Beware the "All Trump Supporters Are Like That" Trap
Social Psychological Guidance for Moving Forward
Posted Nov 12, 2016
This is a post about moving forward. And it includes an apology. This week’s election created a firestorm in this country that was like nothing I’d ever seen. Emotions connected with national politics are more charged and volatile than I can remember in my 46 years. People are scared. People are confused. And, worse, people are being really nasty to one another. On top of all this, if your world is at all like mine right now, these things are all playing out in your immediate environment in complex, divisive, and unpleasant ways.
Throughout this post, I will provide three anecdotes related to what I have experienced in my beloved little liberal bubble of New Paltz, New York, in the past 72 or so hours. In doing so, I’ll point toward and apply the social psychological concepts of outgroup homogeneity and tribalism to help us understand what is going on. Along the way, I will apologize if I’ve cast insults on my compatriots. Finally, I will provide a sketch of a map on how we move forward from here.
Outgroup Homogeneity and Current Affairs
In their groundbreaking synthesis of basic social psychological processes, Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett (1991) paint human beings as having highly motivated social psychological processes. This means that people see the world that they want to see. We see other people in the world in often overly simplified ways—which is partly why we often vilify members of groups other than our own group (or “outgroups”). One process that allows for such vilification of outgroup members is “outgroup homogeneity” (see Haslam et al., 1996)—which is the kind-of-strange tendency to see a lot of variability among individuals in one’s own group while concurrently seeing little variability in members of outgroups. So a Yankee fan might think that there are lots of different kinds of Yankee fans while also thinking that all Red Sox fans are essentially the same.
Outgroup homogeneity is a basic social psychological process, rooted, it seems, in our evolved tribalistic psychology (see Haidt & Kesebir, 2010) and serving the purpose of keeping individuals well-connected to the members of their own tribe while allowing individuals to see members of rival tribes in simplistic and cognitively efficient ways. Such a mindset was likely adaptive under ancestral conditions when humans lived in relatively insulated tribes (see Geher, 2014).
Ross and Nisbett (1991) provide lots of examples of outgroup homogeneity—showing that it’s an easy effect to uncover. So if you conducted a study right now asking Trump supporters essentially how much variability there is in the kind of person who supports Trump compared with how much variability there is in the kind of person who supports Clinton, you’d likely see that Trump supporters see a lot of variability among their own kind (there is no single kind of Trump supporter!) and little variability among the Clinton supporters (they’re all the same!). And if you then studied Clinton supporters asking these same questions, you would likely see the reverse (we Clinton supporters come in lots of varieties; those Trump supporters are all the same!). This is how outgroup homogeneity and its sister process, the ingroup/outgroup categorization effect (see Billig & Tajfel, 1973), operate. This is how human social cognition works.
In short, I think that one way to understand the great political divide that is ravaging the U.S. right now is this: Clinton supporters have very little capacity to see the world the way the Trump supporters are seeing it, and they are painting Trump supporters in broad strokes—as being the same as each other (as racist, uneducated, uncouth, misogynistic, xenophobic warmongers!). And Trump supporters have very little capacity to see the world the way Clinton supporters are seeing it, and they are painting Clinton supporters in broad strokes as all sharing the same qualities (as liberal, privileged, overly politically correct, head-in-the-clouds, over-educated eggheads!). With such simplistic portraits of the members of the other side in place, it’s little wonder that such dramatic disagreements are taking place, and it’s little wonder why attempts at dialogue between the two groups on Facebook often get ugly very fast. This is the psychology of the human inability to truly understand the perspectives of those with whom they disagree.
