Archive for the ‘Social Processes’ Category

The Duke Blue Devil

April 8, 2006 Comments off

Groups are often the chosen means for achieving our goals, but they can go awry–as we all know. For every Palo Alto Research Center there is a road crew jackhammering (slowly) a hole in the wrong spot. For every Dave Matthews Band there are hundreds of bands playing something that can only generously be called music. For every sensational class there are others where little teaching, and even less learning, occur. And for every team of honorable, hardworking players in sports there are teams of selfish miscreants who play only for victory at all costs.

What kind of group, then, is the Duke Lacrosse team of 2006? In case you have been REALLY distracted by the end of the semester rush or have just gotten back from some other planet, members of the team and basic the team as a whole–has been accused of a great wrong. The evidence is far from complete, but what is clear is that conflict and possibly rape occured on March 13 at a house rented (from the university, no less) by several players. Someone at the house hired two women to dance at the party. The women thought they were attending a small bachelor’s party, and they would be performing for 2 hours. But, and here stories vary a great deal, one of the women reports that she was attacked and raped by three of the men. She called the police from a nearby grocery story, and was taken to the hospital.

The incident unfolds over the next several weeks. The house is searched, and police report finding evidence that supports the woman’s story. On March 23 a judge orders 46 of the lacrosse team’s 47 members to report to a lab for DNA testing. The Lacrosse team’s games that week are cancelled and then on March 28 the President of Duke, Dr. Brodhead, announces the team’s season has been suspended pending resolution of the rape allegations. But the team maintains its innocence. The captains admit that they showed bad judgment for hosting such a party, but that “that any allegation that a sexual assault or rape occurred is totally and transparently false.” Indeed, when all is said and done, the team is exhonorated of wrong doing–at least, of legal wrong doing.

Then, during the first week in April, coach Mike Pressler resigns from Duke, and the situation is made more complicated by the report of lewd email sent by one of the players. The email does not directly implicate either the student or the team, but its content is so disgusting that it serves as a smoking gun for many in the community. The email is also a violation of Duke email rules, and so the student is suspended. (The other students, although under investigation by the local police, have not yet been suspended by the university.)

This incident is complex, raising questions of race, sex, and socioeconomic justice. Since much of the information is filtered through the media we must not rush to any conclusions, but even when viewed through the ambiguities of emotion and misinformation, we must consider what the incident says about groups and communities. From the perspective of social psychology and leadership, we have to wonder about the team; the nature of its cohesion, the norms of the group, and its values. We must wonder about the leadership of the team, which includes the captains, the coach, and even administration of Duke. We must consider the community where the alleged attack took place, and how that community is responding to the crisis.

Duke Student Reactions

The Duke Lacrosse team presented a strongly united front, and was eventually vidicated by the courts. However, in the early weeks of the incident the Duke administration and many in the community feel that the team is hiding the truth. Although many individuals outside of Duke University have reacted to the incident with generalizations that stereotype the students at Duke, the students themselves have reacted to express dismay with the students on the team who were not cooperating fully with the policy and the university. The university’s scheduled “take back the night” walk focused on the Lacrosse team.

Duke President’s Actions

The incident has triggered the Duke President to call for a series of reforms at the university. He discusses the incident in an open letter to the university and community (

Mike Eruzione’s Reaction

In an article at USAToday, Christine Brennan discusses the importance of team unity and cohesion, but notes that in this case this cohesion is working to discredit the team. She reports the analysis of Mike Eruzione, who we know well as the team captain of the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. Mike was asked what he thought about the Blue Devil’s sticking together in the crisis, and he expressed his concerns clearly: “There are degrees of protecting your teammates, but this crosses the line.” He explained:

Put it this way: I wouldn’t want to be associated with a teammate who possibly committed a crime like this. Why would you want someone like that as a teammate? Why aren’t kids speaking up right now? I’m surprised with something of this magnitude that they’re not. It’s one thing to have a code of honor with teammates, but that code of honor goes out the window with something like this. The team has to separate itself and say, ‘Hey … you did it. We can’t protect you in something like this.’ (Source of quotation:

The team’s silence and unity may reflect the intervention of defense attorneys who have become the official voices for the young men and Duke University officials report that the men are cooperating with law enforcement officials (all agreed to testing, for example). However, some have likened the group’s united front to a protective code of silence, a “blue wall” like the well-known “thin blue wall” that symbolizes the code of unity of police officers. Others, though, have suggested that the unity is more closely akin to the relatively recent “no-snitch” movement that has further reduced community members cooperation with police when investigating crimes.

