Category Archives: social psychology

I’m not a discourse analyst, but …

Dr. Dennis Nigbur, Senior Lecturer at CCCU identifies some of the hidden social psychology of the Brexit debate, and how the result may have given rise to a new and more positive stance towards Europe taken by some of the British people.

My analysis of how the UK became Brexitarian

“This time the men of Western Europe have not lacked courage and have not acted too late. They have done something great and what is remarkable and perhaps unique is that they have done it by renouncing any use of force, any constraint, any threat.”
(Paul-Henry Spaak on the signing of the Treaties of Rome)

By the time you read this, the British Prime Minister will have pressed the big red Brexit button, and the negotiations to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union will be about to begin. And there will be a fair few people wondering how we got to this point. The 2nd February White Paper “The United Kingdom’s exit from and partnership with the EU” says that the national parliament has in fact remained sovereign throughout the UK’s membership of the EU, although “it has not always felt like that”. On the one hand, this – belatedly – dismantles one of the key elements of the Leave campaign: the “taking back control” of a sovereignty that was never lost. On the other hand, it shows the importance of psychology in these political events: Perceptions, prejudices, rhetoric, experiences, and fears operate in places that the cold light of day just can’t reach.

I’m no discourse analyst. But a look at the public debate around the 23rd June 2016 referendum can be instructive about the social-psychological elements that played a substantial role without ever being taken seriously by the media coverage (see here also). By pointing at the psychological relevance of what was said and what remained unsaid during this debate, I hope to show how the Brexit vote succeeded but – arguably in a paradoxical case of too little, too late – finally gave rise to something new: an outspoken identification with Europe and a positive attitude towards the EU among large parts of the British public.

Having your cake and eating it

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party, has criticised the British government’s unclear position about the consequences of the Brexit, saying that the idea to leave the European Union and its single market, but retain continued access to it, seemed like a case of “having your cake and eating it”. Having your cake and eating it is, of course, the strategy that the UK has adopted throughout the process leading up to the referendum. George Osborne talked about having “the best of both worlds”, the benefits without the burden, while David Cameron tried to negotiate a “better deal” as if the UK were about to change its gas provider.

Although both Cameron and Osborne supported the Remain campaign, they had thus already played into the hands of the Leave camp by focusing the debate on British self-interest and a perceived threat to national sovereignty and self-determination. Did you notice how rare continental European perspectives were in this debate, and how both Leave and Remain were fixated on what they believed was best for Britain, that island in the North Sea (see my earlier blog)? By asking for greater national control over immigration, restrictions on welfare payments to migrants, and opt-outs from ever-closer union and the cost of bailouts in the eurozone, the government of the time served and strengthened existing stereotypes. The image of out-of-control immigration due to European legislation, conflated with the refugee crisis, was later exploited by the infamous “breaking point” poster campaign. The image of the EU as an unstoppable Moloch demanding ever-greater sacrifices of wealth and freedom had already been well established in the campaigning of organisations such as the UK Independence Party, and was referenced quite clearly by Nigel Farage in his “victory” speech at the European Parliament following the referendum.

A peculiarly British flavour of talk about Europe

Cameron and Osborne, obviously, were not the first or the only people to use these stereotypes. It was precisely because these representations were already common currency that they could be linked so readily to the government’s efforts to secure a “better deal”, and mobilised so easily alongside some independence rhetoric and fear campaigning. I believe that these were successful because of the long-established British tradition of regarding the EU as a glorified trade agreement at best and a menace to national sovereignty at worst. Other Europeans seem to be much happier to say “Europe is not a market; it is the will to live together” (watch a powerful extract of a speech by Esteban González Pons here). But public debate in the UK tends to ignore the social, cultural and peacekeeping functions of the EU (see here), leaving the complex economic benefits of membership as the only argument with which the Remain campaign thought it could persuade voters. This was not just unromantic in comparison with the heroics of “taking back control”; it had already been undermined by the implication that the UK was not getting a good deal under existing arrangements, and continued to be undermined by the Leave campaign’s fallacious but effective claims about the cost of EU membership.

