Capgras and the President

March 28th, 2011

Pascal Boyer has a brilliant post up at the International Cognition and Culture Institute blog on the psychology of birtherism — the belief that “Barack Obama was not born a U.S. citizen.” He likens it to the psychiatric condition of Capgras Syndrome, which manifests itself as the persistent belief that one’s family and friends have been replaced by replicas, clones, aliens, spies, or some other form of impostor.

Capgras happens when people’s ability to recognize others emotionally, as well as visually, breaks down. When I see Mr. Improbable — or even Milo — I’m not only processing visual input, I’m having an emotional reaction to seeing the man (or dog) I know and love; Boyer describes it as a “specific emotional signature.” Without that signature, all I am seeing is a man who looks exactly like my husband, but who stirs in me none of the feelings that I associate with him. Hence, my brain conjures an explanation, however bizarre, to explain the discrepancy between my eyes and my heart.

Turning to birtherism, Boyer writes:

[I]n the spirit of a pop psychology of the masses, let me offer the diagnosis that a large segment of the US population may be experiencing something somewhat similar to the Capgras delusion. That is, when they switch on their TVs and watch the news, they see someone who has all the trappings of a President, acts like a President, lives where the President lives, is treated by everybody as the President, signs bills like the President, gives a State of the Union address to Congress every year like the President? But these people at the same time have a clear and vivid intuition that:

This man is not the President

Now, once you have the intuition, in the same way as in Capgras, all sorts of strange beliefs may seem almost plausible, if they provide a good explanation for why this particular person, with all the right details, still does not quite ring true. In the “two-step model”, Capgras patients come up with alien abductions and suchlike to account for the Unheimlichkeit of their situation. More reasonably (these things are relative), the birthers come up with a conspiracy that this particular American is a Kenyan, that he forged his birth-certificate, that he made up an entire family history, that the entire world media agreed to cover all this up.

Interestingly, Boyer doesn’t attribute the gut feeling that Obama cannot be President to simple racism. Although he doesn’t say it, he implies that a more stereotypically “black” President might cause less dissonance in the public mind. Barack Hussein Obama, by contrast, is biracial, with some family roots in the Muslim world; has a deeper academic background and less political experience than nearly any other president; and generally tends to confound categories and stereotypes.

I think Boyer’s point may well be right for a core of true-believer birthers. I have to wonder if some people feel unsure of the President’s citizenship not because they are fully convinced by birther arguments, nor because they cannot have what they think of as an appropriately presidential emotional reaction to Barack Obama, but simply because the media continues to report on the story. Without having the time, ability, or motivation to research the president’s citizenship, many folks may not have a strong opinion one way or the other, but assume that if there is smoke — as there continues to be, and will be until the end of Mr. Obama’s presidency — that there must be some fire, somewhere.

Politics & families

February 9th, 2011

I did my “Social Studies” segment on WGBH Radio yesterday on the topic of politics and families. It was a call-in segment, so it got rather entertaining. You can listen to it here.

For whatever it’s worth, I get more complaints from liberals about being teased/bullied by conservative relatives than the reverse. (The only person who’s ever ended a friendship with me over politics was to the left of me.)

Election Day thoughts

November 2nd, 2010

This is a post I wrote on Election Day 2008, and that mostly still holds true today. If the political climate has you jittery, take a deep breath and remind yourself of what will still be true tomorrow.

The world is a very narrow bridge. The main thing is not to be afraid (Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav).

I know I posted that below, in my election night etiquette post. But I wanted to revisit it on this day of narrow margins and fear.

Whoever wins tonight, nearly half the country will be very unhappy and afraid when the results are announced. Will that fear lead to spitefulness, isolationism, cynicism, vengeance, Nagelism? Or will it motivate us to continue to work for the world we’d like to see?

Right now, you’ve voted, or are on your way to, and that’s all, at this point, you can do. (If you are not voting and are eligible to do so, please get off my blog.) So I’d like to open up this post for some breathing space.

In your own personal worst-case scenario after tonight, what will still be true?

If tonight brings a political nightmare for me–

My husband and I will still love each other and support each others’ dreams and have bread and cheese and wine by candlelight every Friday night.

My dog will still smell really good and will crawl up from the foot of the bed in the mornings for snuggle time as soon as he knows I am awake.

Stephen King will continue on his streak of writing some of his best, most mature fiction to date. [I called that one well -- Under the Dome is a masterpiece.]

I will still live in the only city that has ever felt like home to me.

I will continue my recently renewed commitment to working out, which has made a huge difference already in my physical and mental health. (And my new iPod is on the way, so I can pump it to “I Will Survive” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” to my racing heart’s content!) ["Workout Songs" playlist now up to 200. Recommendations gratefully received.]

Campari and soda will still be the most refreshing drink ever, even if everyone else I know finds it repellently bitter.

