Stanford Prison Experiment

TrumpTrauma Part 2: Exploring the Psychology of the 2016 Election

In TrumpTrauma Part 1, I explored some of the foundations of the human experience in the USA today. The pre-existing conditions included a) our long history of violence, b) cultural/linguistic dissonance, c) technology, d) distrust, and e) preserving a positive self-image. Continuing with the exploration of the heightened state of fear in our country, Part 2 will expand on the psychology of fear, protection, and power.

In this post, I will briefly explain some Psychology 101 concepts, explore their application to our current circumstances, and offer some strategies to remedy some of our negative patterns.

Lessons from Psychology

There are many mechanisms at play regarding fear, survival, trauma, violence, and the protection of our ideals about ourselves and the world. Here are a few to consider:

PROJECTION

Think back to the section on Preserving a Positive Self-Image in TrumpTrauma Part 1, and the commentary, "We are not better than this."
Violence.
Judgement.
Hatred.
Discrimination.
Harassment...

Those are painful things to hold, to feel, and to enact.
So take a couple deep breaths. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice the room around you. And do what you need to in order to take care of yourself through this content.
Psychologically, humans are experts at finding ways to reduce and suppress pain. We drink. We smoke. We play games. We have sex. We pray. And we engage psychological defense mechanisms. A primary defense mechanism is projection. How does projection function? In short, if it is too painful (or conflicting) to recognize and own my own potential for something (i.e. violence), I will project it onto others. Due to my inherent desire to not experience violence in myself, I will rapidly recognize violence in others and not hesitate criticize it. 

We, as a species, are exceptionally good at overlooking our own flaws and irately accusing others for the same flaws. It is the classic game of "the pot calling the kettle black." Unfortunately, these accusations often elicit additional defenses and heightened reactivity.

Remedy: Take ownership and responsibility. Every time you find yourself wanting to condemn, judge, and blame an individual or group for violence, for stupidity, for anything you loathe, pause, and genuinely explore those qualities in yourself. "I'm racist." "I'm violent." "I'm judgmental."
Too much?
Try: "I can be racist at times." "I have the potential for violence." "I tend to be judgmental."
Feeling overwhelmed? Shut down? 
Thinking of someone else and how much they need this feedback?
Feeling angry, escalated, defensive, and/or ready with "But..."?
Just notice how those are all ways to deflect and displace the pain of owning your own shortcomings. This is not about shaming you. This is not about self-flagellation. This is a practice of great compassion--being willing to look directly at the pain, own it, and continue to love yourself and others.
Want extra support in what this could look like? Listen to or read Andrea Gibson's poem "Evolution."

BOBO DOLL EXPERIMENT

What about the psychology of aggression?
In 1961, Albert Bandura and some colleagues performed the famous Bobo Doll Experiment. Of the children participants, one group had an aggressive role model, one group had a non-aggressive role model, and one group did not have a role model. The children who witnessed aggressive adult behavior with the Bobo Doll were significantly more likely to demonstrate aggressive play than the other two groups. 

So what does this mean in the context of post-election behaviors? In short, as white children chant "Build the Wall" to Latino students, as rates of harassment skyrocket in schools, as fake deportation letters are handed to students, as rates of anti-Asian, anti-Black, anti-Disability, anti-Immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, and anti-Woman incidents spike, it appears that the mocking and derogatory language that Donald Trump used during the Presidential Campaign has turned into a nation-wide Bobo Doll Experiment. We are witnessing the power of Social Learning Theory--especially in schools. Teachers are reporting multiple incidents in which minority students are saying, "Bullying is okay now, because our President is a bully. Everyone is bullying me because I am _____ and there is nothing I can do about it." In cases in which teachers are attempting to interrupt bullying, students are vindictively responding, "Donald Trump said it, so I can, too!"