Although the economic argument would therefore have been strong and relevant in the view of those who regard the EU primarily as a trade partnership, it was weak in the eyes of those for whom emotions and identity played a greater part. Some commentators later wrote disparagingly about the role of emotional, as opposed to rational, decision-making in the referendum. But that’s just part of the story. Psychologists know that emotions are not a weakness or a defective mode of decision-making, but a necessary and powerful influence on everybody’s life – including voting in the referendum. The problem for Remain was not that people voted with their emotions, but that the emotional case in favour of EU membership was never made. Sure, the scariness of uncertainty was pointed out by Remainers with potentially counter-productive monotony. But positive feelings of solidarity with European neighbours, togetherness and a common identity, or a shared vision for a peaceful European future were simply absent from the Remain campaign … because they had never been part of British public discourse about Europe in the first place. One could say that Remain ultimately had fewer ingredients for a tasty campaign, and ended up rather bland.

A bitter after-taste

This was in contrast to the Leave campaign, with its bold aroma of freedom fighting, the spice of rebellion against the establishment, and the distasteful but dramatic references to a foreign invasion threatening a British way of life that was never defined. Britishness is notoriously difficult to grasp, and is instead often circumscribed in terms of its supposed difference to other collectivities including continental Europe (see, for example, Abell et al., 2006; Condor, 2000, 2006). Leaving the EU thus became associated with asserting and defending British uniqueness, regardless of what constitutes that uniqueness. The recent proposal to the UKIP conference to cut VAT on fish and chips after Brexit is a scurrilous but fitting example.

Many of the consequences of the referendum campaign so far have been dire. Racism seems to have increased, parts of the media continue to stir up perceptions of threat, the pound has weakened (note the dip in the chart here), the United Kingdom is under internal strain, relations with the EU are frosty, mistrust and attempted underhand deals are continuing to poison relationships and, despite repeated references to a clear mandate arising from the referendum, the social reality is that Britain is pretty much split down the middle.

This should, of course, not be surprising. The referendum results show clearly that the absolute numbers are beyond any margin of error, but the percentages are really quite close. With such an important issue, there seems to be no reasonable argument for why the 16,141,241 people who voted Remain should now simply agree with the 17,410,742 who voted Leave. When even sports clubs require a qualified majority, such as two thirds, to make changes to their rules, isn’t it ridiculous that such a momentous decision as the UK’s relationship with the EU should be carried by 51.9% of those who voted? Presumably, a supermajority was not required because the referendum could not be legally binding – but irresistible political pressure had been created by promising voters that the government would implement their decision.

Media coverage has focused on the (economic) uncertainty created by the decision to leave the EU (e.g. here). But uncertainty, by its nature, is temporary. What may turn out to be more damaging is the (political) certainty that the UK doesn’t believe in the European project enough to stay committed.

A new recipe

Ironically, the Brexit vote has also created an unprecedented display of enthusiasm for Europe among those who don’t identify with the UK’s official position. It may be too late to change the outcome of the referendum, but a portion of the British electorate – predominantly the younger and more educated voters who tended to support Remain according to a demographic breakdown of voting patterns (seen here and here) – is finally displaying a kind of public support for Europe that goes beyond economic pragmatism. The “March for Europe” during the immediate aftermath of the referendum and the recent “Unite for Europe” mass demonstrations are perhaps the most visible way in which this new attitude finds expression. But there are also several social media campaigns (e.g. www.neweuropeans.net, scientistsforeu.uk, or www.the3million.org.uk), as well as a new weekly newspaper (www.theneweuropean.co.uk).

