Friday, September 14, 2007

Politics and Psychology

September 14, 2007, 8:20 a.m., 12:30 p.m.

On Point, Politics, Psychology, Police and Public Relations

Today's blog entry may involve an effort to weave together more seemingly unrelated items than any one ought to be permitted to try to plug into a coherent theme. But if you're willing to stick with me through this one I'll let you be the judge of whether I succeed.

The impact of fear on attitudes and action. It began earlier this week, when listening to a discussion on Tom Ashcroft's "On Point" program, carried on WSUI-AM910 from WBUR-FM90.9, Boston. The segment was called "9/11, Fear, and Politics," September 10, 2007. (If you are now, or later, interested in listening you can hear it at that link.)

Bottom line: when we are thinking about, or reminded of, death -- or are stressed with fear -- it tends to affect our attitudes and actions on a whole range of unrelated matters. As Ashcroft's intro put it, "
Research finds the mere mention of death changes minds. The image of the Twin Towers exploding is a psychological supernova." Guests included:

· Sheldon Solomon, professor of psychology at Skidmore College and co-author of "In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror"
· Martha Stout, clinical psychologist and former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, author of "The Paranoia Switch: How Terror Rewires Our Brains and Reshapes Our Behavior -- and How We Can Reclaim Our Courage"
· Graham Allison, professor of government and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, author of "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe"
When negatives re-enforce the opposite. That program, in turn, reminded me of a segment from another radio program, "On the Media" -- a weekly "must listen" media mavens. (It comes from New York Public Radio, and is hosted by Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield.)

This segment ("The Truth of False," September 7, 2007) can also be listened to, if you wish. The promo reads:

Good myths die hard. Recent psychological studies suggest journalists' attempts to set the record straight may in fact be perpetuating falsehoods. Shankar Vedantam, columnist at the Washington Post, explains.
If this interests you be sure to read his very powerful report of the supporting research Shankar Vedantam, "Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach," Washington Post, September 4, 2007, p. A3.

The neurobiology of politics. That reminded me of a story reporting on research that seems to indicate there's actually something different about the ways the brains of liberals and conservatives are wired. Denise Gellene, "Study finds left-wing brain, right-wing brain; Even in humdrum nonpolitical decisions, liberals and conservatives literally think differently, researchers show," Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2007 ("Exploring the neurobiology of politics, scientists have found that liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of how their brains work. In a simple experiment reported today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, scientists at New York University and UCLA show that political orientation is related to differences in how the brain processes information.")

Bringing the people to their leaders' bidding; just "tell them they are being attacked." And once I got to thinking about those three stories together, that in turn brought me back to a quote I've always found insightful and provocative:

Naturally the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.
It was Hermann Goering who provided us this insight some 60 years ago. (Here's a link to a source that confirms the accuracy of the quote and identifies the source.)

Is the White House public relations strategy science-based? When the White House schedules General David H. Petraeus, Commander, Multi-National Force-Iraq, to testify on September 10 and 11 -- the anniversary of "9/11" -- is it in any, even small, part due to the awareness of President Bush (or more likely his advisers) of the material just discussed?

The research of those whom Tom Ashcroft interviewed suggests that when we are made to think about death -- or we're stressed with insecurity -- we are more likely to, among other things: (1) look for and follow authoritarian figures, (2) become less accepting of the "other" (e.g., races, religions, ethic groups, and nationalities), and (3) become harsher in the defensive means we're willing to use and penalties we're willing to impose on others.

One of the most startling revelations was what was found about the sentences handed down by judges. Needless to say, I don't know enough about this research to vouch for it, I haven't read it, and it's not my field. But what I got from it goes as follows.

A group of judges -- all of whom felt they were not swayed by external factors when sentencing -- were asked what sentence they would impose for prostitution (apparently a fairly common crime in Phoenix, where they were located). The average in such cases, in fact, is apparently $50. And that was, in fact, the average sentence imposed by those in the control group. Those in the group that was caused to think about death in one way or another were proposing fines that averaged more in the range of $450.
Could it be that the Bush Administration is actually building its public relations strategies on a foundation of their awareness of such research? Do they know they can jiggle the poll results, the President's popularity, the support for the War and for General Petraeus' report, by associating his testimony with the public's insecurities that are aroused by reminders of 9/11?

Can this research explain why we're arming our campus police? What does all this have to teach us about the arming of the campus police at Iowa's Regents' universities?

I don't wish to re-plow the arguments pro and con to try to persuade anyone on the merits.

But I have been struggling in my efforts to understand and articulate, "How did we get to this decision?"

As UI Professor Jeff Cox has pointed out, for 40 years the UI has operated without a gun-toting campus police. Moreover, there was no outcry to bring more guns onto the campus; not from students or their parents, not from staff or faculty, not from administrators, and not from Iowa City officials or other leaders.

The position of the CIA, and the National Intelligence Estimate, is that the War in Iraq is making us (as I joined many others in predicting) less safe, less secure, not more -- primarily by fomenting more terrorism, not less, and contributing substantially to the terrorists' recruitment efforts.

Similarly, the evidence was, at best, equally divided as to whether arming campus police would make the UI community safer or more dangerous.

The discussion of the issue was not driven by academic inquiry, data -- or even a traditional debate format -- with spokespersons putting forward their best case. It was permitted to be driven by those who advocated bringing more guns onto the campus.

The arguments were fairly weak.

(1) "But Johnny's mommy lets him do it." That is, "other campuses police get to carry guns, so we should be able to do so, too."