The Two Trump Supporters of New Paltz
I promised you some anecdotes. Here’s one. I’ve got a research team composed of students who work very closely with me on projects throughout the year. While all my students are important to me, the members of my research team are students I get to know particularly well. They are stars in my mind. About 24 hours after the election results rolled in, I got a distressed email from one of my esteemed research team members. A young white male from a relatively conservative farming town in our area, this bright and respectful student of mine was hurt pretty badly. Apparently in one of his classes that day, the professor decided to have the class dedicated to talking about the election. Well this is New Paltz, so unsurprisingly, many students voiced outrage along with a host of other negative emotions regarding Trump’s victory. Reportedly, my student, partly in defending another student who identified as pro-Trump, came forward as a Trump supporter himself in the discussion. The vitriol that he reported experiencing as a result was simply disgusting by anyone’s standards. While he tried to explain that it was Trump’s fiscal plan that was appealing about Trump, several members of the class reportedly called him every name in the book. Sexist, racist, misogynistic, etc. He was told that he “did not belong in New Paltz.” I was floored at hearing this. This is one of the single-best and brightest students I know. He works so hard, and he stands up to join any project that needs help. He is a volunteer firefighter in his free time. He is the kind of guy you want your sons to grow up to be like. He also happens to be a Trump supporter. While (as you may know), I’m not a Trump supporter, I am a supporter of reason and of civil discourse. And I am a supporter of the idea of multiple viewpoints being able to be expressed. And I am sickened by what happened to my student. Outgroup homogeneity can be an ugly process in our social worlds. It can lead us to treat individuals—real people—as if they are some abstract concept (e.g., “just another white male born into privilege”).
The “Peaceful” New Paltz Protest Against Trump
So yesterday was an interesting day in my office. My 13-year old son was off from school. He and two friends were bopping around town and around campus all day. At some point my wife, who also works on campus, emailed me asking if it was OK for my son and his friends to join the protest. This is New Paltz, and about 1,000 students planned a “Love Trumps Hate” protest that would march around town and around campus. Our family, like a large majority of families in New Paltz, supported Hillary very strongly, and we were shocked and dismayed by the election results. "Sure," I said. "Let’s let them march in the protest."
My son got a big kick out of it. And most accounts of the event were that it was positive and peaceful. This said, I’d be remiss if I did not tell you about another student on my research team who had a not-so-positive experience with this event. This student, a female graduate student, was proctoring an exam at the time. For some reason, the protesters decided it would be a good idea to march right through the halls of an academic building. My student, being the kind of person who takes her work very seriously, went into the hallway to indicate to the protesters that an exam was going on and that they should please be quiet and respectful. What happened next is disgusting. She was pushed against the wall by the “peaceful protesters” and yelled at. She felt physically threatened and even when she was recounting this situation to our team later, you could tell she was emotionally shaken.
Peaceful event? Love trumps hate? With all due respect to my academic brethren, if this is not hypocrisy, I’m not sure what is.
We Need to Truly Listen to the Other Side
And here is anecdote #3—and this one’s a bit personal. In the past few days, I had a very eye-opening situation. You see, I personally am very scared of Trump as president. This is my opinion that, of course, as an American, I am entitled to hold. To express my thoughts after the election results came out, I wrote a blog post that, in retrospect, was a bit different than my typical blog posts. I guess it was pretty politically charged. Given how I was feeling on November 9, I guess this is not that surprising. Anyway, the point of my blog had to do with the fact that there was a great educational-attainment divide between supporters of Trump and supporters of Clinton. While this is true (in terms of formal education), this point, coming from the likes of me (liberal professor, Ph.D., New York secular guy...) was not really appreciated by everyone. As of right now, this blog post, titled Why Trump’s Victory Signals the Need for Better Education, has received 84 comments and approximately 2,000 likes. I am guessing that the likers did not leave most of the comments as most of them were, well, kind of negative—to put it mildly! Good thing there is not a hate button.
In the many comments to that post, I was called “smug,” “elitist,” “bozo,” and a “pompous a___,” among other things. One of my brothers called me at work laughing his head off, as he read these aloud to me over the phone! It was a bit over the top!
Hey, you know what, while no one loves receiving negative feedback, I actually think that the negative comments on my post are enlightening. Several of the comments are very articulate. Several of them make good points. And here’s what else: Nearly all of the comments provide insights into why millions of people could not stand the idea of voting for Hillary Clinton—a point that has been very hard for me to see. And while I don’t agree with the main stance of these individuals (who, by the way, seem to vary quite a bit from one another), reading over these comments really got me to see, from the eyes of those who are “on the other side,” how these people are seeing our political and social worlds. I have to say that while there is definitely a tad of “ouch!” going on as I read these comments, I feel mostly (after I settled down a bit) that this has been really educational for me.