As a European immigrant, I have noticed euroscepticism (perhaps too mild a word for what happened in the build-up to the referendum) and anti-immigrant rhetoric grow during the 20 years I have spent here. As a university lecturer, I take heart from seeing the young and educated as the driving force in the reversal of this process. The recent staff conference about our church foundation identity here at Canterbury Christ Church gave me a very welcome reminder that – even in this strange world of employability drives, league tables, and “excellence frameworks” – education is about much more than getting a degree or qualifying for a job. It’s about growing in wisdom and personality; acquiring the ability to research, understand, and evaluate; and becoming a better person: the sort of person to whom we can entrust the future of the UK and Europe.

References

Abell, J., Condor, S., & Stevenson, C. (2006). “We are an island”: Geographical imagery in accounts of citizenship, civil society, and national identity in Scotland and in England. Political Psychology, 27(2), 207–226. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9221.2006.00003.x

Condor, S. (2000). Pride and prejudice: Identity management in English people’s talk about “this country.” Discourse & Society, 11(2), 175–205. https://doi.org/10.1177/0957926500011002003

Condor, S. (2006). Temporality and collectivity: Diversity, history and the rhetorical construction of national entitativity. British Journal of Social Psychology, 45(4), 657–682. https://doi.org/10.1348/014466605X82341

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The social psychology of “10 German bombers”: Why a tasteless football chant about the Battle of Britain is more offensive to the English than the Germans

Dr. Dennis Nigbur, Senior Lecturer at CCCU, takes the opportunity to discuss the interplay between two of his favourite topics, namely football and national identity.

They’ve been at it again: English football supporters have treated the world to yet another rendition of “10 German bombers”, and there appears to be a sense of wonder why the Germans didn’t take more offence (Herbert, 2017).

The simple answer is that they don’t feel targeted by the song. They will recognise it as a chant in poor taste (most Germans speak good English after all – we have an education system that takes languages seriously), but there’s no reason to feel personally or collectively offended by it. Not only does today’s Federal Republic have few similarities with the Nazi state of 75-odd years ago in terms of territory, politics, population, and role on the world stage; the national identity of today’s Germans is also decoupled from the past in a way that the label “German” fails to capture.

I’ve been lucky enough to have erudite social identity scholars as lecturers, supervisors, examiners and bosses: Rupert Brown, Susan Condor, Marco Cinnirella and Evanthia Lyons (and others whose work I have read but with whom I haven’t worked as closely) have all, in their own and often quite different ways, encouraged me to look at social identity beyond the “social identity theory” (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) usually cited as the principal source about the topic. I now encourage my students to do the same. Social identity is about much more than group membership and ingroup bias, and an awareness of the wider literature will help in understanding why “10 German bombers” is in fact more problematic for the English than for the Germans.

All students of social psychology know that social identity has to do with group identification and intergroup comparisons. Temporal comparisons – obviously, comparisons across time points rather than between groups – are an old idea (Albert, 1977) but have only emerged in research on social identity in the past 20 years or so. Amélie Mummendey’s work (Mummendey, Klink, & Brown, 2001; Mummendey & Simon, 1997) is especially relevant here, since it shows how today’s Germans differentiate themselves from the Germans of the Nazi era and derive a positive sense of self from this comparison – an effect more commonly attributed to intergroup comparison.

Admittedly I’m extrapolating from these findings here, but I think I have reason to do so: If the Germans of today see themselves as fundamentally different from the Germans under the Nazi regime and also feel good about that, then why should they feel provoked by a football chant about RAF pilots shooting down German bombers during the Nazi era? The song is obviously in poor taste and intended to offend – but it fails to do so, because of the false assumption that German football fans in 2017 should identify with German bomber pilots in 1940.

Of course, that’s not the whole reason. One other aspect is that, precisely because of historical trauma and self-conscious differentiation from its Nazi past, Germany has a well-documented disturbed relationship with patriotism and national pride, which may make Germans less sensitive to insults directed at their nationality than, say, an English fan would be – the “reformed alcoholic avoiding the wine cellar” (Weidenfeld, 2002, my translation). Second, what may cause offence in everyday life or the proverbial opera house is not governed by the same rules in the milieu of a football match (see Cialdini et al., 1976; Ropeik, 2011): The mismatch between what people are told to do by civil society and what people see as normal practice in the stadium is a good example of the distinction between injunctive and descriptive social norms (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990). (There are chants that I, personally, refuse to sing regardless of the setting; but as a Schalke fan I may have been occasionally complicit in questioning the parentage of our unspeakable black-and-yellow local rivals.)