Neighbors/Community reaction

The house where the incident occured was rented by 3 of the leading members of the Lacrosse team, and several neighbors witnessed the women arriving at the party.

Are Sports Teams Known for Violence?

What does the research say about sports teams and violence? Sociologists Earl Smith and Angela Hattery at Wake Forest note that gang rapes on college campuses can, in nearly all cases, be traced back to two types of groups/organizations: fraternities and sports teams. According to research by Smith and Hattery, 55% of gang rapes involve fraternities and 40% men’s sports teams. Smith noted, when interviewed, “We do not assume the men at Duke lacrosse are guilty,” Smith says. “Yet we are not surprised they find themselves in this predicament.”

Their work is described, only very briefly, in a USA Today article.

This incident is not an isolated case, either. A number of highschool and college sports teams have had their entire seasons cancelled due to inappropriate actions. For example, in 2004, the Lacrosse team at Glenbrook (Ill.) South High School was cancelled when following an investigation of hazing and alcohol abuse. In 2001, the leading lacrosse high school team, St. Paul’s School of Maryland, ended its season when players watched a videotape of one player having sex with an underage girl. For details see Mike Zhe’s article in the Portsmouth Herald.

The Disturbing Email

A member of the team, who has been suspended, wrote an email to the team that evening, describing in graphic terms his desire to harm woman. A search warrant, which describes the incident in graphic terms, is located at the Smoking Gun website. The Smoking Gun posts the actual legal documents from various high-profile cases, and has posted the entire request for the search warrant for Duke Player #41, who sent the malicious email. The site contains the verbatim email.

The Leader: Coach Pressler

Parents and former players have waded into the blogsphere with supportive comments about Coach Pressler. One family sent three of their sons to play for Duke, and they report that the experience was very positive–the young men learned sportsmanship, integrity, and personal responsibility. Pressler’s attorney, Edward J. Falcone, said that Pressler’s resignation is not an indicator of any guilt or wrong doing: “His resignation should not be construed as an indication that he has done anything wrong,” Falcone said. “He has done nothing wrong.”

The source of this information is a site called gambling911, because–oddly enough–people are literally gambling on the incident, with odds being taken on the results of the DNA evidence currently being processed.

Biased Perceptions and Intergroup Conflict

The conflict is putting community relations in Durham, NC., to the test. Residents have taken sides on the issue, with some calling for arrests in the case and others warning against “rushing to judgment.” Students and faculty at Duke University (home of the Lacrosse Team) are seeking to insulate their school’s good name from the publicity damage, while North Carolina Central University (where the dancer who reported she was attacked at the party attended school) has asked that justice be done. This incident is one that can break down a community’s unity, for it activates self-conceptions based on membership in gender, racial, education, and economic categories. Once these category-based social identities are activated, they can cause individuals to see the situation from a less-than-objective vantage point. There are those that seek to blame the woman who reported being attacked, suggesting she fabricated the incident, exaggerated her harm, or brought it on herself by agreeing to work the party without an escort. Others have “tried the Lacrosse team in the court of public opinion,” and have found them guilty. A few blogs with widely divergent postings on the incident include Talk Left , Alas (which wonders why the term “wilding” has not been used to describe the incident), and No Confidence

One professor at Duke University, Houston A. Baker, Jr., responded by writing his own “no confidence” letter, stating

“It is virtually inconceivable that representatives of Duke University’s Athletic Department would allow its lacrosse team to engage in regular underage drinking and out-of-control bacchanalia. It is difficult to imagine a competently managed corporate setting in which such behavior would be tolerated (and swept under the rug), or where such a “team” would survive for more than a day before being tossed out on its ears by security. Moreover, in a forthrightly ethical setting with an avowed commitment to life-enhancing citizenship, such a violent and irresponsible group would scarcely be spirited away, or sheltered under the protection of pious sentiments such as “deplorable” — a judgment that reminds us of Miss Opehlia in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, saying that slavery was “perfectly horrible.” Such timorous piety and sentimental legalism, in the opinion of the author James Baldwin, constitutes duck-and-cover cowardice of the first order.”