Remedy: Model how to take ownership and responsibility. 
Trump supporters, Conservatives, Republicans, and even Donald Trump himself can step in to apologize, to be accountable for distasteful words and actions, and to model how to repair relationships across differences. This takes more than looking into the camera and saying "Stop it!" on 60 minutes (although I do appreciate that). It requires the humility to voluntarily state, "I modeled this behavior. I (unintentionally) endorsed this behavior. I was wrong. I am sorry, and I want to do better and be better. My first step will be to _______."
Anti-Trump protestors, Liberals, Democrats, and even Hillary Clinton herself can step in to apologize, to be accountable for distasteful words and actions, and to model how to repair relationship across differences. Clinton started this process by apologizing for the name-calling (i.e. deplorables) that took place during the campaign period. 
(Note: while all people can demonstrate accountability and humility, the people who are in leadership positions and who have power have a more substantial impact in how they model behavior.)

STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT

Continuing with the psychology of violence, we must also keep in mind the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment from 1971. Even in this role-play scenario, people who were randomly selected as "prison guards" found themselves executing intimidation tactics, domineering attitudes, and violent actions towards "inmates." The experiment had to be cancelled due to the degree of psychological distress exhibited by the participants.

How does this relate to what we are seeing emerge across our nation? Ultimately, we are observing the dynamics of power. For example, people who look like Donald Trump (i.e. white men), especially if they agree with his words and actions, can experience a type of prison-guard syndrome--a propensity to feel insulted when their power is challenged (i.e. anti-Trump protests), and are likely to make an aggressive presence known (i.e. the KKK celebration parade in North Carolina; see hateful incidents linked above). We are reminded about how stepping into a system with an inherent power differential requires rules to maintain that system. If the rules are: some people get less food (and/or lower quality food), uncomfortable and/or unsafe living conditions, limited rights, limited medical care, etc., when those people request (or demand) something different--more rights and comfort, especially--what are the options for the people in power to do? If we review the experiment, initial requests were dismissed, and escalated responses elicited fear and control from those in power.

This experiment helps us remember that good people, average people, ordinary people are rapidly susceptible to enacting heightened violence in order to protect themselves (physically and psychologically) from the resistance that comes from oppression and from inhumane conditions. In the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment, "inmates" -- students who were accustomed to many freedoms and human rights -- struggled significantly with the experience of being in a cell without typical access to movement, to food, to socializing, to creativity, to meaningful use of time, etc. When their requests for those things were ignored or denied, they expressed their distress more intensely. The first response from the "prison guards" was to put the "inmates in their place"--to maintain the rules and the system at all costs.

Remedy: Get curious about the disparate conditions between "prison guard" and "inmate". When you feel like the protests or "uprisings" are personal, take a deep breath, and make an effort to listen open-heartedly. Perhaps it isn't personal. Get curious about how the psychological impacts of Toxic Stress interrupt communication skills, making requests for compassion sound more like insults. Get curious about how you would respond on the "other side." Ask yourself, is it possible to maintain order and justice without systemic rules that legitimize fear and oppression? If fear, discomfort, and feeling unsafe/unvalued are at the root of what people are resisting, get curious about your own role in creating a safer, more comfortable space.
Want to dig deeper into this dynamic? Check out the podcast by Reveal News: The man inside: Four months as a prison guard, and carefully follow the dynamics occurring at Standing Rock in the #NoDAPL protests (Indigenous Rising Media; Fargo Inforum; Bismarck Tribune).

EXCHANGE

As we learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment, there are times in which one group of people will express experiences of fear, discomfort, distrust, anger, and other uncomfortable emotions. We also can recognize that, if those are not your own experiences, it is a common reaction to respond to those claims with doubt, disbelief, and an impulse to justify or rationalize why they happened. 
Trayvon Martin was unarmed? He must have been a troubled kid.
Eric Garner was unarmed? He must have been a thug.
Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman? He must have been intoxicated...
Notice anything?
This might be a good opportunity to refer back to the earlier questions about your relationship with violence (TrumpTrauma Part 1). 

Privilege is thinking that something is not a problem because it is not a problem to you personally.
— Unknown

And a good opportunity to take another breath.