(2) "We're trained to use firearms." Yeah. (That's good; because they have firearms back at headquarters for an emergency (the likelihood of which is somewhere between "slim and none at all") and they better know how to use them.) And some campus police officers may be trained to fly private planes, too. But that doesn't mean we should have a single-engine plane constantly flying over the campus at low altitude.

(3) "If you won't let me be the pitcher I'm going to take my bat and ball and go home." What is this blackmail about, anyway? "'If it doesn't go through, I will lose 50 percent of my officers,' [the UI's] public safety director Chuck Green said." Brian Morelli, "Half of university officers to leave if regents answer is no," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 13, 2007. Who organized that walkout? The campus police have wanted guns for years. But if this was such a big deal, something that went beyond mere requests and protests, something that would actually cause half the force to resign, why weren't they resigning in 2006, 2005, and 2004? (There may well be an answer to that; but it's not immediately obvious what the 2007 Tsunami was that produced this rather dramatic threat.)
I could go on. But as I said earlier, the point is not to re-argue the merits. The point is that the reasons for this radical and abrupt U-turn in UI policy at this time, and the process leading up to that decision, are hard to explain without some theory.

And the research with which this blog entry begins may provide that theory.

The Virginia Tech shootings were our 9/11. They caused us to focus on death, and to imagine what it would be like on the UI campus if something like that were to occur. As a result, we were more willing to look to authoritarian figures for guidance, leadership, and advice -- and then follow their lead. In this instance, authority was in the guise, and uniform, of the police -- rather than the President of the United States and the military for which he is Commander-in-Chief. We were more willing to be suspicious of -- of what? -- of whatever is buried deep inside a sub-conscious of which we may not be proud, a sub-conscious that may hold fears of the "other" (whether race or ethnicity), a sub-conscious that is "sub" and often forgotten, but which rose to consciousness under these fearful conditions. And we were willing to take a more aggressive stance, a willingness to use guns, to protect ourselves, to provide us a greater sense of safety and security -- even though more guns would actually make us less safe and secure. Finally, the more opponents argued that "campus police don't need guns" the more the phrases "campus police" and "need guns" were linked in the minds of advocates -- rather than the reverse -- especially for those whose brains are less effectively wired to hold ambiguous and contradictory notions.

There's a public relations aspect to this as well, something that administrators must always be thinking about during their decision process.

There are two possible public relations disasters involving guns: (1) that campus police are armed and one of them accidentally or deliberately shoots and kills someone on campus, and (2) that the campus police are not armed and a member of the UI community, or an outsider -- persons other than campus police -- will shoot and kill a member of the UI community.

Both are bad for the administrator's public relations. But which is worse? The second -- even if the evidence is overwhelming that the failure to arm the campus police had absolutely no effect whatsoever on those events, and that had they been armed they could not possibly have prevented the deaths anyway.


Under the first scenario the administrators have done their job, they've "done all they could." A part of the price for providing Iraq with "security" is the unavoidable deaths of 100,000 or more innocent civilians. A part of the price for providing the campus with "security" may be the deaths of innocent students. Those deaths represent a price we're perfectly willing to pay for the greater good (or so it is presented and perceived by many) -- as we were when and Iowa City policeman shot an innocent Eric Shaw (and was never punished for his action).

The second (not arming the campus police, following which a student is shot) is much more serious for administrators -- however irrational, unfair and inaccurate the criticism of them may be -- because they will be portrayed as having failed to make a decision that would have made us safer and prevented the death (even though neither is true).

I don't know if these are sound analyses or not.

But it's my way of making sense of what the Regents' university presidents have just recommended the members of our Board of Regents are probably about to do.

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Anonymous said...

I think its sound based on what you wrote. It is important to remember that our new President does not have the context of history in IC that you and I have Prof. Johnson. She is not likely to get into any controversy early in her tenure.

Anonymous said...

Just a few observations--

The argument about arming police has been going on for a long time. It is not sudden and abrupt. I can't speak authoritatively as to where the desire has been coming from, whether there are any other constituents involved besides the police themselves. But the UI community has dealt with this issue for years; the last time, a compromise decision was made to arm the police with Tasers. It's true that Virginia Tech and the governor's call for a security review is the impetus for this time. But the issue has been percolating, and popping up here and there, for a long time.

I'm sorry that I can't speak too specifically and authoritatively, but I have heard, from sources I trust very much, that encounters with armed, threatening people on the UI campus are more common than one would think. The UI and Iowa City police have all too often found students with arsenals (who made threats), armed (loaded) non-UI community members on campus, etc. I suppose one could research police blotters that are public information. But I think that if the university and city police announced every time they encountered or apprehended an armed (and sometimes heavily armed) individual on or near campus, students, students' families, faculty, staff, and community members would be screaming, wondering why all our officers aren't armed. I don't think it is not all "rare" for these incidents to happen. Thankfully no injuries or fatalities have resulted, but waiting around for Iowa City backup while you have someone cooling his heels (you hope) who has threatened to harm and/or kill others while armed is a pretty scary proposition to me, and a tragedy waiting to happen.

Anonymous said...

Thats a lot of crap. Plain and simple. Document one case of a heavily armed student or anyone in Iowa City with an armory.

Hell, I dont even think the IC police need guns. Draw them a lot of drunk college kids a lot do they? Iowa City sometimes has NO armed robberies in a year.

Call their bluff...let em quit. What a waste of funding each and every one of them is. It makes me sick to think my state tax dollars support them.