The 1%’s Mind Games: Psychology Gone Bad

“It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.” — Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Manipulating Our Core Concerns

While millions of Americans grasp for lifelines amid the unforgiving currents of extreme inequality, multi-millionaires and billionaires comfortably ride the waves and add to their enormous wealth and power. The contrast is jarring to be sure, but it persists nonetheless because self-interested representatives of the 1% have become masters at using manipulative psychological appeals — I call them “mind games” — to defuse and misdirect our outrage. And when they succeed, we regrettably lose our bearings about what’s happening, what’s right, what’s possible, and what we must do.

Exploring this phenomenon as a psychologist, my research has led me to a focus on five concerns that are particularly influential in our daily lives: namely, issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority and helplessness. Each is associated with a basic question we routinely ask ourselves: Are we safe? Are we treated fairly? Who should we trust? Are we good enough? Can we control what happens to us?

For multiple reasons, these concerns are especially important in this context. First, singly and in combination, they’re essential lenses through which we personally interpret events, evaluate our circumstances, and decide what actions, if any, to take. Second, these five concerns extend from individuals to groups; as a result, they’re relevant in a very wide range of settings: our interpersonal relationships, family relationships, work relationships, community relationships, and political relationships in local, national, and international spheres. Third, these same concerns have the potential to undermine our capacity for careful and critical thinking because they’re frequently linked to hard-to-control emotions, including fear, anger, suspicion, contempt, and despair.

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POLITICAL MIND GAMES: How the 1% Manipulate Our Understanding of What’s Happening, What’s Right, and What’s Possible

Giant corporations are raking in record profits, while millions of Americans remain scarred by the Great Recession and a recovery that has left them behind. Mammoth defense contractors push for more of everything military, while programs for the poor are on life support. Global polluters are blocking effective responses to climate change, while the disenfranchised suffer disproportionately from environmental disasters and devastation. Influential voices ridicule those who are disadvantaged by prejudice, by discrimination, and by dwindling resources. All the while, our middle class is shrinking, imperiled, and insecure. This is not the America most of us want.

It’s really no secret that certain individuals and groups—the Koch brothers, Walmart heirs, some Wall Street CEOs, prominent politicians (many Republicans, and some Democrats too), big-business lobbyists, right-wing think tanks, Fox News—use their wealth and influence to pursue a self-serving agenda that betrays the common good. Indeed, they’ve been doing it since long before Donald J. Trump moved into the White House. But what often flies under the radar is the extent to which they rely on psychologically manipulative appeals to advance their narrow interests at the expense of the rest of us. Examples include “The dangers of global warming are overblown,” “Voter fraud is a rampant injustice,” “Workers protesting low wages are devious and dishonest,” “We’ve earned every dollar and deserve your praise, not criticism,” and “Everyone will be helpless if gun reformers have their way.”

In my new book, POLITICAL MIND GAMES: How the 1% Manipulate Our Understanding of What’s Happening, What’s Right, and What’s Possible, I explain the psychology behind the success of today’s plutocrats in marketing their false claims—and what we can do to counter them. Offering a research-based framework, I show how the 1% exploit five fundamental concerns that govern our daily lives: issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. These concerns are soft targets for manipulation because each is linked to a basic question we ask ourselves as we try to make sense of the world around us. Consider:

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Building a Racially Just Society: Psychological Insights

Unlearn-Racism

by Roy Eidelson, Mikhail Lyubansky, and Kathie Malley-Morrison

Authors Note. As three white psychologists, we offer this brief essay with the awareness that our perspective is necessarily limited by our lived experience as members of the privileged racial class. Through our many years of work as both psychologists and activists, we know first-hand how contentious and fraught racial justice discussions and efforts can be, even among colleagues and within organizations firmly committed to progressive social change. We share the essay below with the recognition that, to varying degrees, everyone is diminished by racism and racist institutions, and in the hope that this psychology-focused analysis may encourage constructive discussion and much needed action toward a racially just society.

This past August’s police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teen, temporarily brought the attention of the entire nation to Ferguson, Missouri. The days and weeks that immediately followed witnessed prayer vigils; peaceful protests; sporadic episodes of minor violence and property damage; a heightened (and, in the eyes of many, overblown) law enforcement presence with armored trucks, riot gear, tear gas, and rubber bullets; a statement by President Obama from the White House; and a visit to the St. Louis suburb by Attorney General Eric Holder. Now, three months later, Ferguson residents wait anxiously for the anticipated announcement of whether a federal grand jury has indicted Darren Wilson, the white police officer who fired the gun that struck down Brown.

Whatever the outcome and immediate aftermath of those deliberations, Michael Brown’s tragic death, the anguish of his family, and the turmoil within his community are all salient reminders that the United States is still far from being a racially just and equitable society.[1] These failings are broad and deep. They are reflected in the longstanding and seemingly intractable realities of unequal treatment, circumstance, and opportunity for African Americans – and for other communities of color. And they pose a difficult yet increasingly urgent challenge[2] – not only in regard to seeking justice for Michael Brown, but also in working to redress the widespread and daily harms associated with race-based inequities in law enforcement and other areas.

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Worse Than Fiction: America’s Overcrowded Cellar

In a 1973 short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin describes a peculiar city where the inhabitants’ prosperity depends entirely upon the endless suffering of a single young child, locked away forever in a cellar. The townspeople ignore the child’s pleas for release because they have learned that his salvation will destroy a world that is utopian in every other way. As Le Guin writes:

They all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

Although we may be tempted to look for parallels between this troubling tale and the ills of contemporary U.S. society, our attention should instead be drawn to two striking differences. First, whereas in Omelas one child tragically suffers for the welfare of everyone else, in the United States today many, many more children are abandoned to a metaphorical cellar — not for the greater good, but merely to preserve or enhance the lives of a privileged relative few. Second, the distressing arrangement is unalterable in Omelas, fixed in place by the author’s construction. In our world, the current system instead reflects an outrageous lack of political will and courage.

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In Praise of Shared Outrage

“We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all.” These were the words of Lord Brian Griffiths, Goldman Sachs international adviser, when he spoke at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral last fall. With inequality at historic levels here in the United States and around the world, it’s a reassuring message we all might wish to be true.

Unfortunately, scientific research reveals a sharply different reality: inequality is a driving force behind many of our most profound social ills. The Equality Trust reviewed thousands of studies conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the World Bank. Consistent patterns emerged, both between and within countries. Inequality is associated with diminished levels of physical and mental health, child well-being, educational achievement, social mobility, trust, and community life. And it is linked to increased levels of violence, drug use, imprisonment, obesity, and teenage births. In short, Lord Griffiths’ claim–despite the venue–was a self-serving fiction.

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