for Albert Bandura, he feels we have to make it hard for people to remove humanity from their behaviour; we have to inform the public of these mechanisms of moral engagement; and we need to build societies that value a sense of common humanity, where we link our self-satisfaction to that of others, rather than to the production and consumption of ‘stuff’.

For that, we may well need brave, passionate, far-sighted psychologists. (Earlier, Craig Shealy James admitted ‘I love my field, but the near-vision of psychology sometimes frustrates me.’) But beware, Haidt would warn, the dark side of passionate intensity. ‘Psychology too is full of passionate intensity’, he says, quoting Buddhist wisdom: ‘If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind's worst disease.’ Unfortunately, Haidt fears more than ever for political diversity within psychology. ‘The left and the right live in different fields now,’ he said. ‘How would you feel if you met someone at this conference wearing a Trump badge? If a client, a patient, a student comes to see you, and it’s clear they are voting Trump, could you treat that person fairly, equally?’

Haidt called on the assembled audience to become the change we seek, by being more humble, less judgemental, more accepting of diversity of viewpoint, and seeking to change things from the perspective of love, not hate. ‘Yes, work for change,’ he urged, ‘but doing it in an angry, vindictive way tends to backfire.’ (The shadow of the Hoffman Report fallout again?)

Thankfully, there was a positive note to end this first day. Haidt drew on Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address to suggest that whatever the multitude of factors behind an era apparently defined by confusion and conflict, things will come good again. ‘Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’

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