Feb 082017
 
Ohio KKK member with gun

When Trump unleashed his Muslim ban on Jan. 27, many liberal friends and I re-circulated a 2015 New America Foundation report showing that, since 9/11, alt-right extremists have killed more people on U.S. soil than have radical Muslims. Our point was that Trump is missing the point: A Muslim ban will not keep out the terrorists because the terrorists are already here. But then I worried, did I just post fake news? Could the 2016 Orlando nightclub attack have put the jihadists ahead of the right-wingers?

To get the actual facts, I downloaded the New America Foundation’s publicly available dataset. My analyses indeed revealed that the Orlando attack, which claimed 49 lives, raised the jihadists’ death toll to 94 victims, compared to the 50 victims whom right-wing extremists have murdered.

Yet a closer look at the data confirms that the biggest terrorist threat is still U.S.-born fanatics, not foreign-born zealots. The two most lethal terrorist groups are U.S.-born jihadists (69 victims) and U.S.-born right-wing extremists (50 victims), who have murdered a total of 116 people. Foreign-born jihadists are only the third most lethal group, with a total of 25 victims.

These numbers not only suggest that an immigration ban won’t fix America’s terrorism problem, but also raise a second question: Why do homegrown Americans break bad and join the jihad or the KKK?

To this question, my fellow cultural psychologists Sarah Lyons-Padilla and Michele Gelfand have intriguing answers. Their research shows that what drives Muslims to radicalize is believing their lives don’t matter, a belief that is fed by feeling they don’t really belong anywhere. Discrimination, racist rhetoric, and xenophobic policies only exacerbate these feelings of “cultural homelessness,” as Lyons-Padilla explains in this TEDx Stanford talk.

Enter radical Islamic groups, which target young men who are feeling alone and adrift, and then restore their sense of belonging and meaning.

A similar psychological process seems to drive European Americans to join White supremacist and other right-wing terrorist groups. The slow death of manufacturing, the contraction of American towns and rural areas, and the tanking of working- and middle-class incomes have left a broad swath of Americans feeling unmoored and insignificant. The widespread acceptance of redneck jokes, white trash impressions, and “basket of deplorables” comments only salts these wounds.

Like radical Islamic groups, White supremacist and other right-wing terrorist groups offer their members the sense that they are important and welcome. Same psychological phenomenon, Different culture war. And thus the KKK keeps pace with ISIS.

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Memphis and still have deep ties there. One of my relatives recently posed a question to my diverse friends on Facebook: “[How can we] keep our families, friends, and people that we haven’t meet yet safe [from terrorists]? I’m not asking this to be funny or degrading. I didn’t graduate from college and live in a small town in Mississippi. I’m not trying to debate with scholars.”

I think the timbre of her question holds a large part of the answer. If the grand U.S. experiment in multicultural democracy is ever to work, we must make everyone feel included and respected, even if they have not shown us the same regard.

Photo CC Paul Walsh

Oct 042013
 

I was chuffed to give a talk about CLASH! at the inaugural TEDx Pacific Palisades, whose theme was “From_____ to _____.” I shared, among other things, tales of my harrowing transition from working-class Memphis to Yale, a photograph of my grandmother with 17-year-old me, and the story of how I got mixed up with Hazel Rose Markus in the first place. Kindly stab yourself and pass the dagger (which is an old British adage meaning “take some for yourself then pass it on”)!

Jan 162011
 

This-Will-Make-You-Smarter_square

Pundits now invoke culture to explain all manner of tragedies and triumphs, from why a disturbed young man opens fire on a politician, to why African-American children struggle in school, to why the United States can’t establish democracy in Iraq, to why Asian factories build better cars. A quick click through a single morning’s media, for example, yields the following catch: gun culture, Twitter culture, ethical culture, Arizona culture, always-on culture, winner-take-all culture, culture of violence, culture of fear, culture of sustainability, culture of corporate greed.

Yet no one explains what, exactly, culture is, how it works, or how to change it for the better.

A cognitive tool that fills this gap is the culture cycle, a tool that not only simply describes how culture works, but also clearly prescribes how to make lasting change. The culture cycle is the iterative, recursive process by which 1) people create the cultures to which they later adapt, and 2) cultures shape people so that they act in ways that perpetuate their cultures. In other words, cultures and people (and some other primates) make each other up. This process involves four nested planes: individual selves (their thoughts, feelings, and actions); the everyday practices and artifacts that reflect and shape those selves; the institutions (such as education, law, and media) that afford or discourage certain everyday practices and artifacts; and pervasive ideas about what is good, right, and human that both influence and are influenced by all these levels. (See figure below). The culture cycle rolls for all types of social distinctions, from the macro (nation, race, ethnicity, region, religion, gender, social class, generation, etc.) to the micro (occupation, organization, neighborhood, hobby, genre preference, family, etc.)

One consequence of the culture cycle is that no action is caused by either individual psychological features or external influences. Both are always at work. Just as there is no such thing as a culture without agents, there are no agents without culture. Humans are culturally-shaped shapers. And so, for example, in the case of a school shooting it is overly simplistic to ask whether the perpetrator shot because of either a mental illness or because of his interactions with a hostile and bullying school climate, or with a particularly deadly cultural artifact (i.e., a gun), or with institutions that encourage that climate and allow access to that artifact, or with pervasive ideas and images that glorify resistance and violence. The better question, and the one that the culture cycle requires, is how do these four levels of forces interact? Indeed, researchers at the vanguard of public health contend that neither social stressors nor individual vulnerabilities are enough to produce most mental illnesses. Instead, the interplay of biology and culture, of genes and environments, of nature and nurture is responsible for most psychiatric disorders.

