The Unstoppable Momentum of Social Activism

A do-good social cause just needs a spark of preliminary social-psych lab support to inspire unkillable cargo-cult group action. The desire to be one of the good guys who (know how to) save the world, coupled with confirmation bias and social proof, means unstoppable growth for even scientifically mistaken altruistic programs (failing to enact their values, or even causing regression).

Some examples of what we should probably (evidence suggests) NOT be doing: reducing violent entertainment or porn, telling everyone there’s a rape culture in the U.S. which promotes rape, raising awareness that most people think black people are [insert negative racial stereotype here] and need to stop it IMMEDIATELY, telling workers that things they already do in fact constitute HARRASSMENT and are creating a HOSTILE WORKPLACE, making people identify with a group which is WRONG in any way (especially if obnoxious high-paid fly-by consultants are doing the telling). These are all, surprisingly, wrong.

Media coverage of clever new effects (priming!) begins as soon as the first small study wildly misinterprets N=10 lab experiments that may only last for 10 minutes, or, if the experimental script is varied slightly, might show an opposite effect. Please, let’s not restructure everything in society without at least waiting for the replication studies.

Dahl and DellaVigna (2008), well aware of laboratory experiments that found violent media temporarily made subjects more violent, decided to investigate whether the opening weekends of blockbuster violent movies affected crime rates. Sure enough, they found they did…

…in the opposite of the expected direction. They found violent movies decreased crime 5% or more on their opening weekends, and that each violent movie that comes out probably prevents about 1000 assaults. Further, there’s no displacement effect – the missing crimes don’t pop back the following week, they simply never occur.

They hypothesize that every hour violent criminals are at the kind of movies that appeal to violent criminals is one hour more they’re not getting drunk or taking drugs or committing violent crimes. Although they don’t mention it directly, other analyses have suggested that the movies have a sort of cathartic effect, satisfying their urge for violence without them having to commit it themselves.

An investigation into violent video games found essentially the same pattern: violent video games decrease crime while nonviolent video games have no effect.

In the US every 10% increase in Internet access causes a 7.3% decline in rape.

Sex criminals are less likely to consume pornography than the general population and start watching pornography at a later age.

We know exactly what happens when minorities are told tests are biased against them: they do worse on those tests. This is the essence of the idea of “stereotype threat” – for example, one can improve women’s performance on a math test simply by telling them that the test is not biased against women.

DARE programs has found that they increase drug use, sometimes as much as 30%.

All studies on sensitivity training find that trainees express more awareness of sexual harassment than non-employees, but a study that went further and examined results found that trainees are “less likely to perceive coercive sexual harassment, less willing to report sexual harassment, and more likely to blame the victim”.

Foster & Misra (2013) measured “trivialization” in both groups – that is, they asked them questions about how important faithfulness was to them. Consistent with their theory, the people who were told they were faithful said faithfulness was extremely important, but the people who were told they were unfaithful “trivialized” the behavior – who cares about fidelity anyway, infidelity is maybe a minor mistake but it doesn’t really hurt anyone, people should really stop whining about infidelity all the time. To give you a feeling for the size of this effect, on a scale of one to seven, the faithful group rated the importance of being faithful at 5.4/7, and the unfaithful group rate the importance of being faithful at 2.9/7. In other words, by accusing them of being unfaithful, the experimenters had successfully gotten the participants to “trivialize” faithfulness.

The researchers theorized that this was the process called “cognitive dissonance”. Most people like themselves and want to continue to like themselves. If they are told that they, or their group, has a particular flaw, then instead of ceasing to like themselves it may be easier to just decide that flaw is not a big deal and they can have it while continuing to be the awesome people they secretly know they are.

Now not only do the experimental subjects here stop caring about being faithful, but everyone pushing a pro-fidelity line is a threat to their new identity. And the subjects weren’t even really unfaithful to begin with!

The most important factor in whether someone commits a crime is the likelihood she will be punished. That suggests that if you discover that an abominable crime has (contrary to popular perception) a very low chance of punishment, it would be an excellent time to practice the virtue of silence.

Imagine I told you “People from Comoros are not all homosexual! This is a damn lie, and anyone who says people from Comoros are homosexual is an insensitive jerk. Please join me in fighting the popular perception that everyone from Comoros is a flaming gay.

By reading the essay excerpted above (which I highly recommend in its entirety), I learned that there’s about as much lab/epidemiological evidence (maybe more) for the opposite of what’s usually prescribed by social-psych inspired progressive social engineering (raise awareness of rape culture / stereotype threat / culturally biased IQ/SAT tests, suppress violent entertainment and porn, etc.). It does suggest that the blanket denial of cognitive architecture between sexes might be a good thing as far as smoothing the way for women who want to science+math+engineer – one of the few progressive social projects that’s working, or rather, would work, without all the “we need to do more” talk which is probably as damaging as Barbie’s “math is hard.” Raising awareness of complicated/bad things can either backfire in the accused group, or due to loose recollection, raise awareness for the wrong idea (“Obama is not a muslim” becomes one year later “I heard Obama is a muslim”). And also that Comoros is full of flaming homosexual seagulls.