Behavioural research helps show how this president brought simmering private resentments to a public boil
By CASS R SUNSTEIN / Pic BLOOMBERG
JAN 6, 2021 is a day that should live in infamy — a day on which the fundamental institutions of the US were suddenly and deliberately attacked.
It will take a long time to understand fully why political passion crossed the line into an insurrection at the US Capitol, but social science research illuminates part of the picture. Long-standing feelings of rage, humiliation, racism and hatred did not explode spontaneously. They were fuelled and unleashed, above all by President Donald Trump. That’s what turned those feelings into action.
The fundamental idea, brilliantly elaborated by the Duke University economist Timur Kuran, involves “preference falsification”. Kuran’s starting point is that for better or for worse, people’s desires, beliefs and values are often silenced by prevailing social norms.
If you despise immigrants or hate Jews, you might keep your thoughts to yourself because you think that other people think differently — and perhaps would hate you if they knew what you think. Kuran’s claim is that when a lot of people silence themselves, the conditions are ripe for some kind of explosion.
But precisely because of the self-silencing, it’s impossible to predict how, when or whether the explosion will actually occur.
Once people begin to learn that other people think as they do, they might start to speak out and to act, because they have been granted a permission slip. Usually, what’s needed is a kind of critical mass leading to the erosion or collapse of social norms, sometimes authorising savagery.
Sometimes a prominent figure, such as a national leader, can make that happen. Kristallnacht — in which Nazis under German Chancellor Adolf Hitler burned synagogues and killed almost 100 Jews in November 1938 — is a horrific example.
To see what Trump unleashed on Jan 6, consider this version of a fruit fly experiment.
In late 2020, the economists Leonardo Bursztyn of the University of Chicago, Georgy Egorov of Northwestern University and Stefano Fiorin of Bocconi University published an essay asking a simple question: Did Trump’s political success affect the willingness of Americans to support, in public, a xenophobic organisation?
Two weeks before the 2016 election, Bursztyn and his colleagues recruited 458 people from eight states that Trump was certain to win: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Mississippi, West Virginia and Wyoming. Half the participants were told that Trump would win. The other half received no information about Trump’s projected victory.
All participants were then asked whether they would authorise the researchers to donate money to the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigrant organisation whose founder has written, “I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.” The Southern Poverty Law Centre classifies FAIR as a hate group with connections to white supremacist organisations (FAIR rejects the classification and the claimed connections).
In the experiment, half of the participants were assured that their decision to authorise a donation would be anonymous. The other half were given no such assurance.
For those who were not informed about Trump’s expected victory in their state, anonymity mattered a lot: Far more of them authorised the donation under cover of secrecy. But for those who were informed that Trump would probably win, anonymity did not matter at all!
The key finding, then, is that when people were given a clear signal that Trump — who championed xenophobia — was going to win the popular vote in their state, they felt free to say in public what they thought in private (where the public statement consisted of a donation).
Thus, the researchers’ apt title: “From Extreme to Mainstream: The Erosion of Social Norms.”
To be sure, there’s a big difference between a donation to a controversial organisation and a decision to storm the Capitol. The value of the study by Bursztyn and his colleagues lies in the specific finding that when people are reminded of Trump’s popularity, they are willing to say and do things in public that they would not have done before.
Unleashing is only part of the picture. Social scientists have also explored “group polarisation”, which means that when like-minded people get together, they usually end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk.
It follows that if people in a group start with the conviction that Joe Biden might have stolen the November election, their discussions with one another might well lead them to think that Biden certainly stole it — and that something had better be done about it, perhaps by any means necessary.
Unleashing and group polarisation can be a toxic brew. If social norms start to weaken, and people begin to think that it’s fine to say and do horrible things, those things are all the more likely to be said and done if like-minded people are talking to each other. The events of Jan 6 were certainly an example.
What can be done? The best answer is also the simplest: Work to restore pre-existing norms, to reduce echo chambers and information cocoons, and to increase the likelihood that diverse people will talk with one another. Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially in an environment as polarised as US politics today.
But one place to start is by trying to establish a clear, single national meaning for Jan 6: A day of infamy, on which fundamental US institutions were suddenly and deliberately attacked. — Bloomberg
- This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.