So why is the England supporters’ chant a newsworthy problem? As The Independent article (Herbert, 2017) suggests, it may be less about the Germans taking offence than about the English being embarrassed. Norms and identity are, again, the central concepts here: By using expressions such as “dragged through the mud”, “the behaviour of scum” or “embarrassment to be English”, the author doesn’t just signal disapproval. He also makes clear that the behavioural norms that should, in his view, be associated with being English are not compatible with the England fans’ actions. Referring to the wartime soldiers of the song, he asks “What would they think to see these people now?” As a wealth of social-psychological research on subjective group dynamics (Marques, Yzerbyt, & Leyens, 1988; Pinto, Marques, Levine, & Abrams, 2010) now shows, the greatest rejection is reserved not for outgroup members, but for ingroup members who break the norms and let their side down. Again, social identity and the world – including the world of football – are more complex than simple ingroup bias.

Key References

Albert, S. (1977). Temporal comparison theory. Psychological Review, 84(6), 485–503. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.84.6.485

Cialdini, R. B., Borden, R. J., Thorne, A., Walker, M. R., Freeman, S., & Sloan, L. R. (1976). Basking in reflected glory: Three (football) field studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(3), 366–375. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.34.3.366

Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(6), 1015–1026. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.58.6.1015

Herbert, I. (2017, March 23). English football dragged through the mud again by the braying, beer-fuelled scum who sing anti-German war songs. The Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/international/england-fans-10-german-bombers-braying-beer-fuelled-scum-songs-dragged-through-the-mud-a7645321.html

Marques, J. M., Yzerbyt, V. Y., & Leyens, J.-P. (1988). The “Black Sheep Effect”: Extremity of judgments towards ingroup members as a function of group identification. European Journal of Social Psychology, 18(1), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2420180102

Mummendey, A., Klink, A., & Brown, R. (2001). Nationalism and patriotism: National identification and out-group rejection. British Journal of Social Psychology, 40(2), 159–172. https://doi.org/10.1348/014466601164740

Mummendey, A., & Simon, B. (1997). Nationale Identifikation und die Abwertung von Fremdgruppen. In A. Mummendey & B. Simon (Eds.), Identität und Verschiedenheit: Zur Sozialpsychologie der Identität in komplexen Gesellschaften (pp. 175–193). Göttingen, Germany: Huber.

Pinto, I. R., Marques, J. M., Levine, J. M., & Abrams, D. (2010). Membership status and subjective group dynamics: Who triggers the black sheep effect? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(1), 107–119. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018187

Ropeik, D. (2011, October 13). The tribal roots of team spirit. Retrieved March 24, 2017, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/how-risky-is-it-really/201110/the-tribal-roots-team-spirit

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–47). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Weidenfeld, G. (2002, September 23). Deutschlands neuer Weg. Die Welt. Retrieved from https://www.welt.de/print-welt/article412728/Deutschlands-neuer-Weg.html

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Nonsense, bullshit and constructive dialogues in Higher Education

Dr. Stavroula Tsirogianni, Social Psychology Lecturer with an interest in values, moral dilemmas and perspective taking talks about her experiences of nonsense, bullshit and constructive dialogues in within academia and Higher Education

In June, I went for the first time to the annual conference of the psychosocial studies to give a presentation on a paper I am writing on with a colleague-friend. Psychosocial studies draws on a range of frameworks like psychoanalysis, critical theory, postcolonial studies, feminist and queer theories etc. The conference, as it is not a mainstream one, was quite small and people were very approachable, which made me really happy to be there. What mostly impressed me about the conference was the chairing style in some of the sessions. Some chairs did a brilliant job in terms of creating an informal, open and conversational atmosphere during their sessions, through arranging chairs in circles or through discouraging presenters to stand up and present using PowerPoint or to talk for more than 10 minutes. It worked. People in these sessions were more open and conversations were more relaxed and more interesting and constructive.