So what happens when someone's experience of pain (or marginalization) is not believed or understood? Or dismissed? Oftentimes, they try harder to be understood and heard. In that process, something fascinating happens--discomfort and pain increases for the other person. This phenomenon in the counseling world has many labels, and in the field of Contemplative Psychology field it is known as exchange. Exchange occurs when a therapist works with a client regularly, and starts to experience some of the same symptoms that the client experiences. For example, counselors working with clients with trauma and PTSD may start to demonstrate hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping, perseveration on the stories of the clients, and reactivity--all common symptoms of trauma survivors (even when the counselor has not had personal experience with trauma). In this case, this particular phenomenon is also known as vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. Similarly, a therapist may experience depression symptoms (i.e. hopelessness) when working with clients with severe depression, or experience symptoms like paranoia while working with clients with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This phenomena can happen on larger scales as well.
Example: When I, a hearing individual, was learning American Sign Language (ASL) and attended my first Deaf event, I remarked, "Wow. I am missing so much information! And I'm working so hard to keep up!" Deaf folks politely smiled and responded, "Now you know what my everyday experience is like around hearing people." Exchange.
Note: This is a common experience for hearing people who are learning ASL.
Example: When I, a white person, started to engage in conversations about race and received feedback about my mistakes, I felt judged and belittled--like my every move was being watched. When I shared that experience, I was offered compassion, grace, and a recognition that "People of color receive criticism for communicating, even in academic language, on a regular basis. As well as a nearly constant experience of being watched like a hawk." I noticed how my feelings would occur regardless of negative tone or presence of criticism, and have since witnessed others remark, "So I can't even open my mouth because I'm a white male!"  Exchange.
Note: This is a common experience for white people learning how to engage with racism.

Are you upset because you suddenly feel attacked? Like you're walking on eggshells? Like you're being marginalized? Like you're being told that you're hated for who you are? It is likely exchange.
Are you feeling fearful in the face of ISIS/ISIL and the Syrian refugee crisis? Imagine the immense fear that the refugees are facing. 

In the case of current-day U.S.A., people of various marginalized identities (and their allies) are taking to the streets, expressing their fear, their concern, their age-old exhaustion, their anger, and their grief, which includes intergenerational trauma. As protestors express that the vote for Trump/Pence is a personal threat to their safety and well-being-- and is a continuation of policies and legislation that marginalize them and their communities--many people are becoming upset. When experiencing an uncomfortable emotion that is not part of your everyday experience, it can be helpful to ask, "What happened before what happened, happened?" In other words, before you started to feel fearful (etc.), what happened? Your fear might not be yours alone.

Remedy: a) Learn about Trauma (stay tuned for TrumpTrauma Part 3).
b) When you feel pain in a new way, try to believe the pain that your counterpart is experiencing. Practice responding from compassion, rather than reacting from discomfort. 
c) Study historical contexts and relationships. Your current discomforts did not initiate with the current politics, protests, or circumstances. They stem from a long history of violence and pain between people. Due to the human tendency to project and displace pain, pain is ultimately distributed unequally--just as power and wealth are unequally distributed (because wealth and power have been employed as buffers from pain).
d) Practice deep listening. Underneath your discomfort, underneath the reactivity, can you hear the truth in what people are saying? Naturally, the people who have been carrying a disproportionate share of pain are trying to displace it and/or heal it. Protests are a brilliant attempt at doing that: Announcing, "I've been carrying immense pain and burden, this circumstance heightens it, and I am still here. I am still alive. I still matter."


You matter. You have value to add to the world. Even if you don't know what that is yet. Even if you're doubting it right now. You are still here. You matter. You matter. You matter.


Interpersonal trauma, historical trauma, and intergenerational trauma all influence our ability to respond to stress and injustice in a measured, relational way. Before we complain that our counterparts are "crybabies" or "wimps" for any reason, before we demand that people get "thicker skin" and more grit, it is crucial to understand the mechanisms of survival and trauma. Stay tuned for TrumpTrauma Part 3 for an in-depth exploration of trauma and fear on our brains, our development, our perception of the world, and our relationships.

