Psychology is frequently ridiculed as a study of the obvious. Its principles are often regarded as mere common sense, folk wisdom dressed up in self-important scientific jargon. This reputation is in part a result of a psychological principle (insert ironic comment here) called the ‘hindsight bias.’ Once some answer is found, it appears to have been obvious all along.
But the reputation is also partly deserved. Much research in psychology does end up just affirming the obvious. Physically attractive people enjoy a host of social benefits. Divorce complicates children’s lives. Poverty is a bitch. You did not need to wait for the research to know this.
Nevertheless, psychology offers some surprises, findings that defy common sense, intuition, and expectation. Ironically (again), when research contradicts our intuitions and assumptions we tend to resist, resent, and ignore it. We are emotionally attached to our convictions, and evidence alone is rarely sufficient to move us off them, a cognitive quirk known as the ‘belief perseverance principle.'
Research, for example, has shown quite convincingly that parents’ behavior does not shape their children’s personality, that what we fear most is not what is most dangerous, that our memories are unreliable, and that randomness doesn’t look random. Yet many people continue to believe that their parents shaped their personality, that their fears are justified, that their memories are rock solid accurate, and that their coin—having come down three heads in a row—is now ‘due’ to come up tails.
When our intuitions are disconfirmed by science we experience distress, particularly if the disconfirmed intuitions align with our religious traditions, our hopes, or our positive view of ourselves.
One useful example of a non-obvious, displeasing, and thus oft-ignored psychological insight has to do with the impact of suffering. Many of us believe, and also want to believe, and also intuit, that those who have experienced, survived, and come through suffering will be the first to want to banish suffering from the world.
But again and again we see that this is not the case. In fact, those who have been oppressed do not as a rule seek a world without oppression. They seek to become oppressors.
This is in part because working within a known structure is easier, as a rule, than imagining and constructing a whole new structure. Changing your position on the board is easier than inventing a new game. So, to someone who grew up oppressed, the world appears to be made up of those who oppress and those who are oppressed. In such a system, the choices are clear: oppress or be oppressed, hunt or be hunted. And of course it is better to be the hunter.
To transcend the system one grew up in and create or accept a new one requires work, like learning a new language, and also keen self-awareness, emotion management, and generosity of spirit. In other words, it takes a few hard extra steps to get there. Most of us take the short step off and the easy way out. That’s why there are not many Nelson Mandela’s running around.
This process operates mostly outside—even against—our conscious intentions. Its full consequences often emerge only over time or under stress.
The classic example for this surprising dynamic comes from the literature on child abuse. Intuitively, and by common sense, one may assume that—having experienced the torment firsthand—those who’ve suffered child abuse would become super protective of their own children.
Yet in fact, a disproportional number of abusive parents were abused themselves as children. (A reminder: The fact that many of those who abuse their children have been abused as children does not mean that most people who have been abused become abusers. These are two independent distributions. To wit: The fact that most prisoners are criminals doesn’t mean that most criminals are prisoners).
This pattern of intergenerational transmission of abuse has many determinants, of course, including genetic, environmental, and sociocultural influences. But early learning also plays a part. When a father hits his child, the child learns, among other things, that hitting children is something a father does. Early lessons such as this are often deeply set, in part because they are early (the ‘primacy effect’ in memory) and in part because they are important (the child who figures out the grown ups around him is more likely to survive).
Granted, over time other life lessons accumulate, other habits are formed, and more knowledge is acquired. Yet we often find guidance in these deeply encoded early patterns, particularly when we enter an unfamiliar territory, or are under stress.
Thus, years later, when the previously abused boy—now a well intentioned yet novice father—becomes distressed and confused in the course of parenting (as do all parents), he can easily find himself falling back on well-learned early childhood patterns, often to the exclusion of his own conscious intentions and hopes.
While the cycle-of-abuse phenomenon offers perhaps the clearest and most startling example, a similar dynamic can also be seen in other areas, often in more abstract but no less telling ways. Three examples, in quick sketches:
Rap music, emerging distinctively from the experience of African American poverty, oppression, and emasculation has long been dominated by themes of externalized wealth, power, and sexual prowess. You would expect that those who grew up poor would wish to dedicate themselves most fervently to fighting poverty. Instead, to have learned the lessons of poverty in the rap ethos is to have become rich, not an advocate for income equality. Those who grew up having the wealth of others shoved in their faces are eager most of all to accumulate some wealth and shove it in someone else’s face.
Readers old enough to remember the O. J. Simpson trial would recall that when he was acquitted, many in the black community cheered—not because they thought he was innocent, but because for once, a black man was rich enough to manipulate the painfully rigged system to his own advantage, as white men have been doing for ages. The visceral cheer was for the joy of inflicting upon the oppressors a taste of their own bitter medicine. When we grow up suffering the indignities of a system that is biased against the poor and in favor of the wealthy, our most compelling dream is to assume the privileges of wealth, not to construct a just system.
Another example of this dynamic may be found in the Middle East, where the state of Israel, formed by a Jewish people who have been occupied, exiled, degraded, and violated throughout history, is busy inflicting a similar fate on the Palestinian people.
Now, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of course a complex beast, and includes multiple dynamics, reasons, and justifications. There are no innocent sides in this story. But the bottom line realty is that the Palestinians have lived under Israel’s military occupation for the past 50 years.
The Jewish people, perhaps above any other, should by their historical experience know full well how painful it is to be oppressed, and they would—by intuition, by common sense—be expected to have great empathy for oppressed people. And yet here we are: the Jewish state has become a harsh oppressor, increasingly wrapping its identity in the habits and mindset of this oppression.
And if Middle East politics is not your suit, you may find an example of this same dynamic in the far less consequential and hence more vicious world of academic politics. You may not have heard of the recent tempest in a teapot that was the Rebecca Tovel scandal. And no need to lose sleep over that, really.
To summarize: Tovel, a junior philosophy professor, wrote an academic article in which she applied the arguments for accepting transgender transformation to the question of transracial transformation. The article was peer reviewed and published in an academic journal. As it turns out, her arguments did not sit well with some other academics. So far this is ho hum. In academia, someone always disagrees.
The telling part was the response, a spasm of personal attacks and online shaming of the author and a demand that the journal retract the article on the grounds that its availability was causing people “harm.” Tellingly, the personal attacks, accusations of harm, and demands for retraction came mostly from academics involved in gender and race studies, two disciplines that had to fight hard in recent decades to attain scholarly legitimacy and get a ‘seat at the table’ of mainstream academic discourse.
One can read multiple meanings into this kerfuffle, yet for our purpose here, the episode may serve as an example of how—even in self-aware and supposedly enlightened academia, where multiple effective ways of persuading others, changing the discourse, and exerting power exist—those who have been long silenced, marginalized, and oppressed end up orchestrating a similar fate for their adversaries.
Having gained entry into the power structure, those who were previously excluded seek to exclude others rather than promote inclusion. Identity politics in academia, a movement that began in earnest dissent, looking to broaden the discourse and give voice to previously silenced perspectives, is now busy narrowing the discourse and silencing dissent.
In summary, perhaps the take-home message from this discussion is two-fold. First, we must not romanticize suffering. As a rule, the better angels of our humanity are more likely to be threatened than strengthened by pain.
Secondly, we should not romanticize oppressed minority groups, attributing to them some nobility inherent in having endured the experience of suffering. People are people. We all tend to be selfish and shortsighted. Freedom fighters fight mostly for their own group’s freedom, rather than for the abstract concept of freedom. Most of those who rise from the bottom will lose little sleep over the thought that others have replaced them there.
Moreover, we all tend to roll with our roles. In the role of immigrants, we fight to get ashore and earn citizenship. In the role of citizens, we worry about those wily immigrants flooding our shores.
So while we empathize with those who have suffered or been marginalized and celebrate their ascent (or our own, if we are a part of such group), we should still remember that the deep lesson of their (or our) experience is, at heart, a rather dark one. By now, a failure to acknowledge and address this psychological reality is a failure to see the obvious.