My presentation was on the last day of the conference and normally I would be anxious but this time I felt more relaxed because the setting felt safe. When my turn came and I gave my presentation, I asked the 5 people who attended my session for feedback and ideas on specific things that I felt stuck with. A woman from the audience felt really offended by my ideas, because I mixed mainstream and critical psychological theories to talk about how we construct ourselves as ethical beings through common everyday actions and dilemmas such eating our dead pet dog, eating burgers from KFC or wearing leather shoes etc. She found my ideas to be nonsense. She expressed her contempt by rudely interrupting me, asking me to look at her because she wanted to impart her ‘wisdom’ on me, while a woman from the audience was sharing her interesting experiences of dogs as a black person in South Africa during the Apartheid period. What happened in that session was that she wanted to establish her status as an ‘enlightened’ person, who knows better. I did not take this incident personally as this kind of hierarchical interactions, as most of us know who have been in academia for a long time, are common. If this happened to me 14 years ago when I first got into academia, I would be in tears.

…14 years ago…

When I came to the UK I felt like my perception of myself and the world shattered to pieces. I came from Greece where I grew up in a completely different educational system, where the teacher was the all-knowing figure. I was taught to look at myself and at the world in fixed binaries i.e. right vs wrong, rationality vs imagination, individualism vs collectivism. I was mainly trained to look for the truth, reproduce knowledge and produce outcomes through standardized memory testing. Today, I remember very little about the things I learned in high school and university. My education was based on external authority and drills. There was no space for independent action, divergence of views and ambiguity.
When I first came to London and started my PhD at the LSE, I was completely thrown back by the diversity of people and perspectives. I felt ignorant, exposed and lost. I never talked in seminars or classes and if had to talk to someone senior or someone that I thought knew more than me, my heart was pounding from anxiety. I had internalised so much this hierarchical way of thinking that I constantly felt too inadequate to believe in my own ideas.

Finding myself in such a multicultural and international environment challenged my biases, values and worldviews and brought up questions about authority and systems of power, their effects, how knowledge and identities come to be constructed and challenged. My experience of confusion and loss felt like a personal experience that had to be kept separate from the scholarly and educational process. It was through my exchanges and discussions with my peers and not with my teachers that I started addressing the connection of what I was learning and what I was experiencing.

Doing a PhD was a very confusing and lonesome process. But I was not the only one. A lot of my mates from my year felt the same way. It was this experience of isolation and loneliness that brought us together. We spent a lot of hours having discussions, bouncing back and forth ideas about our work, our plans, our anxieties, our aspirations, our lives, academia, about everything over coffee, beer and cigarette breaks – it is when I took on social smoking which then became regular smoking. I clicked more with some than others. Those who I felt closer to were those who I thought would not judge me for my ideas. Very often, our conversations would get very heated and we would end up arguing and feeling frustrated and defensive, but they were still fun, exciting, informal and above all they felt safe. Safe enough to play with ideas through talking ‘nonsense’. I came to realise that talking ‘nonsense’ is important in the process of elucidating thoughts and ideas.

Sadly from my experience in academia during the past 14 years, this type of academic exchanges are quite rare in the formal academic settings of seminars, meetings, symposiums and conferences even in our classrooms. Scholarly dialogues are usually formal, lack excitement and tend to be competitive. Intellectual conversations take the form of wars between egos. There are always people in the audience, who think of themselves as ‘enlightened’ and see their ideas as better than others’ even if their area of expertise is not related to what is being discussed. The aim of such exchanges is to discredit the speaker and to find holes in arguments. Of course as academics we are passionate about what we do, and we do get attached to our ideas as, which we try to protect and defend as our ‘babies’. Even the language that we use to argue about our ideas or to describe our experiences of conversations with colleagues reflects the aggressive nature of academic dialogues. We often use phrases like, this person ‘attacked me’ or ‘attacked my views’ or ‘shot down my argument’. Even the PhD viva is called a ‘defence’.

