Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

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The psychology of tolerance tested

Robbed on the Street in France!

Yesterday morning I posted a blog discussing my newfound love of France, contrasting it with a rather negative reaction two decades ago (Ethnocentrism dies easily en France). Ironically, a few hours after publicly proclaiming mon nouvelle Francophilia, I was robbed on the street by a %#€£¥ Frenchman! And it was not just having a few Euros picked out of my pocket, it was a very big and very painful hit: While sitting on a bench in front of my hotel, attempting to send some lovely new photos of Grenoble back to my wife and son, a faceless young male invaded my personal space, boldly grabbed my computer, and got 20 yards on me before I could start screaming, cursing, and running after him. To no avail. The scrawny little batarde was fast, and he disappeared into a labryinth of dark alleys and streets. It was like a bad scene from a movie set on the streets of a crowded exotic foreign city. He simply vaporized, and when I rantingly asked a group of  young men whether they had seen someone running by with a computer, they looked at me blankly, as if I were speaking Greek (or umm, English).

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After a night alternating between sleepless anxiety and bad dreams, I am now on a plane returning to the good old USA. I willingly accepted the glass of wine offered by the stewardess, and my heartrate and blood pressure have finally returned to something closer to my normal. I am now trying to take a zen perspective on the experience, which indeed raises several interesting psychological questions. The first involves the psychology of prejudice and stereotyping: My previous negative attitude toward France was caused by a much, much, less unpleasant experience—a bakerwoman in Paris who turned up her nose at me and moved on to serve another Frenchwoman. In the future, will this truly unpleasant experience turn me in a seething Francophobe? A second question has more to do with the extremity of my reaction: Why is it so much worse to have one's computer stolen, out of one's hands, as compared to say, the pain of realizing that current market conditions have caused a loss of assets worth twice the financial value of a laptop? And a third is this: Have my years on the planet, many spent teaching psychology, taught me anything that will help me cope with this event, and stop obsessively rehearsing that traumatic few seconds, and imagining the different ways it could have turned out. Why didn't I tackle him immediately? Why didn't I run faster? Why didn't I just wait till today to send a note home? Why didn't I search for an internet cafe, and a hundred others, all equally irrelevant. It Is over, I will never see my computer again, and I will never catch the nasty little rat who stole it.

Do negative experiences with outgroup members always increase prejudice?

On the classic view, prejudice is a "negative attitude." Whether or not you have a negative or positive attitude toward a group was presumed to depend on a mathematical averaging of the good or bad experiences you have in the presence of members of that group. On my earlier trip, I had only one memorable direct experience with a French person, and it was mildly negative. There was no memorable positive experiences to counter it. In fact, the other experiences I had in Paris were negative interactions with family and friends, in the context of a sweltering heat wave and an overpriced but underventiliated hotel room. According to one model of prejudicial attitudes, it is all about classical conditioning - your mind automatically links negative feelings to whoever happens to be around, and it does not matter whether you consciously believe that those people are perpetrators of your agony or merely bystanders.

On that view, the degree of negativity of the robbery will be averaged against the degree of positivity from my pleasant experiences with my colleague and his family (just before said event I had been sledding down an alpine mountainside with Laurent and his charming family, and had enjoyed a couple of pleasant meals with them in their house—in an old French village across the road from a little church built in the 12th century).

Other theories of prejudice and stereotyping have focused more on cognition—how we think about experiences often changes what might happen if we mindlessly added up their positive and negative signs. Some research suggests, for example, that we tend to view outgroups as homogenous (they all look the same to me), whereas we view ingroups as heterogenous (I know that my fellow Americans are a diverse lot). Because I just spent a week in France, well beyond my earlier two-day stay, I have now interacted with students at the university, shopkeepers, restauranteurs, railway ticket vendors, several other faculty and their families, and was welcomed into Laurent's home. Other than one rude Parisienne long ago, and one thieving rat, most of the people I met are genteel and warm. Indeed, several treated me as an ingroup member. Hence, I can no longer apply the simple homogenous stereotype that all French are like the saliently rude bakerwoman.

