I See Psychology… Everywhere

Back after a long hiatus

Well, I’m trying to get back to the blog.  Let’s start with an interesting couple of cases right in the news.  Seems a couple of prominent people being recommended for termination for some offensive comments.

James Watson (as in Watson & Crick) is one of the offenders:

The Sunday Times newspaper printed an interview with Watson in which he was quoted as saying he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really.”


The newspaper also quoted Watson as saying people should not discriminate on the basis of color, because “there are many people of color who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level.”

Then Barack Obama has recommended canning the head of voting rights for the DoJ for his comments:

“That’s a shame, you know creating problems for elderly persons just is not good under any circumstance,” Tanner said, according to video posted on YouTube. “Of course, that also ties into the racial aspect because our society is such that minorities don’t become elderly the way white people do. They die first.

“There are inequities in health care. There are a variety of inequities in this country, and so anything that disproportionately impacts the elderly has the opposite impact on minorities. Just the math is such as that,” Tanner said.


“Such comments are patently erroneous, offensive and dangerous, and they are especially troubling coming from the federal official charged with protecting voting rights in this country,” Obama wrote.

We’ve been discussing ambiguous statements in my prejudice seminar this semester, and I’ve asked my students to comment.  I find Watson’s comments more egregious, but that may be because I think someone else could say what Tanner did with less outrage.  They could be taken to be sympathetic to health disparities, IMHO.

Watson’s statements are also interesting in light of an article (my Michael Hogg) I just got today arguing that the atrophy of the frontal lobe in older people is partly responsible for their decline in self-regulatory capacity.  As a result, people may say offensive things that, under better circumstances, they would have suppressed.  I’m never sure how much to let that matter, but we’ve seen the decline in self-regulation in prominent cases resulting from alcohol (see Mel Gibson) and frustration (see Michael Richards), among other things.


19 October 2007 Posted by | Stereotyping, Prejudice, & Discrimination | 2 Comments

The Myth of the Down Low

Nice piece in Slate about the myth of the down low.  For the unfamiliar, “on the down low” is a term used to describe an apparently heterosexual man (typically African American) who lives a secret second life as a gay man.  He may have a family who doesn’t (or does) suspect, but, for various reasons, he does not reveal his orientation.

What I like about this article is that it exposes the often irrational ways in which people latch onto a relatively unusual event and turn it into a phenomenon.  Illusory correlations come to mind here, where we see a relationship between two factors that are really pretty rarely linked.

The articles author,

It also helps that the Down Low is the sort of threat that white commentators of all political stripes like to condemn. Conservatives get to disparage black people’s inherent amorality (a band of men is endangering their families to have sex with other deceptive men), liberals can attack our inherent homophobia (the black community is so thuggish that the men can’t even admit to being gay), and everyone gets to agree that black America is, in a nutshell, a nuthouse. In short, shaking your head over the DL is the perfect way to shake your head over how awful it is to be black.

12 March 2007 Posted by | Stereotyping, Prejudice, & Discrimination | Leave a comment

…and 4 months later…

I’ve been eager to get back to it.  So let’s start with a nice article in the NYTimes about Joe Biden’s lovely comments on Obama:

the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy

Now, I’m not interested in the obvious “gee, this guy is inappropriate” approach to this quote.  Instead, let’s think about what this says about Biden’s schema (Obama is closely associated with “articulate”) which I would say shows what we might call “thinking points.”  Rather than just saying what comes to his mind, Biden watches it, knowing that whatever he says on the campaign trail will be magnified.

Did he know that “articulate” is damning someone by faint praise?  Did he know that it’s probably not the most flattering thing for an African American person to hear?  Does he know that Obama is far more articulate than Biden in the first place?  Probably so on all 3 counts, but I would argue that he doesn’t feel it.  As a result, Biden connects the “African American” and “complement” nodes in his mind and comes out with this quote.

