Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Why Are Teabaggers Willfully Ignorant? A Social Psychological Perspective

PHOTO: Trish Wend

My last post discussed the tendency of so many Americans to complain about government while at the same time relying on the services it provides, all the while, likely not understanding how dependent they are on those services. One of the comments, posted by Lexcade said:
"i think the problem is that too many people are ignorant about what the government actually does but they have no interest in gaining the knowledge they need to understand. they're perfectly willing to let the pretty women on fox tell them what to believe, and they buy it without a second thought. i'm sure there's some sort of psychology term for this, but i don't remember what it is. i just call it laziness."
There is a form of mental laziness that allows us to ignore that which is uncomfortable and would require effort to correct. Cognitive dissonance is the state in which ones behavior is in conflict with one's beliefs; in this situation, the individual complains about the government intruding into their lives while at the same time knowing - perhaps unconsciously - that without government, their lives would be extremely different and very likely, uncomfortable.

In order to resolve that dissonance, you have to change either your beliefs (okay, government isn't all that bad) or your behavior (stop complaining about it or do something pro-active to change it). Somehow, waving signs and chanting pre-packaged slogans that have required no real thought doesn't quite do it.

It is very difficult to change behavior and research has found that cognitive dissonance is usually resolved by changing beliefs or attitudes. In the case of the teabaggers, the change required on either end of the spectrum is so radical that it is far more comfortable to ignore it.

In order to recognize dissonance, one must have a certain level of self-awareness and be willing to recognize the dichotomy that exists within us all. Introspection and self-improvement are not fun and one of the reasons that I know I have had a successful counseling session is if my client cries. Real work is not easy or comforting and to accomplish anything lasting requires what one of my professors called "kicking it down into the basement and keeping it there."

In social psychology, we learn that one of the strongest social desires is to be liked. In a group, we tend to accommodate our beliefs and desires to those of the group and over time, resolve any conflict within ourselves by telling ourselves that those are our real beliefs. We tend to associate with and like those who are most like us, and studies have shown that when presented with negative information, we tend to think better of people that we like and rationalize away the negative information. We also tend to believe that people we like believe in the same way that we do and people we don't like, don't (all cats are animals, therefore, all animals are cats). If someone is different, we are quick to believe the worst and given the choice, will ignore exculpatory evidence weighted in favor of a stranger over proof of wrong-doing against someone we like.

Whether it is some sort of genetic/tribal memory or environmental conditioning, most people fear that which is different and the teabaggers, most of whom are not highly educated, fear the changes brought by an African-American President and a Democratic Congress. Rather than listening, they respond on an emotional level which limits the ability to reason. By leading with emotions, people are then extremely vulnerable to politicians and pundits who cater to that vulnerability (read Fox).

By projecting their feelings of inadequacy onto others, people such as the teabaggers are able to blame others (the government, immigrants, the Democrats, liberals, etc.) for everything that is wrong in their lives. One social theory is based on social structuralism and agency theory. How does the individual fit into society? How much agency does the individual really have? Agency means how autonomous is the individual? How much free will can they exercise? It is thought that within the social structure, we all have a certain place and manner of behavior based on the existing structure (people act towards us as we expect them to, we react as they expect us to and so on). With greater agency, we are able to affect that structure and our place in it. The greater our knowledge of social structure and the greater our own self-awareness, the greater our own agency.

In psychology, we look at the locus of control - is it internal or external? A healthy individual has an internal locus of control, meaning that they look to themselves for agency. They take responsibility for their own actions whereas someone with an external locus of control blames everything on outside influences beyond their control. Can't get a job? Immigrants fault. No money? Government taking too much in taxes (never mind that this past year we paid the lowest taxes in decades). Everything is always someone else's fault. Life is ruled by fate, God, or others. By ceding responsibility to someone or something else, they no longer have to do anything about it. Life can continue to be lived by sitting on the poofy recliner, watching Bridezilla while eating TacoTime and letting others make all the decisions, accept all the responsibility, and write the scripts for life.

Sorry. Probably more information than anyone wanted or needed, but I can cope with ignorance - after all, we just got through eight years of No Child Left Behind - but willful ignorance on the part of the teabags and the blind obedience to party and church is just crazy-making to me. And it is willful. It's just too upsetting, depressing, confusing, boring, hard, complex, irritating, or just plain time-consuming to stay informed and be a good citizen, so they'd all rather wave their Dick Armey printed slogans, fantasize about Sarah, or daydream about whatever it is their teeny, tiny little minds dream about while they stuff their faces with cheese puffs and watch the tv machine.

Thanks for stopping by. Come back soon.


  1. Kudos Kyra! Excellent!

  2. Thank you for this insightful piece.

    Understanding the willful ignorance of others is the first step to letting it go. If one can accept it; one can stop agonizing over it, and move on to a better place.