TrumpTrauma Part 1: Pre-Existing Conditions of the 2016 Election

[image description: Photo of two chess pieces facing each other. On the left is a white knight, on the right is a black knight. A blurry city-scape is visible in the background. The chess board is visible beneath the pieces. Photo by baona/iStock / Getty Images]

[image description: Photo of two chess pieces facing each other. On the left is a white knight, on the right is a black knight. A blurry city-scape is visible in the background. The chess board is visible beneath the pieces. Photo by baona/iStock / Getty Images]

In the first hours, and two weeks, since the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, the media, social media, and social fabric of our country appeared to implode. Or explode. Or both simultaneously. In an astronomically heightened state of fear, the United States of America is experiencing what might be the most effective act of terrorism it has undergone--and it was enacted (and continues to be enacted) by its own people.
(Note: this is an acknowledgement of the degree and function of fear occurring in our society, and in no way is intended to undermine intentional/pre-meditated acts of terrorism.)

[image description: Screenshot of the definition of "terrorism", obtained from Google.  ter-ror-ism noun the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.]

[image description: Screenshot of the definition of "terrorism", obtained from Google. 
ter-ror-ism
noun
the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.]

The amount of fear, shock, and grief is palpable. The angry, defensive rhetoric on all sides is as insatiable as a wildfire--people cannot get enough of it. The violence is escalating. Cumulatively, people appear to be more afraid, and in more danger, than after 9/11. We are in a collective state of TrumpTrauma.

Terror, panic, and trauma go hand-in-hand.

Before jumping into the mechanics of TrumpTrauma and the psychology of fear and survival, I want to acknowledge that there were several pre-existing conditions that made the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election fertile ground for the finger-pointing, fear, and violence we are seeing today. I will briefly elaborate on five of those pre-existing conditions:

1) Our Long History of Violence
2) Cultural/Linguistic Dissonance
3) Technology
4) Distrust
5) Preserving Positive Self-Image

Our long History of Violence

Let's start with a moment of historical reflection, recognizing that we, the people of the United States of America, have an intimate relationship with violence. From its inception, the USA was a country that heavily relied on slavery, subjugation, forced removal of indigenous people, child labor, mass killings, and armed conflict. That history reverberates in our epigenetics. It is encoded in our international relations, police training policies, and the prison-industrial complex. Our courtship of violence never ended. And we do not typically take the time to stop and ask questions about it. 

Do you know what your personal relationship to violence is? Do you know what your ancestors' relationship to violence was? What kind of violence is justified (if any) in your culture, your religion/faith/spirituality/ethic, and your family? Do you recognize emotional violence, spiritual violence, psychological violence, sexual violence, and economic violence as valid forms of violence? Do you weigh physical violence on a different scale than the other forms of violence? Does your perception of violence change based on who is perpetrating the violence and who is receiving it? When are you more prone to look for a valid explanation for violence, and more prone to assume that the victim deserved it? When are you more likely to jump to forgive the perpetrator of the violence? When does forgiveness feel impossible?

Cultural and Linguistic Dissonance

The second pre-existing condition is the fact that humans regularly miscommunicate regarding values. I learned early in my counseling training that words carry cultural connotations and subjective denotations. Subsequently, when two people come into my office, they can be locked in a heated conflict about feeling disrespected. They both value "respect", but have not deconstructed the underlying meaning of the word, nor identified how different behaviors are intimately tied to their experience of respect. Both people want to receive respect, both perceive themselves as offering it, and both are deeply offended (and confused) by the conflict. And that's just when they already love each other!

Words that hold moral and ethical value are especially loaded. Honesty. Integrity. Trustworthy... In that vein, Trump supporters are known to have said, "Well, at least he is honest! Hillary is just another lying politician..." at the same time that Clinton supporters have stated, "Trump is such a liar! He flip-flops on everything! At least Hillary is consistent..." Instantaneously we are in a stand-still conflict over the value of honesty. The tension is high. People feel charged. Reactivity increases because when we are talking about values, we are talking about "right" behavior. (And who wants to be "wrong"?!) But we haven't unpacked what the word honesty means to each person, especially in the context of each candidate's actions and words. Perhaps we are all using the same word--honesty--and all have different definitions and schemas for its meaning. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves the same questions about our relationship to honesty and lying, as we asked about our relationship to violence.