My computer, my self

On the question of why I was so much more traumatized by this incident than by a simple loss of cash, it has a lot to do with feeling personally violated. For one thing, a personal computer is, more than most other objects, an extension of one's self. Since I am a university professor who publishes scientific papers and writes books, I have more than the usual dosage of the computer-as-self problem. My young son had a special t-shirt designed for his dad, it reads I (♥) e-mail (I try to explain that it is my work, hence different from playing computer games, but he seems unconvinced). But besides all my work, the computer contained personal information, photos of my family and friends, my favorite music, not to mention all the tools I use to keep connected to my family, friends, and colleagues. Some nasty thieving strangers now have access to all that. I am writing this from my iPad (damn, another counterfactual thought - why didn't I use this out on the street).

Coping with the injury to my electronic self

I was pacing around obsessing over all the negative associations to the theft. Besides the counterfactual attempts to undo the past, there were obsessions about the future. Does the fact that this guy had the audacity to take something out of my hands mean that he saw me as an old man, and that there is more of this on the way? Will this event make me unwilling to travel anywhere in the years to come? Etc.

But years of living through much more meaningful losses have taught me that I would soon recover. And I have learned that a neurotic can pay several times for the same stressor, by getting worked up over the memory.

To speed up the recovery, I used some of the usual tools—for social support, I called my wife and older son Dave (who immediately stopped what he was doing and changed several of my passwords). My wife used the social psychological principle of downward social comparison—sometimes tourists get stabbed by characters like this (so maybe better I did not catch him in a dark alley), and I could have gotten injured in any number of other ways. That helped remind me that a loss of a computer is not actually an injury alongside say the loss of a relationship. After those calls, I used the simple positive psychology technique of gratitude, going through all the good things I have in life, with memories of my two sons and my wife providing plenty to cheer me up. I have a great job, that allows me to keep learning new things, and enough material wealth that I would never have to even consider stealing on the street. And among all my remaining material possessions, I still had my iPad, so fell asleep listening to a collection of my favorite songs, which sounded especially wonderful!

Then there is Jamie Pennebaker's research showing beneficial effects of talking about unpleasant events. So, I feel better now. Thanks for listening.

What was I thinking?

You might wonder why anyone in his right mind would be checking email out on a city street at night. Well, that is a long and sad story. I am usually quite cautious, and despite the fact that everyone said there was not much crime in Grenoble, I had certainly considered the possibility that something like this might happen. But alas, the residence where I was staying bills itself as ideal for foreign students, but does not have working wifi. I spent a couple of hours shopping, and $40, for a direct ethernet link, but it too came up dead as a doornail. They claimed that it was a special problem with Macs, but my (former) Mac Air worked everywhere else in France. One of their staff helpfully pointed that there was "free wifi" out on the street, but it took a graduate student an hour to get that set up properly (you need a cell phone to receive the password, and mine was not receiving text messages in France). After all that, the connection was so bad that I had to spend 15 minutes to send a single email (It would have read: Everything is fine, I will be home tomorrow!). The delay allowed my thief plenty of time to scope me out and plan his escape route. Then, when I told the clerk in the lobby about the theft, he pointed out something no one had bothered to mention before—there was a free internet cafe around the block (leading of course to intrusive counterfactual thought number 23!).

But as a final word on French hospitality, my colleague Laurent offered to reimburse the loss. So in the end, I feel about French people a lot like I feel about Italians, Spaniards, Americans, or New Yorkers (my own stereotyped sub-outgroup of Amerians) -- they are generally rather nice people, despite the occasional rare exception.  

Related blog:

Ethnocentrism dies easily en France

Related:

Kenrick, D.T. (2011).  Sex, murder, and the meaning of life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.  New York: Basic Books.

Schaller, M., & Neuberg, S. L. (2008). Intergroup prejudices and intergroup conflicts. Foundations of evolutionary psychology, 399-412.

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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