While being critical is very important part for advancing science and knowledge, the critical view is often associated with justifying theories, providing answers, finding holes in arguments and focusing excessively on details, on a small aspect of an argument. In my view this type of criticism fails to take a discussion to new directions, open new perspectives and generate new questions. Criticism in this context becomes unsafe and threatening since it prioritises cognitive closure, the quest for truth, a convergence of ideas, shutting down the dialogue rather than divergence of views, complexity, collaboration and opening up the dialogue (It is worth reading Alfonso Montuori ‘s work on ambiguity and creativity).

Going back to the idea of nonsense, nonsense is a very important ingredient in critical thinking and imagination. Of course there are different types of nonsense or bullshit (if you are interested in the topic, it is worth checking out Harry G. Frankfurt’s short philosophical essay ‘On bullshit’). According to Frankfurt, there is nonsense that its main motive is pretentiousness and aims to make an argument that suits one’s own purpose and agenda; and then there is nonsense that does not aim at a specific goal. The second kind is related to the concept of play. This type of nonsense allows us to play with ideas, make sense of them, tolerate and explore ambiguity, imagine and generate different scenarios, questions and answers. From a developmental perspective, Vygotsky was among the first psychologists to talk about the importance of play in children’s emotional, social and cognitive development and its contribution to the development of our unique human ability for symbolic representation such as imagination.

The reality is that for academics as well as for students, our passions emerge, develop, evolve and are expressed within certain economic and institutional contexts, which make the concept of play sound ridiculous. I am not trying to promote here a romantic view of academia and universities, where we need to spend hours staring out of our windows into the horizon or at the stars talking bullshit. Although I quite enjoy doing that with friends when I get the chance… I am also not claiming that there is not enough creativity in academia. However, if universities and academia are learning communities where old ideas, theories and assumptions about the world are questioned and new ideas emerge, there needs to be a space for both convergence and divergence of ideas and idea selection.

A learning community is a place of possibilities. I believe that the theories and the research we discuss represent the best possibilities for understanding at the world only at present, but will be replaced by alternative possibilities in the future. It is important to learn how to give up old ideas about our courses, theories and research and unlearn ways of examining and looking at the world.

The same way that societies are not a comforting ‘melting pot’ where different groups peacefully co-exist and agree to disagree with each other, the same goes with academia. Classrooms, seminars, conferences, meetings are not always safe and harmonious and it would be a fantasy to even try to make them harmonious places. All knowledge is constructed against different histories of antagonisms and misuse of power.

However, it is important to try to foster an environment in our classrooms, meetings, symposia that is collaborative and exploratory. Academic inquiries are not only individual mental processes. They are collaborative and science is becoming increasingly collaborative. If we take into account the growing rates of anxiety and depression among students and academics in universities today, the need for community becomes even more important. Generative dialogue and collaboration and not ‘cutthroat’ cooperation are also key skills that our students need to develop in order to become more able to resolve problems when they leave university. A recent meta-analysis of 168 studies across 51, 000 employees in different industries found that leaders reward people who are interested in the success and welfare of the team and organisation rather than themselves only.

The classroom and academia are places, where students and teachers learn how passionate engagement with ideas can lead to conflict, confusion and mistakes. Academia is also a place where like any other place, where we create, accumulate and use knowledge to defend certain positions. Many times we get stuck in these positions, because they feel safe, as they protect our egos and our privileges. However, especially in light of the current climate in higher education, we need to start fostering collaborative contexts, where the discovery and not the justification of positions and ideas is rewarded. We need to cultivate a culture that promotes a view of human beings, the world and knowledge as evolving not as fixed entities. A view of knowledge as an ongoing and evolving inquiry about ourselves and our discipline that at different stages generates answers but also more questions could start to help us reconcile with the idea that it is ok to let go of our ideas, assumptions and positions.