Wondering how to overcome this roadblock? For now, hold on to the question, let it percolate, and take a few breaths.

This issue is a big deal. Because our values are so important to us, these conflicts pose a big psychological risk. Being identified as incongruent or as a hypocrite can feel devastating. Shame rises. And shame, like fear, is debilitating. Shame is a big part of why people did not like Hillary Clinton; they see her as smug and condescending, and that is humiliating. Shame is a big part of why people did not like Donald Trump; his words and plans for office express that certain people are "less than" others--to the point that suicide hotline calls have significantly spiked.

Technology

Another pre-existing condition for our current state is the way in which we have engaged with modern technology.
Step 1: Research is demonstrating that extended exposure to smart screens decreases the human capacity for empathy and reduces pro-social behavior (see article here; read Your Brain on Nature).
Step 2: Extended screen time causes cognitive fatigue, which is related to irritability, difficulty solving problems, and impulsivity (read Your Brain on Nature).
Step 3: Google and Facebook use every search, every "like", and every opened article to customize your search responses and NewsFeed to match your preferences and interests. This means that even if you have Facebook friends who have different perspectives than you do (and haven't deleted them in the heat of the Election), you are significantly less likely to see their posts show up on your NewsFeed and are less likely to be exposed to alternative views and experiences (note: news/media is also selective in what it presents). The internet has become an echo-chamber.
Step 4: On the internet, without the immediate repercussions of face-to-face interactions, we are able to receive the instant gratification of expressing our thoughts and opinions (however violent) with increased anonymity and decreased accountability
Result: We are a society of more irritable, more fatigued people with reduced empathy who lack impactful information from the "other" side. We feel less personally accountability than any other time in history and quickly judge, condemn, berate, and hate people who oppose us.

Distrust

As our technological echo-chamber ensures that we experience validation for our belief systems, we develop deeper distrust of the people who challenge our beliefs. For years I have known people who do not trust the media, do not trust police, and do not trust the system. That sentiment is exponentially amplified currently. People who have not expressed distrust of those things in the past, now willingly question them. When "violence at trump rallies" rolls in the news, it is countered with articles that democrats incited the violence. When "Trump mocks disabled reporter" swept the news, organizations pushed campaigns that the media lied about Trump mocking the reporter. After all, if you like a person, you don't want to believe that they say and do things contrary to your values. So you naturally start to question, "What is True?" "Is my perspective and judgement wrong, or am I being manipulated?" 

Unfortunately, as distrust increases, so does paranoia. Conspiracy theories grow. Fear amplifies. We question who is trustworthy. And we become prone to shutting ourselves into tighter circles of "like-minded" folks.

Preserving positive Self-Image

When facing doubt and distrust, humans prefer to distrust something/someone external, rather than our own judgement or intelligence. Nobody wants to be judged or deemed as the "bad" guy or the "idiot". As people from opposing sides hurl insults of stupidity, ignorance, and racism/reverse racism (which is not actually a real thing), defenses rise. We don't even need Trump's Southern Border Wall--we have already erected a dozen walls in our hearts and minds. Since the election, I have witnessed multiple conversations with people in which they state, "I thought we were better than this."
Reality check folks: We're not.
We're not better than this. Exhibit A: "Day 1 in Trump's America". Exhibit B: story behind "Black Mob Beats White Man" (incident stemmed from traffic altercation, secondarily escalated to politics). Exhibit C: "Over 701 Incidents of Hateful Harassment".

And we are better.