My book will still come out this spring. [It did.]

Theater and the visual arts will continue to expand, refresh, and delight my mind and heart and soul.

Dubliner cheese will still be the finest of all the cheeses, and readily available at many of our neighborhood stores.

My friends will still share ideas and jokes and trials and joys and everyday moments of grace or absurdity with me.

This Saturday’s Torah portion will still be the one about new beginnings and “overnight” changes that are years in the making. [That was 5769. This Saturday's portion is the one about Jacob and Esau, reminding us that the "culture war" has always been with us.]

I will still spend Thanksgiving with my family.

Eddie Izzard will still be funny.

“Battlestar Galactica” and “Lost” will still come back in early 2009. (And season three of “Dexter” will continue to disappoint me.) [Let's not even discuss the levels of television disappointment I was to experience in the past two years.]

People will still have social dilemmas for me to solve.

None of this means that the election is a small thing. The world is a very narrow bridge, and narrow bridges are legitimately dangerous. There’s reason to be afraid. But let’s not scare ourselves more than we have to. What will still be true for you if tonight brings your worst-case scenario?

What I think when I see Muslims

October 29th, 2010

When I decided to go to graduate school, I came out east to interview at B.U., Carnegie Mellon, and Temple University. It was delightful taking the train around, and reading books on political psychology as I traveled.

I got into Boston’s South Station late at night from Philadelphia. If you haven’t been to South Station, it is somewhat large, and there’s a good chunk of it that isn’t marked well, so you’re more or less taking it on faith that this is they way you’re supposed to be going. It was after midnight, and I was alone.

I saw a group of Muslims, men and women, ahead of me. And I relaxed. I stepped up my pace so that I was behind them, far enough not to be overhearing conversation, but close enough that if I yelled for help, they would hear me. I felt safer.

I won’t pretend that my reaction was caused entirely by some deeply spiritual sense of oneness. This was in 1995, and I didn’t think any petty criminals would mess with a group of people, particularly Muslims. And I knew that the eyes of security officers and police would be on them, and therefore near me.

But I also knew these were people who were taking the risk of showing their allegiance to their faith despite the personal difficulties and even dangers it could cause. They were brave. They were already conspicuous, so might not fear making themselves more so for a good cause. They had chosen to represent their religion in a public fashion. If I needed help, they would be likely to help me. And if they did not do so immediately, I know enough to lay an effective guilt trip on a member of any of the Abrahamic faiths. My chances, I felt, were pretty good.

This is how it makes me feel when I see Muslims while traveling.

Being right versus being effective

October 19th, 2010

Mr. Improbable sent me a link to this New York Times article about getting rural Kansans to embrace cleaner energy. Most of the people written about in the article don’t accept the reality of global climate change, so it was initially believed that getting them on the conservation bandwagon would be difficult — until clean-energy group “ran an experiment to see if by focusing on thrift, patriotism, spiritual conviction and economic prosperity, it could rally residents of six Kansas towns to take meaningful steps to conserve energy and consider renewable fuels.”

And it worked. Because it didn’t try to change people’s beliefs, or their values, or their identity. Rather, it asked them to live up to the values they already embraced.

I have been schooled

February 4th, 2010

… in the matter of prematurely declaring anything the “Most X Ever.” Because something else will surely come along that’s even X-ier, sometimes sooner than you think. You liked Igor, the coroner’s assistant? Check out the Demon Sheep!

(Also, do watch Rachel Maddow’s commentary. She’s so much more polite than I am — I can think of a lot of ways to pronounce the acronym “FCINO” besides the refined “fa-SEE-no” that she chose!)

Boo!

demsheep

Most amazing political ad ever

February 2nd, 2010

In the epic discussion of rudeness on the boston.com blog, a number of people mentioned changes in the political/media culture as responsible for a degradation of public discourse. I don’t allow partisan politics on that site, but talking about general trends is fine, and I agreed with many of the commenters.

In that spirit, may I present the most remarkable political smear ad of all time. Yes, it is real; it’s for the coroner’s seat in New Orleans:

I’ll let you pause for a moment to take that in.

I majored in theater as an undergraduate. You know the actor who played Igor probably got his theater degree at Louisiana State or some such, dreamed of playing Mister Mistoffolees on tour, maybe getting to do the one-man version of “Santaland Diaries” someday, or even Shakespeare … I hope for his sake that his hopes and dreams were already crushed before this happened. It sounds harsh of me, I know, but I am cruel only to be kind.

Disgust in the NYT

May 28th, 2009

Nicholas Kristof discusses some of the research on disgust that has informed my own writing (a few posts on the topic here and here), and its political implications:

… conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust. People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.

The upshot is that liberals and conservatives don’t just think differently, they also feel differently. This may even be a result, in part, of divergent neural responses.