Polls in the last two years tell us that people believe that the United States is in an economic and social decline. While most fingers are pointed at the economy, there are some psychological processes at work that have contributed to this sense of decline. These processes, some of which represent the "dark side" of human nature, have made a bad situation even worse.
What will pull us out of this seeming downward spiral? A better understanding of these negative psychological processes, and developing ways to combat them.
1. The We-They Feeling. This well-researched psychological construct is at the heart of prejudice and discrimination. It is the tendency to see in-group members ("We") in a positive light and perceive out-group members ("They") negatively. While the we-they feeling creates unity and cohesiveness among in-group members, it leads to vilifying, and sometimes mistreating, out-group members.
We see this in the polarization of American politics. "We (Republicans or Democrats) are the good guys, they are bad. (There's a guy who stands outside my local post office with a poster of Obama with a Hitler mustache; I saw the same mustache on George W. Bush's photo a few years back). The polarized news media and mudslinging politics feeds this negative psychology. The result: A country divided. A stalemated Congress that is unable and unwilling to work together. Bad feelings and hatred on all sides.
Solution: Psychology tells us that to combat the we-they feeling we need to focus on shared goals— "superordinate" goals that both sides value. We need to realize our commonalities, and focus primarily on similarities and shared purpose rather than differences.
2. Blaming the Victim. This is a truly insidious psychological process that is fostered by the American value of self-reliance and a "pull-yourself-up-by-your bootstraps" mentality. Attribution theory tells us that people like to find the cause of bad events, and we have a cognitive bias toward blaming people for their own misfortune.
What is the result? We tend to place blame on the victim. "Why was she raped? She dressed provocatively." "Why was he mugged? He should have been more careful."
Take the mortgage crisis. "They should have known better than to take out such big and risky loans." Never mind the predatory and complex lending practices, persuasive marketing, and the real estate bubble that would eventually burst.
Put Blaming the Victim together with the We-They Feeling, and you get Scapegoating. "Who is to blame for all of our economic and social woes? Immigrants, the shiftless poor who refuse to pull themselves up, and so on.
Solution: We look for simple causes, when causes are actually a complex interaction of people's actions and situational factors. Rather than the knee-jerk response of blaming the victim, we need to be aware of and consider the complexity. Poverty, for example, is not just a motivational issue, but an interplay of lack of opportunity, scarce resources such as jobs and education, and misfortune (e.g., the death of a family breadwinner), in addition to individual factors. Social policies need to consider such complexities.
3. Diffusion of Responsibility. Social psychological research has shown that the greater the number of people available to provide assistance the less likely people are to help because we think that someone else will do it (Remember the Black Friday story of the man in a store who had a heart attack and was ignored and stepped over by throngs of enthusiastic holiday shoppers? Was it callousness or a diffusion of responsibility?).
This same diffusion of responsibility extends to behaviors such as charitable giving, preservation of the environment, and voting ("what difference will one person make?").
Solution: We need to take personal responsibility for our communities, our country and our world. Don't expect others to do the work, clean up the mess, change the world. We all need to be engaged and responsible citizens.
4. Egocentric Biases. America is a complex and often contradictory culture. While we are one of the nations that are most likely to help our fellow man, we are also prone to "turn a blind eye" to the suffering of others. While we value initiative and hard work, we also believe that we "have something coming to us" and that we deserve good things. We strive to be the best, but we also believe that "all men [and women?] are created equal."
Our individualistic nature leads us to have many egocentric biases—to exaggerate our self-importance. And this is a problem.
We are a culture intoxicated by fame and by wealth. I heard Lady Gaga tell her Madison Square Garden audience, "you can all be famous; you can all be up here on this stage." Well, guess what? We all can't. AND, we won't all win the lottery and become instant millionaires, and the sooner we realize that the better.
The Declaration of Independence speaks of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," not fame or wealth (and I doubt that either would make many people happy). We need to be aware of the negative psychological processes that are holding us back as individuals and a society, and overcome them. It's the path to get the nation and our lives back on track.