[image description: Instagram image authored by Caitlin Rosberg ( @thorfinnskullcleaver ), reading: "If you wear a hijab, I'll sit with you on the train. If you're trains, I'll go to the bathroom with you. If you're a person of color, I'll stand with you if the cops stop you. If you're a person with disabilities, I'll hand you my megaphone. If you're an immigrant, I'll help you find resources. f you're a survivor, I'll believe you. If you're a refugee, I'll make sure you're welcome. If you're a veteran, I'll take up your fight. If you're LGBTQ, I won't let anybody tell you you're broken. If you're a woman, I'll make sure you get home ok. If you're tired, me too. If you need a hug, I've got an infinite supply. If you need me, I'll be with you. All I ask is that you be with me, too."]

[image description: Instagram image authored by Caitlin Rosberg (@thorfinnskullcleaver), reading:
"If you wear a hijab, I'll sit with you on the train.
If you're trains, I'll go to the bathroom with you.
If you're a person of color, I'll stand with you if the cops stop you.
If you're a person with disabilities, I'll hand you my megaphone.
If you're an immigrant, I'll help you find resources.
f you're a survivor, I'll believe you.
If you're a refugee, I'll make sure you're welcome.
If you're a veteran, I'll take up your fight.
If you're LGBTQ, I won't let anybody tell you you're broken.
If you're a woman, I'll make sure you get home ok.
If you're tired, me too.
If you need a hug, I've got an infinite supply.
If you need me, I'll be with you. All I ask is that you be with me, too."]

We both are not better than this, and we are. Humans are complex beings that hold multitudes of contradictions. So take a breath with me, and consider the possibility that you and I have both participated in racist thoughts/behaviors (if you cannot think of an example for yourself, please email me) and that does not automatically mean either one of us has malicious intentions nor are inherently awful people. Racism in this context is not a value judgement or moral evaluation--it is about a factual, historical system of race-based discrimination that is rooted in political and economic policies from the birth of this nation. It is an ongoing system that inherently produces active and passive participation by all people. Skeptical and/or unaware of how this history plays out in modern policies and practices? Check out The New Jim Crow. Reflect on the way in which slavery is legally sanctioned as punishment (while remembering that Blacks and Latinos are incarcerated at significantly higher rates that whites).

[image description: Screenshot of Donald Trump's tweet: "The theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!" and Steve Raymond's twitter response: "@realDonaldTrump The USA must always be a safe and special place. You've been very rude this past year to everyone. Apologize."]

[image description: Screenshot of Donald Trump's tweet: "The theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!" and Steve Raymond's twitter response: "@realDonaldTrump The USA must always be a safe and special place. You've been very rude this past year to everyone. Apologize."]

That can be a hard pill to swallow. Unfortunately, in the process of trying to preserve a self-image congruent with our most uplifted values, we hesitate to believe that we do and think things contrary to our values. We are aloof to our own hypocrisy (see image to the right; and this article). This is clearly about more than Donald and Hillary. This is about me. And you. And the people we love.

We do not want to believe that the injustice, incongruency, and hostility run so deep. So we engage various psychological mechanisms to protect that self-image... And our Facebook echo-chambers, and our distrust, and our miscommunications, and our relationship with violence all support that process that self-protection.

But what are we really protecting ourselves from? 

Want to know more about the role of protection, fear, and psychology in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Campaign and Election? Stay tuned for Part 2 of TrumpTrauma.


If you are still in a state of heightened reactivity and fearfulness, if you have been a victim of increased harassment and violence, if you're constantly scanning the environment for a threat, there are real reasons you feel that way. There are things that you can do to help regulate your nervous system, including counseling, and there are things you can do to love your nervous system, as is. While people may tell you to get "thicker skin," know that your resilience and healing does not depend on today alone. Everything you feel is okay.

How did we get through high school without being taught Dr. King spent two decades having panic attacks?
Avoided Windows
Jumped at thunder

I think we are all part flight the fight
part run for your life
Part ‘please please please like me’
Part Can’t breathe
Part scared to say you’re scared
Part say it anyway

You panic button collector
You clock of beautiful ticks
You run out the door if you need to
You flock to the front row of your own class
You feather everything until you know you can always, always shake like a leaf on my family tree and know you belong here

You belong here and everything you feel is okay
Everything you feel is okay
— Andrea Gibson, excerpt from "Panic Button Collector"