The full letter was posted by NBC.

Categories: Social Processes

On Obedience

September 27, 2005 Comments off

Even though people think of themselves as rebels, nonconformists, and free-thinkers, we obey authorities all the time. We file our income taxes, even if we object to the way the monies are disbursed. We carry out assignments given to us by our bosses, our teachers, our friends and family, even if we would rather spend our time doing something else. We obey the speed limits, follow the urgings of our religious and civic leaders, and try to do the right thing.

Milgram wanted to study these kinds of situations, so he created one in his laboratory. Initially he had planned to conduct similar tests with German subjects, but he soon changed his plans. “I found so much obedience,” Milgram explained, “I hardly saw the need for taking the experiment to Germany.”

The study became famous; one of the best-known studies in all the social sciences. Most people have heard of its fake shocks. Fake victim screaming in pain. A shock machine going from 15 volts to 450 to XXX. And prods: “The experiment requires that you continue,” “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” “You have no other choice, you must go on” (Milgram, 1974, p. 21). And the very obedient people: 65% obedience (most of those who disobeyed did so at the 300 315 volt level).

Milgram varied the situation over several months. Sometimes the victim said he had a heart condition. Sometimes he was isolated in another room, sometimes he was in the same room (and would jump around in pain). Sometimes the subject had to actually hold the victim’s hand down on a shock plate before he delivered the volts. People obeyed, sometimes more, sometime less, but they obeyed more than anyone expected.

The Perspective

Try to examine Milgram’s situation through a social psychologist’s eyes. What is it about the experiment that is so fascinating? The surprising degree of obedience shown by the people who served as subjects? The nervousness and anxiety that gripped the teachers as they forced themselves to continue to deliver the shocks? The remarkably diverse reactions of people asked to perform identical actions? The apparent immorality of the subjects recruited by Milgram? All these questions, and many others, come to social psychologists’ minds when they examine Milgram’s procedure. Milgram studied obedience in his research, but many more social- psychologically interesting processes, mechanisms, and phenomena are seen in the obedience setting he created.

Did People Want to Hurt the Learner?

Social psychologists admit that, in some cases, we treat others badly. We often use verbal aggression against others, derogating and insulting them. These verbal behaviors are often paired with nonverbal ones, in which people attempt to harm others. Such violence ranges from the pushes and shoves shown in the video of the little boys working in their after school clubs to the murder and genocide of the Nazis.

Some people, hearing about the Milgram study, assume the subjects were sickos, filled with aggression and violent tendencies, who reacted to the opportunity to hurt another by doing what they secretly wanted to do: they attacked the victim. And, indeed, a small minority of the participants seem to have been using the shock machine as an aggressive weapon. Feeling that the learner’s poor performance reflected negatively on their teaching ability, one subject said, “The only time I got disgusted is when he wouldn’t cooperate” (Milgram, 1974, p. 46).

But social psychologists assume that even people who are frustrated and angry don’t act on their impulses unless something in the situation “pulls the trigger.” This viewpoint is expressed most clearly in the famous frustration-aggression model of violence.

John Dollard, Neal E. Miller, and their colleagues at Yale University used this motivational approach to explain aggressive behaviors. They believed that whenever external conditions thwart our attempts to reach our goals, we become frustrated. Frustration then arouses an aggressive drive, which surfaces at the behavioral level in the form of (1) an attack on the source of the frustration or (2) displaced aggression aimed at some other person or object. Fifty years of research, however, has clarified and extended their original explanation of aggression. We now know that a host of aversive events in addition to frustration can stimulate aggression. We also know that Dollard and Miller overstated the strength of the relationship between frustration and aggression. Aversive events may leave us ready to be aggressive, but frustrated and irritated people are not always aggressive people.

Strange, abnormal subjects?

So some of the Milgram subjects were angry, and they released this anger by delivering the shocks. But the video footage shows that very few of the subjects were angry or aggressive. They kept their heads down. They pushed the buttons. But they tried to stop, and were ground down by the relentless commands of the authority.

But maybe they were just weak people. You know, compliant conformist types. This was the 60s, after all, and the men in the video looked like they were conforming kinds of people. Perhaps they had authoritarian personalities: they possessed traits that prompted them to conform to authorities’ commands. Perhaps, too, they were immoral. They had a badly developed sense of right and wrong.

Social psychologists reject these purely personality explanations of obedience. Yes, people vary in their personal qualities, but saying “They were conformists” or “They were bad people” is simplistic. They weren’t. They were normal, average people, caught up in a powerful situation. But where did the “power of the situation” come from? Why makes a social situation coercive and influential?

Social influence (The power of the situation)?

Perhaps some people were acting aggressively. And some were weak, obedient personalities. But social psychologists, when considering the Milgram study, stress the power of the situation. The subjects found themselves trapped in an influential, involving situation, and they acted in ways the situation demanded. They conformed. Their role required obedience. They had little sense of responsibility.

But situational factors that influence us are often vague and difficult to see, so let us return once more to the Milgram experiment to see how subjects’ reactions were influenced by interpersonal relations and group processes. To begin with a very basic question, we might ask, “What pressures to conform were operating in the obedience situation?” Many people underestimate the impact of social pressures. Social psychologists, however, believe that our actions are often controlled by other people. Consider the experimenter’s social power. He could not punish subjects for refusing to give shocks, but they considered him to be a scientific expert. Many also thought that he had the right to demand obedience because he was a researcher at Yale. These situational factors created powerful pressures, which few of the subjects could resist. In subsequent studies Milgram found less obedience when he reduced the experimenter’s social power. When, for example, he moved the study from prestigious Yale University to a nearby industrial city (Bridgeport, Connecticut), obedience dropped to 47.5%. And, when the experimenter’s role was given to an ordinary person who was supposedly also a subject, only 20.0% of the subjects were obedient (Milgram, 1974).

One of the best known studies of conformity to groups was conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s. People in this study were asked to make judgments of line lengths. Amazingly, even though the groups were temporary ones and unimportant to the subjects, they nonetheless conformed and made the wrong decision. Imagine how people would act in more powerful groups!

The experimenter’s role also gave him power, just as the subjects’ role stole power from them. A role is a set of expectations for behavior created by the social situation. We are nearly always in a role. In class, we find ourselves occupying the teacher role and the student role. Visiting the doctor you are in the patient role, he or she is in the professional expert doctor role. Going home for Thanksgiving college students return to the son-daughter role and parents are back in their parents role. These roles restrict behaviors in substantial ways. Teachers lecture and profess, because that is their role in class. Students sit in class, take notes, ask questions, because that is what the role of student’s demands. Roles constrain us in powerful ways.

Milgram also found high rates of obedience because subjects didn’t feel very responsible for their actions. Their role was that of subject, and they were told what to do. They were supposed to follow orders. So they did. Many of the subjects some subjects refused to take any responsibility for their actions; they claimed the experimenter forced them to give the shocks. In one subject’s words, “Mr. Williams has the biggest share of the responsibility. I merely went on. Because I was following orders . . . I was told to go on” (Milgram, 1974, p. 50). Others blamed the victim for having volunteered to be the learner, or for being so stupid that he couldn’t solve the problems.

The most disobedient people in the study felt responsible, and retained their sense of control and choice. In contrast to the obedient subject’s reaction, one answered the experimenter’s prod of “You have NO choice” (Milgram, 1974, p. 51) by explaining:
I do have a choice. Why don’t I have a choice? I came here on my own free will. I thought I could help in a research project. But if I have to hurt somebody to do that, or if I was in his place, too, I wouldn’t stay there. I can’t continue. I’m very sorry. I think I’ve gone too far already. [Milgram, 1974, p. 51]
Isn’t that a wonderful quote. Give me chills.

Conformity, roles, and responsibility diffusion often influence how we act when we are in groups. Consider, for example, actions that take place in groups: clubs, meetings, teams, work units, military squads, study groups, friendship cliques, and so on. What would have occurred if the teacher had been part of a group of two or three others who blithely went along with the experimenter’s commands? Would obedience have been even greater? Or what if the others in the group had refused to administer the electric shocks? Would disobedience then have been the rule rather than the exception? Documenting the importance of group dynamics, Milgram found that subjects were more obedient when they were alone than when they were with others who refused to obey. In the situation the subject still gave the shocks, but two other subjects helped with related tasks, such as reading the questions and giving feedback. Only the individual giving the shocks was a real subject, however; the other two were confederates trained to refuse to continue with the shocks at the 150-volt level and 210-volt levels, respectively. In this situation, Milgram found that only 10 percent of the true subjects were completely obedient.

The Power of the Situation

If social psychology has a single take home message, its likely the power of the situation. The situation, which includes other people, can prompt us to behave in ways that, personally, we would prefer to avoid. Yet, social psychological causes can be invisible to the untrained eye, so we must always remind ourselves to avoid the fundamental attribution error by looking to for the hidden external, situational causes of behavior, thought, and emotion.

Categories: Social Processes

The Katrina Crisis: Social Psychological Issues

September 18, 2005 Comments off

Louisiana and the surrounding states are experiencing a regional disaster, precipitated by Katrina: a Category 5 hurricane that passed over Florida, strengthened in the Gulf of Mexico, and then made landfall near the city of New Orleans. The hurricane caused massive destruction and death, for many residents were unable to evacuate to safety.

This crisis has prompted a strong response from Americans, as people across the country have expressed their concern for the well-being of the residents, wondered at the apparently slow response to the emergency, and asked questioned the causes and consequences of the crisis: Why wasn’t the destruction anticipated and steps taken to prevent it? Did local, state, and national officials ignore, or at least, minimize, the danger of the storm since it threatened only minorities and the poor? Why did the response proceed so slowly? All these issues are ones of central concern to social psychology.

Anticipating Disasters

People the world over are subjected, from time to time, to environmental stressors. Some of these, such as volcanoes, floods, hurricanes, blizzards, and typhoons, can be blamed on natural occurring disruptions in the planet’s meteorological and geological systems. Others, however, result from human error. These human-made disasters include nuclear accidents, the spilling of polluting substances, transportation accidents, building fires, industrial accidents, and the general degradation of living areas.

Certainly some disasters are utterly unpredictable, and no safeguards can be taken to avoid them. But in most instances people underestimate the threat of disaster, and/or fail to implement the steps needed to prevent them. What psychological factors set the stage for biased assessment of the risk of a disaster? Do people have a blind spot when it comes to predicting the possibility of a disaster, and the need to take steps to prevent them?

Misperceiving risk. Katrina was a natural disaster, complicated by human error. By all accounts the city of New Orleans was not sufficiently prepared to cope with the hurricane-although some experts suggest that all reasonable steps had been taken. However, the reaction of officials and citizens is consistent with people’s tendency to misperceive risk and retain a false sense of security. These cognitive biases are healthy, in the sense that sustain the idea that the world is well-ordered, but unhealthy in the sense they leave individuals unprepared for disaster when it does befall them. The unwarranted optimism that undermines the accuracy of risk perceptions can be traced to:

  • availability biases: relying excessively on vivid, but nondiagnostic information
  • illusions of control: the sense that the world, and outcomes, can be determined by one’s own actions. In consequence, most of us generally believe that unpredictable negative events, such as heart attacks, being fired, unwanted pregnancies, car accidents, alcoholism, and a devastating flood, won’t happen to us.

Group-based errors in risk-assessment. A second set of factors concerns the social, or interpersonal, dynamics, that set the stage for disasters. Many disasters can be traced back to a decision making body or group. The sinking of Estonia; the Challenger; the Exxon Valdez and the Aberan, South Wales, school tragedy were all the result of faulty group-level decision making. Although people tend to assume that a group will make a more reasonable decision than will a lone individual, research indicates that in some cases groups can make very bad decisions-particularly when trying to calibrate risk; rather than make cautious choices (such as assuming the worst and developing detailed plans for the evacuation of the city), groups tend to shift in the direction of more risky decisions. Many of the plans developed to cope with a disaster are created by groups, and they require a close integration of effort in response to the threat. In many cases, without extensive practice, groups are simply unable to respond in an organized fashion to a novel event.

Hindsight bias. In the days after Katrina struck New Orleans the media was filled with indictments of the city officials’ failure to anticipate the storm’s consequences. It may be, however, that this condemnation of officials in New Orleans is one more example of the hindsight bias. Our predictions about what will happen often seem more accurate once the event has moved from the future to the past; we often feel as though we “knew it all along”: when recalling their predictions about such matters as historical events, psychiatric cases, athletic contests, scientific experiments, medical and legal cases, fluctuations in the stock market, knowledge of trivia questions, and election outcomes, we are confident that we predicted the outcome well in advance. Yet these retrospective surveys of accuracy are usually distorted by the hindsight bias. Although today, it seems obvious that flood walls built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane would not protect a city located below sea level, what did people think in June of 2005? (However, experts like Mark Fischetti certainly seem to have predicted the catastrophe long before it occured: See this analysis).

Perceiving the Victims of Disasters

We can’t hear of an accident without asking who is to blame. When we learn of 1000 of people trapped in a “shelter” in New Orleans, of people losing all their possessions in a flood, or a National Guardsman suffering a broken leg when trying to rescue a flood victim, we wonder who deserves blame.

Defensive attribution. The tendency to blame individuals for actions that yield negative outcomes–even when the outcomes were unintended, unforeseeable, and accidental–is called defensive attribution. This response is a “defensive” one because, by blaming someone for an accident, observers assure themselves that a similar misfortune won’t befall them. The more severe the accident, the “more unpleasant to acknowledge that this is the kind of thing that could happen to anyone” (Walster, 1966, p. 74). Defensive attributions help us insulate ourselves from anxiety associated with the recognition that catastrophic events cannot always be avoided. The hindsight bias also influences attributions of blame, for once we learn about the negative consequences we unwittingly increase our estimates of the likelihood of the accident. As a result, an unforeseeable accident, when viewed in retrospect, becomes foreseeable

Just world thinking. We also blame people because we assume that the world is a fair place where people generally get what they deserve (Lerner & Miller, 1978). This just world hypothesis leads us to think that the flood victims must have deserved their misfortunes. In fact, we may even assume that those who tried to help and incurred injury, were partly to blame as well. Discussions of the flood in Blogs and websites have smacked of just world thinking when they have stressed that the victims had chosen to live in a dangerous city, built below sea-level. That the city’s name, the Big Easy, signaled its decadence, and that residents’ easy going life styles interfered with the work need to prepare for the flood. One site even mentioned that the hurricane visited New Orleans “because the city has more bars than churches.”

Blaming the victim. These biases can prompt us to mistakenly blame the victim of crimes and accidents for their misfortunes. When individuals are told about individuals who have experienced traumatic events that they could not have either foreseen or prevented, they nonetheless tend to blame the victim for playing a role in producing the event. Hearing that people suffered for days without receiving help, that they were victims of sniper fire, and that they were injured and received no care, observers may tend to say that the victims-by not attempting to evacuate-brought their problems on themselves. Such a view overlooks, of course, the fact that the victims in many cases had no means to escape from the path of the hurricane.

The Lens of Racial Bias. The victims of Hurricane Katrina trapped in New Orleans were, by a large majority, African Americans. The news footage of the event suggested that some whites were trapped in the city, but most of the victims were African Americans. Both white and black American’s perceptions of the Katrina crisis in New Orleans may have been tinged, to a large degree, by their stereotypes. Even non-prejudiced whites can misinterpret neutral behavior in racist ways, and so make basic mistakes in interpreting the evidence of their senses. White people, for example, when asked to make up a story about a picture of a black person interacting with a white person, usually assumed the Whites and Blacks were arguing with one another and they usually blamed the Black for starting the dispute (Allport & Postman, 1947). White college students who observed a staged argument between a Black and White in which one person shoved the other described the push as “violent” when the perpetrator was black, but “playing” or “dramatizing” when the perpetrator was white (Duncan, 1976). Junior high school boys described the actions committed by a black male in a drawing as “meaner” and more threatening than the identical behavior performed by a white male (Sagar & Schofield, 1980). In New Orleans, this bias prompted white news media to describe whites as “finding food in a store” and African American’s as looting a grocery story. (See, too, this analysis of the images).

Fundamental Attribution Error. In the midst of their coverage of the hurricane’s damage and the staggering loss of life, the news media reported bleaker news still: that people in the city were attacking one another. Instead of banding together to cope with the flood and its aftermath, the media report increases in murder, rape, and violence. Such reactions are, of course, difficult to explain in simple terms: although social psychology’s theories can explain aggression in terms of norms, deindividuation frustration, and the like, its outbreak on such a scale raises questions about the basic goodness of human nature. How could people exploit others so, in the face of a disaster of such proportions?

This perception, however, should be tempered by knowledge of the fundamental attribution error: the tendency to the tendency to attribute behavior to internal, dispositional factors (Ross, 1977). Because of the FAE, we tend to take actions at face value, without considering the impact of the situation. And certainly, in New Orleans, people faced a situation like no other-and without knowing more about the nature of that situation we cannot draw accurate conclusions about the motives of the individuals in that setting. It may be that the situation created a state of deindividuation and normlessness-and that individuals took advantage of the situation to achieve their own selfish ends. When the story is finally told, however, it may be that norms emerged in the setting that sustained violent responses (a fight response), escape responses (a flight response), and supportive, helpful responses (tending and befriending responses).

Consequences of Disasters

Environmental disasters, like stressors in general, come in three variations: acute, episodic acute, and chronic. Some environmental hazards, such as hurricanes, are discrete and short-lived. They are, however, highly stressful for those involved. Studies of learned helplessness, for example, suggest that the individuals who were trapped in New Orleans after Katrina may have felt powerless to escape the situation. The unpredictable arrival of help, the negativity of the situation, and their lack of control over their outcomes must have, inevitably, caused a chain reaction of negative psychological aftereffects, including loss of motivation, change in life view, and depression. Even after the hurricane’s victims were rescued from death, they still faced days, months, and years of long-term recover. Such chronic stressors may me less negatively valenced, but their continual influence is gradually wearing. One comprehensive review of dozens of published studies of psychological reactions to disasters concluded that people who survive an accute stressor are more likely to suffer from anxiety, sleeplessness, and fearfulness. Such stressors also lead to small increases in drug use and depression among people exposed to a hazard. Between 7% and 40% of the survivors of disasters will exhibit some sign of psychopathology.

The aftereffects of environmental stress decrease gradually over time as individuals learn to cope with their situation. In some cases, however, people continue to experience aftereffects of an environmental hazard years after the experience. Individuals who experienced a tornado or a flood reported less and less stress in the months following the event, but even 16 months later stress levels remained abnormally high. Mothers living near the Three Mile Island power plant, 10 years after the accident, continued to worry about the effects of the radiation. Some evidence also suggests that women, in particular, suffer longer after a traumatic event as do people who try to hard to regain control of an uncontrollable event or become too focused on the event.

The stress caused by human-made disasters seems to be the particularly long-lasting. Natural disasters, such as earthquakes or tornados, are traumatic, but they are unavoidable and unpredictable. Technological disasters, such as pollution or nuclear accidents, are equally damaging, yet their effects can’t always be clearly assessed since they take place over a longer period of time. Hence, individuals can cope with a once-in-a-lifetime hurricane, but they have a harder time adjusting when they discover their well water is contaminated by a nearby chemical waste dump. One study compared individuals who lived within a mile of a leaking waste dump, individuals whose homes had been flooded, and a control group. Even though the event had occurred 9 months before, individuals who had lived near the dump were far more distressed than individuals who had experienced a flood and control subjects. They had higher levels of anxiety, depression, physical complaints, and elevated levels of stress-related hormones in their systems (Baum et al., 1992).

People are, however, remarkably resilient. Even though such disasters as the Flu of 1918, the Chicago Fire, and San Francisco earthquake(s), and 9/11 took their toll, people responded in time as the coped with the disaster and overcame it. Indeed, some studies suggest that there is an element of truth to the notion that unfortunate events increase our resilience-that what does not kill us makes us stronger. Such events can, too, shield us from subsequent misfortunes and the strains of everyday life. For many months to come, whenever bad things happen to people in the city of New Orleans-from fights between husband and wife, to crime in the streets, to increases in alcoholism–residents can just shake their heads and blame it all on Katrina.

Big Ball of Blame

September 18, 2005 Comments off

Reprinted from Style Weekly.

In 1964 a young woman, Kitty Genovese, was murdered on a New York City street in the dead of the night. The case was considered routine until police discovered 38 people heard her cries for help; yet not a single person responded to her need. Kitty’s neighbors did not think they were obligated to get involved. The experts called it diffusion of responsibility. Others called it criminal.

In 2005 a Saffir-Simpson Category 5 hurricane, Katrina, passed over Florida, strengthened in the Gulf of Mexico, and then set its sights on New Orleans. The hurricane caused destruction and death, for many residents were unable to evacuate to safety. Then this natural disaster escalated into a man-made catastrophe, as days passed and local, state and federal officials moved at a glacial pace to help. Some called it bureaucracy and poor planning. Others used stronger words: incompetence, injustice, racism and business as usual in an elitist America that takes better care of the wealthy than its poor. But whatever word you like to use, it was wrong: People suffered and died because no one helped.

Who could watch the news reports of Katrina without asking who is to blame? New Orleans was protected by a levee too weak to withstand a Category 5 hurricane? Officials opened the city’s Superdome as an emergency shelter and then failed to provide it with basic survival supplies? In the days after the storm some survivors attacked rescuers? Who is blame?We often blame the victims themselves. The media and Web sites have smacked of this kind of victim-blaming. Orleaners lived in a city built in a swamp separated from a lake by a flimsy dike. They could have evacuated to safety, but they stayed behind. New Orleans, nicknamed the Big Easy, is a lazy, decadent, Southern city where easygoing lifestyles interfered with the work needed to prepare for the flood. New Orleans is the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Mississippi, a city with more bars than churches. New Orleans brought its destruction down on itself.

But then there are the facts; facts that contradict the “they had it coming” mentality. Many victims were long-term residents whose roots to New Orleans ran so deep that they felt at home there and nowhere else on earth. Many had no means to escape from Katrina — they did not own cars, and the public transportation system broke down. New Orleans, despite its fame for revelry, is also a deeply religious and spiritual community. Many of the storm victims were children, who cannot be held accountable for the choices of their parents.

So the search for blame must push on and upward, as we shift our sights to leaders: Ray Nagin, the mayor of the city of New Orleans; Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco; Michael Brown, who oversees the part of the federal government that is supposed to analyze and manage such crises (FEMA, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency); and the president himself, George W. Bush.

But no one likes to take the blame, and even people whose job it is to take the blame shirk that duty, preferring to pass the big ball of blame on to someone else. I called for aid immediately, says Mayor Nagin. I instituted a state of emergency as soon as I could, says Gov. Blanco. How could we expect that the hurricane would inflict such massive damage, says Michael Brown. We must investigate this failure, says President Bush.Experts will again call this “diffusion of responsibility,” as the leaders busily disburse blame across all the involved parties, until it settles onto no one individual’s shoulders. It’s the system, politics, the blame game, just what leaders do. But it isn’t what good leaders do. It was President Truman who kept a sign on his desk that read “The buck stops here” to remind himself to never dodge the responsibility that came with his job as president: to never “pass the buck.” The sign, now in the Truman Presidential Museum and Library in Independence, Miss., needs to return to the Oval Office.

But perhaps we are all to blame, if only indirectly. Just as we take pride in the accomplishments of our nation and its citizens, so we must also take the blame for our country’s mistakes. It was our nation, America, that could not manage to save its people from Hurricane Katrina. We must resist blaming Hurricane Katrina’s victims. We must stop living in a dream world where leaders actually take responsibility for harm they do. Each one of us must, instead, take seriously our social contract and its requirements that we care for others in our community. We cannot lie awake in our beds at night, like the bystanders who listened to Kitty Genovese’s screams, and think, “It is not my job to help.”