Social scientists succumb to another form of this oppositional thinking. For example, in the face of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of poor African-American residents “chose” not to evacuate the Gulf Coast, to quote most news accounts. More charitable social scientists had their explanations ready, and struggled to get their variables into the limelight. Of course they didn’t leave, said the psychologists, because poor people have an external locus of control, low intrinsic motivation, or low self-efficacy. Of course they didn’t leave, said the sociologists and political scientists, because their cumulative lack of access to adequate income, banking, education, transportation, healthcare, police protection, and basic civil rights makes staying put is their only option. Of course they didn’t leave, said the anthropologists, because their kin networks, religious faith, and historical ties held them there. Of course they didn’t leave, said the economists, because they didn’t have the material resources, knowledge, or financial incentives to get out.

The irony in the interdisciplinary bickering is that everyone is mostly right. But they are right in the same way that the blind men touching the elephant in the Indian proverb are right: the failure to integrate each field’s contributions makes everyone wrong and, worse, not very useful.

The culture cycle captures how these different levels of analyses relate to each other. Granted, our four-level process explanation is not as zippy as the single-variable accounts that currently dominate most public discourse. But it’s far simpler and accurate than the standard “it’s complicated” and “it depends” answers that more thoughtful experts often supply.

Moreover, built into the culture cycle are the instructions for how to reverse engineer it: a sustainable change at one level usually requires change at all four levels. There are no silver bullets. The ongoing U.S. Civil Rights Movement, for example, requires the opening of individual hearts and mind; and the mixing of people as equals in daily life, along with media representations thereof; and the reform of laws and policies; and fundamental revision of our nation’s idea of what a good human being is.

Just because people can change their cultures, however, does not mean that they can do so easily. A major obstacle is that most people don’t even realize that they have cultures. Instead, they think that they are standard-issue humans—they are normal; it’s all those other people who are deviating from the natural, obvious and right way to be.

Yet we are all part of multiple culture cycles. And we should be proud of that fact, for the culture cycle is our smart human trick. Because of it, we don’t have to wait for mutation or natural selection to allow us to range farther over the face of the earth, to extract nutrition from a new food source, or to cope with a change in climate. And as modern life becomes more complex, and social and environmental problems become more widespread and entrenched, people will need to understand and use the culture cycle more skillfully.

May 052010
 

The redoubtable Sarah Brookhart, deputy director of the Association for Psychological Science, invited me to wax philosophical about my twisty little career path. Here is the result. Special thanks to Andy Carra for supplying the lede.

“It’s like you get to ride around on a unicorn and grant wishes.” That’s how my friend Andy described my new job as Vice President of Content Development at The Tech Museum, a hands-on science and technology center in San Jose, California.

I have to agree with Andy; the job is pretty magical. Over the next few years, I will spearhead the design of some 100 new exhibits on Silicon Valley, biotechnology, green energy, and technological solutions to social and environmental problems. I get to work with curators, designers, educators, and engineers to make science and technology delicious for everyone. I get to inspire kids and empower adults and loop new communities into the circle of knowledge. I get to have fun for a living.

But my new job is also a tiny bit terrifying….

To read more, click here

Mar 182010
 

Note: Find my original and complete dispatch from the Stanford “Small Steps, Big Leaps” conference at PopTech.

Many psychologists, writers and other students of human nature have reached the same conclusion: people are usually too distracted, tired, scared, or just plain lazy to act on their best intentions. But few of these observers suggest how we humans might overcome our less noble tendencies.

Scientists at a recent Stanford Center for Social Innovation conference, however, presented a bevy of tactics for transforming even the most bumbling schlemiel into a model citizen. Called “Small Steps, Big Leaps: The Science of Getting People to do the Right Thing,” the event showcased how to use gentle nudges, subtle tweaks, and quiet prompts to summon better behavior.

One of the most overlooked strategies for getting people to be generous, for instance, is actually to ask them, related Frank Flynn of Stanford Graduate School of Business….for more about the conference, click here: PopTech: blog

Feb 222009
 

NDUNGU, TZ–When I chose this bike tour, I blithely dismissed the caveat that the route was for advanced mountain bikers. “I ride on Mt. Tam all the time, and the Coastal Mountains, too,” I told myself. Granted, on these rides I’m slicing my gazelle-like road bike along meticulously banked pavement. “But hey,” I asked, “how much different could it be to muscle a fully loaded Sherman tank through steep corrugated trenches?”

A lot different, I quickly learned on day 3 of our ride. The 40-mile journey started with a plunge down the side of a mountain and ended with a climb up the sheer wall of a 15-foot-deep ravine. Throughout, boulders bounced my bike hither and thither, sand sent its back wheel shimmying, and tight switchbacks added more torque and centrifuge. Meanwhile, gravity pulled the impending disaster ever faster and faster. In many sections I just wanted to get off and walk, but the path was so pitched that descending with my heavily laden bike was dangerous, if not impossible.

By the time we arrived at our guesthouse in Ndungu–a venue whose decor and clientele made it an excellent location for a war crime–all I could do was retreat to my room for a good cry and an orange Fanta. (Orange Fanta tastes just like St. Joseph’s baby aspirin, and so it is the perfect accompaniment for all post-traumatic regressions to childhood.)

As is so often the case, though, a few simple cycling rules–mental skills, really–kept me in my saddle, if not my right mind. They were:

1) Plan, and then have confidence in the plan. I bite it hardest when I doubt myself and then try to change the plan at the last minute.
2) Believe in the machine, and have faith in engineering.
3) Don’t look where I don’t want to go. The body follows the eyes, and so keep them trained on where I want to wind up.
4) Hills are never as bad up close as they seem from a distance.

Writing them out, I see these skills aren’t half-bad guides for living–another gift from the mountains of northern Tanzania.