Many people don’t even bother to watch what they say, and we could argue over which is worse.  Do Mel Gibson’s and Michael Richards’ verbal diarrhea indicate higher prejudice than what Biden said.  Probably so, but under stress, they let it all out and took off the filter.  Biden probably did the same thing, after the stress and exhaustion of lots of interviews and briefings.

To Biden, I say, don’t you worry your little head about this.  You just sit there and look pretty.

Is that a complement, Joe?

5 February 2007 Posted by | Cognitive, Social, Stereotyping, Prejudice, & Discrimination | Leave a comment

Justice and Profiling in the Real World

New Orleans is one of the few places in the country where one can walk around with an open container of alcohol. To me, it actually makes sense, and the ban almost everywhere else seems kind of weird. Nevertheless, until recently your booze couldn’t be in glass, but that rule fell under accusations that it was racist or classist or both. I’m not really certain of the logic here, but it was an interesting move. I’ve always been intrigued by ambiguity in the world like this. Read on…

I was very pleased to read that Harvard has decided to eliminate its early admissions policy. That’s not to say I’ve long been lobbying for this move (I’d never thought of it before), but as soon as I heard about it it struck me as a move for a more level playing field. I have had a number of students who could have done very well as scholars, but because they were strapped with financial or time concerns, or they simply didn’t know the ropes, they would not have been granted early admissions anywhere, even if they did know enough to apply. Here’s hoping that more schools (especially the elite) will follow suit.

Still, some strange disadvantages and preferences remain in our world, and I’ve encountered several in New Orleans recently, all of which are ambiguous.

Last semester, one of my students told me that a bar near Tulane changed its admittance sign over time, first saying that you had to be of a certain age, then saying you had to have a college ID, and then saying the ID had to be from Tulane or Loyola. Were Xavier students banned, or was the position that they couldn’t authenticate XU students’ IDs?

Earlier this year, St. Tammany Parish’s Sheriff Jack Strain said that people walking around with certain hairstyles were not welcome. As representatives of New Orleans that he dubbed “thugs” and “trash,” Strain said:

I don’t want to get into calling people names, but if you’re going to walk the streets of St. Tammany Parish with dreadlocks and chee wee hairstyles, then you can expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff’s deputy.

Well, at least he didn’t want to call anyone names! I actually had a letter to the paper published above the fold saying that my students had never heard that term, so maybe it refers to white collar criminals, in which case I’m all for the profiling! A colleague wrote a great post expressing his concern over getting in trouble, just in case he has one of the hairstyles in question.

But then I read about some potential profiling among some more like-minded people in the NOLA blogosphere. Does Jack Strain own the Half Moon? At what point is banning clothing associated with unwanted people inappropriate, immoral, or illegal? Ah, the ambiguity!

236435823_0aa8aac90f.jpgFinally, there’s the issue of the African American transvestite gang of thiefs on Magazine Street. My favorite costume shop has taken to closing until the crime gets solved. The article says that the merchants close up shop when one of them sees the group coming. Maybe that profiling is a little different, but is that only because it’s such a specific (and perhaps more fringe) subgroup? If I’m a law-abiding African American transvestite with my similar friends, should I be barred from the store? No one really favors profiling, but we often do it, whether we realize it or not.

I don’t know the answers to these quandaries, and I sympathize with crime victims, but I also think it’s important to think critically about our responses. Just as getting rid of the skycaps didn’t make any sense after 9/11, some of our responses here may cast an unfairly wide net and may create a society we don’t really want. Even if the immediate response is desirable to some of the people who make the decisions.

12 September 2006 Posted by | Stereotyping, Prejudice, & Discrimination, Students | 1 Comment

Evolution’s Rainbow and Homosexual Animals

Evolution's RainbowThis book, Evolution’s Rainbow, by Joan Roughgarden of Stanford, documents homosexual activity among non-human animals. Of course it’s a little controversial, but some persuasive arguments.

4 August 2006 Posted by | Comparative, Stereotyping, Prejudice, & Discrimination | Leave a comment