People seem to hate each other more than ever. Name calling and violence seems everywhere. Politics may be part of the problem but perhaps it doesn't account for all of it. Even many major news outlets (as well as numerous Psychology Today bloggers) have disabled comments at the end of their reports and posts due to the frequency of extreme vitriol, incivility, and name calling by readers. Polarization has been especially intense in recent months where people seem to be easily and routinely categorized as being all good or all evil. Regardless of our personal views and feelings, people are so much more complicated than we tend to acknowledge. And while we might look upon ourselves and those closest to us as being good, if we are truly honest, we have to admit that we and those we care about are much more complicated.
This is important to remember because research over several decades has clearly shown that generally good people can do pretty awful things just as seemingly awful people can go some really good things. For example, the classic prison study conducted by Professor Phil Zimbardo at Stanford in 1971 well demonstrated that healthy, well-adjusted, and smart young people can, given the right situation, act horribly towards others as simulated prison guards and many of them, in hindsight and after reflection, were shocked and appalled by their own behavior. We hear similar stories of soldiers returning from very challenging war experiences too where we refer to them experiencing "moral injuries." Research highlights that regardless of our personality, values, and beliefs as well as our desire to be honorable, ethical, and good, we can, at times and under the right circumstances, fail miserably and behave in ways that are very inconsistent with who we think we are as well as who we want to be.
Many well-established and evidence-based psychological theories (such as the frustration-aggression hypothesis, in-group/out-group dynamics, and social comparison theory) speak to this issue. Sigmund Freud highlighted this concern in his articulation of the conflict between our id (i.e., primal, instinctual) and superego (i.e., moral rules) as well as our tensions between both life (i.e., Eros) and death (i.e., Thanatos) instincts.
Perhaps it can be helpful to remember that we are all capable of behavior and thoughts that we can be both proud and ashamed of if they were made public. Think about it for a moment. If your life was recorded 24/7 and posted on YouTube, would you be okay with it? We need to realize that we can nurture the parts of ourselves that we value and try to minimize the parts that are truly awful. If we can lower our fear, frustration, concern for perceived limited resources, see the complexity of all people, and surround ourselves with supportive and healthy others, we may have a better chance of being successful in these efforts. And if we keep this in mind then, maybe, we might have just a bit more compassion and respect for those who we dislike and drive us crazy too.
The famous two wolves parable articulates these sentiments and is repeated here:
A grandfather is talking with his grandson and he says there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other.
One of them is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery, and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred, and fear.
The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?”
The grandfather quietly replies, "The one you feed."
The wisdom of this story is actually supported by good quality research and theory in psychology and related fields. We need to work hard to feed the best parts of ourselves and starve off the worse parts if we want a better world for ourselves and for others, too. Even with all of our advanced science, technology, theories, and lessons learned over generations we still find it challenging to nurture the best in ourselves and minimize the worst in us. We all need to do better in this regard and perhaps now more than ever before. Can you try to do so?
Copyright 2017, Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP