Psychology Informs Us About Hate Groups

Decades of psychology research helps us to better understand hate group behavior

Posted Aug 14, 2017

used with permission from Evert Barnes
Source: used with permission from Evert Barnes

The dramatic rise and emboldened behaviors of hate groups such as white supremacists, Alt-Right, and neo-Nazi’s in recent days and months is certainly deeply unsettling and discombobulating. It is also shocking and horrifying too.  Most reasonable and thoughtful people likely can’t make any sense of such destructive views and venom of hate towards others.  

Yet, decades of psychological research has much to offer us in understanding these hate group behaviors and tendencies. Learning from this wide body of research can help better understand what appears to be incomprehensible behavior.

Philip Zimbardo’s classic and well known prison study conducted at Stanford University in the early 1970s well instructs us about the power of group dynamics and the power of the situation.  Rather than simply demonizing individuals for being “bad” or “evil” the Zimbardo study underscores that we really should attend to group dynamics and the particular roles that people somehow feel assigned to. In doing so, we can better understand how a person that might seem reasonable and fairly well-adjusted can behave like a monster under certain circumstances. While much has been written about the Stanford prison study and doesn’t need to be repeated here, it is helpful to remember that demonizing people for bad or evil behavior doesn’t take you very far in understating them. Looking at the social climate that the individual is part of and the pressures and expectations to behave in particular ways better helps us to appreciate the subtle but important influences on individual and group behavior.

Social comparison theory informs us that we judge our own behavior in reference to those around us. So, if people are behaving very badly we can often justify behaving in a similar manner since “others are doing it.” Violence and aggression can easily escalate when they occur in large social environments where people are witnessing others behave aggressively. Additionally, there is a diffusion of responsibility in groups as individuals feel part of a mob and less responsible for their individual actions. This is why a peaceful demonstration can easily escalate as members of a group turn aggressive and violent.

Research has clearly shown that aggression is much more likely to occur when it is preceded by ongoing frustration.  This is called the frustration-aggression hypothesis. Much has been written about the frustrations of poor white men in the USA due to job displacement and loss, lack of productive opportunities for work and love, and so forth. Ongoing chronic frustration takes very little spark to escalate into outward aggression. This is especially true when we examine the research on young men aged 15-25 or so. They, in most cultures, tend to be more susceptible to this frustration-aggression relationship than other groups.  Looking at the various causes of chronic frustration can help us better understand how violence can unfold so easily, especially among young men.

Attribution theory informs us that it is easy to overgeneralize the behavior of groups and stereotype others when you have very little experience with individuals from those perceived out groups. This is why it is so critically important for all of us to get to know people from a wide range of diverse groups. Research in my lab among others has found that knowing people as individuals rather than just external group members helps us to be more empathetic and compassionate towards them and others.

While there are no simple solutions to the disturbing violence and hate that we witness in recent days and months, it is important to be mindful of how psychological research can help us better understand where the behavior might be coming from. If we can understand it better we can hopefully intervene to minimize it.

Sadly and tragically, hate and violence has become more common in our current political and societal environment. One would think that by 2017 we would be beyond these disturbing problems. We seem to have learned nothing from the past horrors in our history. Sadly, we are not as advanced as we'd like to be and so we need to work very hard and vigilantly to create communities that are based on mutual respect, compassion, and even love. We have lots of work to do ahead of us and having all hands on deck as well as a good understanding of psychology can help us to create a better world for ourselves and for everyone else too.  At the end of the day, people really do want to live in a world and community of love and not hate and everyone can help to do their part to make this desire a reality.

So, what do you think? 

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Copyright 2017, Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP