Tag Archives: leadership

The Science of Stereotypes

When you look at the history of human conflicts, it sometimes seems as if most of them can be boiled down to battles of “us versus them”–however the relevant combatants are defining “us” and “them.”

Anyone who is, or has ever been, part of a group marginalized by a particular society knows the sting of the stereotype: In the U.S. it has been”scheming” Jews, “sissy” gays, “shiftless” blacks…In our trips to Europe, Spanish people have warned us against “thieving” Moroccans, a Hungarian expressed disdain for “dirty” Gypsies, and in a small town in Northern England, we were told to beware of people from Yorkshire.

Anyone with two brain cells recognizes how ridiculous it is to apply sweeping generalities–positive or negative– to any group of people. That said, it is clear that even nice people have implicit preferences for those with whom they identify. That undeniable human tendency raises two questions: why? and how do we overcome a deep-seated trait that–whatever its original utility– is increasingly counterproductive?

A recent article in The Conversation looked at the science of stereotyping.

As in all animals, human brains balance two primordial systems. One includes a brain region called the amygdala that can generate fear and distrust of things that pose a danger – think predators or or being lost somewhere unknown. The other, a group of connected structures called the mesolimbic system, can give rise to pleasure and feelings of reward in response to things that make it more likely we’ll flourish and survive – think not only food, but also social pleasure, like trust.

But how do these systems interact to influence how we form our concepts of community?

Implicit association tests can uncover the strength of unconscious associations. Scientists have shown that many people harbor an implicit preference for their in-group – those like themselves – even when they show no outward or obvious signs of bias. For example, in studies whites perceive blacks as more violent and more apt to do harm, solely because they are black, and this unconscious bias is evident even toward black boys as young as five years old.

Brain imaging studies have found increased signaling in the amygdala when people make millisecond judgments of “trustworthiness” of faces. That’s too short a time to reflect conscious processes and likely reveal implicit fears.

These studies, and many others like them, can help us understand distrust and fear of the “other.” They also explain the innate preference for people with whom we identify:

As opposed to fear, distrust and anxiety, circuits of neurons in brain regions called the mesolimbic system are critical mediators of our sense of “reward.” These neurons control the release of the transmitter dopamine, which is associated with an enhanced sense of pleasure. The addictive nature of some drugs, as well as pathological gaming and gambling, are correlated with increased dopamine in mesolimbic circuits.

The good news is that biology is not destiny.

Even if evolution has tilted the balance toward our brains rewarding “like” and distrusting “difference,” this need not be destiny. Activity in our brains is malleable, allowing higher-order circuits in the cortex to modify the more primitive fear and reward systems to produce different behavioral outcomes.

Research has confirmed that when diverse people work together–in business, or on a common problem–they are more innovative and productive than more homogeneous  groups. When people of different backgrounds socialize, they stretch their frames of reference and reduce their instinctive suspicions.

Of all the damage done by Trump voters, perhaps the very worst has been their willingness to reward political candidates–including legislators–who appeal to crude stereotypes and enthusiastically encourage fear of “the other.”

Humans can learn. To be human is to have a choice. We can tame our destructive instinctive responses. But in order to do that–in order to be more humane and less primordial–we need leaders who model our preferred behaviors and call on us to be the best version of ourselves.

Those are the people who deserve our votes in November.

Tribalism Versus Americanism

Permit me a “Sunday morning meditation”…

We Americans are a cantankerous and argumentative lot. We hold vastly different political philosophies and policy preferences, and we increasingly inhabit alternate realities. Partisans routinely attack elected officials—especially Presidents—who don’t share their preferences or otherwise meet their expectations.

Politics as usual. Unpleasant and often unfair, but—hysteria and hyperbole notwithstanding– usually not a threat to the future of the republic. Usually.

We are beginning to understand that Donald Trump does pose such a threat.

In the wake of Trump’s moral equivocations following Charlottesville, critics on both the left and right characterized his refusal to distinguish between the “fine people” among the Nazis and KKK and the “fine people” among the protestors as an assault on core American values. His subsequent, stunning decision to pardon rogue sheriff Joe Arpaio has been described, accurately, as an assault on the rule of law.

It’s worth considering what, exactly, is at stake.

Whatever our beliefs about “American exceptionalism,” the founding of this country was genuinely exceptional—defined as dramatically different from what had gone before—in one incredibly important respect: for the first time, citizenship was made dependent upon behavior rather than identity. In the Old World, countries had been created by conquest, or as expressions of ethnic or religious solidarity. As a result, the rights of individuals were dependent upon their identities, the status of their particular “tribes” in the relevant order. (Jews, for example, rarely enjoyed the same rights as Christians, even in countries that refrained from oppressing them.)

Your rights vis a vis your government depended upon who you were—your religion, your social class, your status as conqueror or conquered.

The new United States took a different approach to citizenship. Whatever the social realities, whatever the disabilities imposed by the laws of the various states, anyone (okay, any white male) born or naturalized here was equally a citizen. We look back now at the exclusion of blacks and women and our treatment of Native Americans as shameful departures from that approach, and they were, but we sometimes fail to appreciate how novel the approach itself was at that time in history.

All of our core American values—individual rights, civic equality, due process of law—flow from the principle that government must not facilitate tribalism, must not treat people differently based upon their ethnicity or religion or other marker of identity. Eventually (and for many people, reluctantly) we extended that principle to gender, skin color and sexual orientation.

Racism is a rejection of that civic equality. Signaling that government officials will not be punished for flagrantly violating that foundational principle so long as the disobedience advances the interests of the President, fatally undermines it.

Admittedly, America’s history is filled with disgraceful episodes in which we have failed to live up to the principles we profess. In many parts of the country, communities still grapple with bitter divisions based upon tribal affiliations—race, religion and increasingly, partisanship.

When our leaders have understood the foundations of American citizenship, when they have reminded us that what makes us Americans is allegiance to core American values—not the color of our skin, not the prayers we say, not who we love—we emerge stronger from these periods of unrest. When they speak to the “better angels of our nature,” most of those “better angels” respond.

When our leaders are morally bankrupt, all bets are off. We’re not all Americans any more, we’re just a collection of warring tribes, some favored by those in power, some not.

As the old saying goes: elections have consequences.







Missing the Point

In the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accords, apologists have gone into overdrive. Even those who recognize that climate change is real have pooh poohed the significance of our withdrawal; after all, the goals were voluntary and weak, and anyway, America’s cities and states are stepping up to the plate, so we’ll probably make our goals even without participating in a formal agreement.

A recent article in Time is typical of the many arguments that what looks like a sow’s ear might really be a silk purse in disguise:

Trump knew his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the climate agreement would provoke global outrage, and it did. For Trump, the economy is the priority. But Trump’s promise to revive the coal industry isn’t going to happen; instead, the opposite will occur. And it’s safe to say that by 2020 — the earliest date that the U.S. can technically withdraw from the climate pact — Trump could point to his decision even as he points at all the shuttered coal plants, and say: “See, I told you we didn’t need the Paris deal. America’s emissions went down regardless, and our economy became stronger without it.”

Let’s parse that paragraph. If Trump knew the decision would provoke outrage, he should have recognized that such outrage would make it more difficult to achieve other goals, both domestic and international, so why do it? As even the apologists have conceded, the targets we had endorsed were entirely voluntary; the administration could simply have ignored any that they felt were bad for the American economy.

What we’ve seen of this deeply disturbed man suggests that he withdrew because it would provoke outrage. Trump likes to stir the pot, and he desperately needs to be the center of attention. Achieving his goals quietly (assuming he has goals unconnected to his ego), without fanfare, doesn’t feed his narcissism.

And what about that statement that the economy is his priority? Where’s the evidence that Trump has even the slightest understanding of economic policy? His insistence that he will bring back a coal industry that even coal company CEOs admit is no longer viable should have been a clue to his cluelessness.

And arguing that we will meet our emissions goals without being party to the Paris Accords misses the point. The point is: symbolism matters, and it matters a lot.

When President Obama led the negotiations that produced the Paris Accords, he was signaling that the United States remained the world’s leader. He was demonstrating this nation’s willingness to work with countries around the globe to address common challenges, and our willingness to do the hard work of analyzing relevant science and working through thorny political barriers in order to hammer out an agreement.

Obama’s commitment to the process sent a message to the rest of the world, and it was a message that enhanced American stature and our ability to exercise global “soft power.”

The message sent by Donald Trump’s exit from that hard-won agreement was exactly the opposite: America is no longer a steadfast global presence, no longer a source of reassuring leadership in a dangerous world.

Under a volatile, unpredictable, and profoundly ignorant President and his cabinet of intellectual and moral pygmies, America is withdrawing from global leadership. (As Angela Merkel put it, in her typically understated way, America is “no longer a reliable ally.”)

Whatever the practical effect of withdrawal on our ability to fight climate change, the symbolism was devastating. Far from making America “great,” it diminished us and significantly weakened our influence around the world.

It was yet another unforced error by a man who tweets them daily.


What’s with the Right and Vladimir Putin?

Over at Political Animal, Martin Longman notes something that has bothered me as well.

I voted against George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004, and I spent most of his presidency actively working against his administration with every tool at my disposal, but I never said or wrote that I would prefer that the country be led by a foreigner or a foreign leader. Not so, for many pundits on the right. Ann Coulter wants Benjamin Netanyahu to be our president, Erick Erickson wants David Cameron to be our president, and Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle would be okay with either Netanyahu or Vladimir Putin being our president.

Someone needs to explain the right’s adoration for Vladimir Putin because it’s creeping me out.

This desire for a strongman to tell us all what to think and do–and take us into glorious battle a la “Braveheart” or whatever–is creepy. But it’s also a characteristic of people frightened by complexity and ambiguity, people who want bright lines distinguishing good ‘us’ from evil ‘them,’  who conflate strength with certitude.

People who don’t want to have to think too much.

The Real Choices

Matt Tully’s column yesterday addressed the reasons prompting families to move from the city to the suburbs. It was a reasonable analysis of a trend that is probably older than he is–unexceptional, so far as it went. For many residents, family or job considerations may limit them to this choice between living in town and moving to, say, Hamilton Country, but for many others, city versus suburb does not exhaust the available options.

A number of us value and prefer urban living. Indeed, a not inconsiderable number of people find the prospect of huge yards, distant neighbors and miles-long drives to the nearest grocery distinctly unappealing. For us, the choice is not between downtown and the suburbs, but between cities. Indianapolis can’t compete with the suburbs for people who want suburban lives. It can and should compete with other places that offer urban amenities and lifestyles. We’ve come a long way down the road that Bill Hudnut built during his four terms as Mayor, but we’ve lost ground the past few years. My son made that point in a response to Tully’s column, on which he copied me.

Here’s his response.

Matt:  I read your article about the choice people face between Indy and outlying counties.  You make some good points… But as a longtime downtown dweller, I come at this from a different perspective:  the challenges we face, and the failures of our leadership to honestly confront them, make me wonder whether we should consider a different CITY, not a suburb.
I grew up downtown Indy, mostly in historic Lockerbie — I thought I’d never return to Indy after leaving for college (in 1987). After college/living/working in Chicago and years of travel, I moved back to Indy – largely because Indy’s downtown had come so far, and Indy’s city experience had improved so much. Finally, Indy had a mix of urban amenities, shopping, culture (and I am not referring to sports venues, though they are nice, if overly dependent on taxpayers) and, importantly, an easy environment in which to raise kids.  Today, we live downtown in the Old Northside (where we’ve lived since I returned to Indy)… our kids, 9 & 11, go to IPS’ CFI #2 (which we love), and we have a great, and diverse, community of friends, and family nearby.
As I see it, Indianapolis faces two major problems, one of which you allude to in your article. First, our kids educational experience is not available to everyone: great public schools, like CFI, have too few available slots. And while Indy must address this deficiency if it is to succeed and thrive, our City suffers other problems that  (*gasp*) require resources to address: crime, infrastructure, affordable and dependable public transportation, among other things.  Which highlights the second major problem — a lack/failure of leadership.  Our leadership fails us when they buy into (and promote) the notion that Indy needs lower taxes more than it needs better schools, lower crime, or better/workable public transportation that meets the needs of our residents and workforce.  While government needs to operate “efficiently,” we should not try to compete with Boone County to be “low tax” place, a fight we can’t win and shouldn’t try to win; instead, we should recognize the strength of our “product” — the CITY — and its amenities. We need to recognize the need for (and fight for) the resources to make it great.
Instead, in the name of “efficiency,” the city gives away to a contractor literally millions of dollars every year (by some estimates $500 million over time) of potential city revenue that could be used to fight crime, build/maintain infrastructure. Why? Either because it lacks the imagination or operational competence to see that the city can upgrade parking meters (inexpensively) and operate them for ourselves… And while it would be nice to see the political courage to argue for more resources, the city administration fails to even try to lobby/work the legislature to alter the formula for distribution of income tax revenue so that it is not distributed 100% to the county where people live, but instead is shared, even if just a little bit. These are just two of many examples…
The failure to even try … The failure of vision and the lack of any attempt is frustrating. A friend recently moved out of state because he sees in our political leadership the operating mantra of “mediocre is good enough.”  As you noted the other day, Guv Pence states his “ambition is the status quo” (and while he said it of gambling, he might as well have said about everything, since his most active push is for a tax cut for which there is NO evidence it will create a single job). This is not a critique of the many dedicated public servants who “try,” but of the political class that doesn’t.
Unlike those readers who assume its a choice between Indianapolis and Hamilton/Johnson Counties, it isn’t for me.  It’s a choice between an Indianapolis that withers on the vine and a better city where more of the residents and their leaders “get it” — and fight for it.