1 – https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/sep/23/university-mental-health-services-face-strain-as-demand-rises-50
2 – http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/a0013079

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How social psychology will change your life

The typical CCCU Psychology student is drawn towards clinical, health, forensic, and/or educational psychology. But the sub-discipline of psychology that I love is social psychology, because of its relevance to everything that goes on in the world. Let me give you two examples:

In March 2015, the co-pilot of a German airliner crashed his plane in the French Alps, killing all passengers and crew. Media coverage of this tragic event quickly centred on his mental health and the security provisions on board. But, as if the event itself had not been shocking enough, the reader comments added to various online articles were soon full of speculation about a catastrophic safety failure on an aged and poorly maintained aircraft, now systematically covered up by the airline and the investigating authorities in France and Germany. An obvious but seldom asked question about this event is thus: Why were people so ready to believe these complex and sinister ideas, when the official investigation had suggested the (subsequently confirmed) suicide and murder early on?

There is a young but growing body of social-psychological literature about conspiracism, some of which features in our second-year module, Influences on Social Functioning. This literature suggests, for example, that people may believe conspiracy theories because big events prompt them to seek big explanations (Leman & Cinnirella, 2007). It also supplies some evidence of projection processes, whereby people will tend to believe in actions that they would be willing to take themselves (Douglas & Sutton, 2011). A possible – unproven – explanation for the belief in conspiracy theories around the 2015 airline crash is therefore that people could imagine complicity in a cover-up but not in the suicidal intentions of a single person causing the tragic deaths of so many.

The second example of how social psychology offers a different perspective on current events is very current indeed: The British EU referendum on 23 June 2016 will determine whether the UK leaves or remains a member of the European Union. Throughout the debate about a potential “Brexit”, I have been struck by speakers’ attempts to focus on economic arguments, when the issues so obviously involve identity, solidarity, power, and nationalism. As will be well known to students of our third-year module, The Psychology of Nations, there is evidence from discourse analytic studies that English interviewees may avoid talking about national pride for fear of appearing prejudiced (e.g. Condor, 2000), but commonly use references to “being an island” to highlight distinctiveness from other European nations (Abell et al., 2006). The way people feel about national and European identity does not seem to be well represented in the political arguments about the referendum, and important complexities in precisely these areas seem to be in danger of being overlooked prior to such an important decision. A quantitative study by Cinnirella and Hamilton (2007), for example, found significant negative correlations between British and European identity (r = -.25) and between British identity and attitudes towards Europe (r = -.46) among white British participants, but positive correlations between the same measures (r = .74 and r = .41, respectively) among British Asians. Perceived compatibility between Britishness and Europe is obviously variable and deserves to be part of the debate.

So here is my promise and challenge to you: Social psychology will help you think differently about current affairs. When following the news, try to apply this perspective and think about what it adds to your understanding. Feel free to send me your ideas – I’ll be interested in hearing about them!

References

Abell, J., Condor, S., & Stevenson, C. (2006). “We are an island”: Geographical imagery in accounts of citizenship, civil society, and national identity in Scotland and in England. Political Psychology, 27(2), 207-226. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2006.00003.x

Cinnirella, M., & Hamilton, S. (2007). Are all Britons reluctant Europeans? Exploring European identity and attitudes to Europe among British citizens of South Asian ethnicity. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(3), 481–501. doi:10.1080/01419870701217530

Condor, S. (2000). Pride and prejudice: Identity management in English people’s talk about “this country”. Discourse and Society, 11(2), 175-205. doi: 10.1177/0957926500011002003

Douglas, K.M., & Sutton, R.M. (2011). Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50(3), 455-552. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8309.2010.02018.x

Leman, P. J., & Cinnirella, M. (2007). A major event has a major cause: Evidence for the role of heuristics in reasoning about conspiracy theories. Social Psychological Review, 9(2), 18-28.

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