used with permission from wikimedia
Source: used with permission from wikimedia

Sadly and perhaps tragically, our culture and society seems to be getting more and more uncivil.  We are certainly all too familiar with the rude and crude tone in national politics, talk radio, cable news, celebrity twitter wars, and social media in general that has created a new normal that is shockingly and appallingly uncivil. Many major news outlets (as well as many Psychology Today bloggers) have stopped allowing readers to offer comments at the end of online articles due to an increase in uncivil commentary. 

Social learning theory instructs us that people will model or emulate the behavior of others and especially behavior from models who are seen as high profile individuals like national politicians, Hollywood and athletic celebrities, and so forth. However, just as the frog  placed in an increasingly warming pot of boiling water may not perceive a temperature difference until it is too late for survival, perhaps we too can habituate to increasingly uncivil behavior and especially when high profile members of our society appear to not only get away with it but are often reinforced for it.

Recent behavioral and social science research has found an increase in bullying, hate speech, and both aggressive and discriminatory behavior among children and adults that appear to parallel the increase in these uncivil behaviors demonstrated by our national leaders and those with a great deal of media  exposure. Social learning theory would certainly predict this disturbing trend.  

Social comparison theory suggests that we engage in modeled behaviors after viewing those around us and if peers act in uncivil ways, we will likely follow suit as well. So, the company we keep and observe (at work, at home, and also on social media) play a role in what we might consider okay and not okay behavior.

If we want to live in a world that is civil and based on respect, compassion, the common good, and treating others as we would like to be treated, we really need to push back hard with behaviors that we find to be uncivil. We can do so respectfully and with care and concern for others but if we fail to stand up for civility psychological research suggests that our culture and society, now heading down this path, will likely get a whole lot worse before it gets any better. Everyone can do their part to create a more civil society and everyone can push back and refuse to tolerate uncivil behavior when we experience it in person or online.  We clearly know that behavior that is reinforced is likely to be repeated while behavior that is not reinforced is likely to be extinguished. If we all do our part to reinforce civil behavior and provide corrective feedback for uncivil behavior we may help to turn this disturbing trend around. We have nothing to lose in trying. Are you in?

So what do you think?

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Copyright 2017 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

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