If you have the time, you might want to read that post and the comments yourself. Especially if you are a Clinton supporter. If you have an open mind, and you can handle some mildly offensive language, you’ll see that these are people who feel dismissed. These are people who feel that their voices and opinions don’t matter. You’ll see that these are people who feel marginalized and left out. These are people who feel that there is a large educated elite contingent running things in this country and that this elite contingent doesn’t give a damn about them. And while the folks who commented haven’t really said the nicest things to me, I have to say, I empathize strongly with anyone who is feeling dismissed and marginalized.
An Open Apology
So with this all said, I apologize to any readers who felt insulted and marginalized by my post of November 9. The fact that 84 people felt a need to comment, and that so many used emotionally charged language, tells me that my post struck a nerve—and made some folks angry and hurt. If you are among the 84, I want you to know that I have read all of these comments and, as indicated above, I am not dismissing them by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, as you can see by the bulk of this particular post, I think it is really important that, as citizens of this nation, we work to provide support and opportunities for people across the political spectrum, regardless of our own political ideologies. So if you were insulted or hurt by my post of November 9, I am truly sorry about that.
This Is What “Moving Forward” Looks Like
I have another graduate student who is a star on my team. His name is Rich Holler. Politically, I think that Rich and I tend to see eye to eye. I saw Rich at the office the morning after the election. Here is what he said to me first thing: “It is what it is.”
Rich is right. This is our country. It belongs to all of us. The election is over and it’s time to move forward. As humans, we’ve got built-in biases that shape how we see the social world. My main guidance on what “moving forward” looks like is to be cognizant of these biases and to work hard to not let them adversely affect how we treat others. When Michelle Obama (2020?) said, “We go high,” from a social psychological perspective, this is what she meant.
Fight your tendency to engage in outgroup homogeneity. If you are a Trump supporter, you might think that all Clinton supporters are overeducated elitist a-holes. But I guarantee that you would be wrong. If you are a Clinton supporter, you might think that all Trump supporters are uneducated, racist, warmongers. But I guarantee that you would be wrong. A basic social psychological principle is this: People in our outgroups differ from one another more than we typically can imagine. Individuals should be treated as individuals, regardless of what groups they may belong to.
Fight ingroup/outgroup reasoning. One of the most basic facts of human social psychology is the tendency to treat those who are in our ingroups more positively than how we treat members of our outgroups. Interestingly, this is nearly the definition of unfair. We need to go out of our way to fight ingroup/outgroup reasoning. If all Democrats work to benefit one another at a cost to all Republicans—and vice versa—for the next four years, we’re in trouble. Give others the benefit of the doubt, even if they are not like you are. Strive for fairness in the treatment of all people.
Listen to the other side. It’s so often the case that people think they “have the number” of the other side. We Clinton supporters think we totally get those Trump supporters. Those Trump supporters think that they totally get us Clinton supporters. This is just another extension of outgroup homogeneity. Fight it. As I’ve written before (see Geher, 2016), the social world is anything but black and white. You might think that there are the good people and the bad people in the world. But that overly simplistic way of seeing others in your world is simply flawed. If you’re a Trump supporter, find your liberal friend. And listen. If you’re a Clinton supporter, find the Trump supporter in your Facebook feed, and listen.
No matter how tumultuous our nation feels right now, we will get through this. We have to. No one is seceding. We’re not really moving to Canada—we were just saying that! We need to work hard to fight social psychological biases such as the ingroup/outgroup bias. We need to truly listen to others in our world, especially to those who see the world in ways that differ dramatically from how we see it. Here’s to the next four years—as President-Elect Trump might say, let’s make it great. It is what it is. And we are moving forward. Together.
Billig, M., & Tajfel, H. (1973). Social categorization and similarity in intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 3, 27–52.
Haidt, J., & Kesebir, S. (2010). Morality. In S. Fiske, D. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.) Handbook of Social Psychology, 5th Edition. Hobeken, NJ: Wiley. pp. 797–832.
Haslam, Alex; Oakes, Penny; Turner, John; McGarty, Craig (1996). "Social identity, self-categorization, and the perceived homogeneity of ingroups and outgroups: The interaction between social motivation and cognition". In Sorrentino, Richard; Higgins, Edward. Handbook of Motivation and Cognition: Foundations of Social Behavior. 3. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 182–222.
Ross, L., & Nisbett, R.E. (1991). The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.