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Dad Next Door: It’s a social disease

A little encouragement from across the fence


In 1961, a Stanford University psychologist named Albert Bandura performed a series of studies that have come to be known as the Bobo doll experiment. What these experiments tell us about human nature is both illuminating and scary.

A bobo doll is one of those inflatable clown dolls that are weighted at the bottom, so that if you knock it down, it’ll bounce right up again. Bandura filmed three videos of an adult actor punching a bobo doll, shouting at it and beating it with a hammer. In one film, the actor is reprimanded and punished for his behavior, in another he is praised and rewarded, and in the third there are no consequences at all. One by one, children were shown one of the videos and sent into a room with lots of toys, including a bobo doll. Elsewhere in the room was a hammer. Not surprisingly, the children who saw the aggressive behavior rewarded were much more likely to mimic it. Those who saw the behavior ignored copied it as well. Those who saw the doll punished left it alone.

But then came the most interesting part of the study. The children who had refrained from abusing the doll were told that they themselves would not be punished for doing anything that they had seen in the videos. Immediately, most of them grabbed the hammer and started whaling away at the doll, just as the others had.

I thought of this experiment on the August night that white supremacists staged a torchlight parade in Charlottesville, Virginia. I watched news footage of hundreds of young white men — some of them little more than boys, really — chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans, brandishing clubs and firing guns. I wondered, who are these boys? Where do they come from? Why do they think this is okay?

The next day, one of them plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one young woman and injuring many others. The news coverage afterward stressed the young man’s long history of erratic and troubling behavior. The leaders of the white supremacists denied any responsibility for the murder, arguing that this was an unhinged individual acting alone. Fox News claimed that the liberal media was sensationalizing the story for political purposes. The President of the United States asserted that there was blame “on many sides.”

In America, we have always been enamored with the idea of the rugged individual. We believe in personal responsibility and agency. Accordingly, we believe that human behavior is largely the result of an individual’s character and values. But research tells a different story. Study after study has shown that our behavior can be altered radically by social context. Whether we cheat, lie and steal, or selflessly come to the aid of strangers, can be manipulated simply by changing the social consequences of our actions. We are, after all, social creatures — pack animals, if you will. And whether our pack condones, encourages, ignores or punishes a particular behavior has a profound effect on what we do.

After the tragedy in Charlottesville, many of the racist marchers were outed online by people who wanted to expose them for what — and who — they were. It turns out that these men were not club-wielding, swastika-wearing, white-hooded Klansmen in their everyday lives. They were seemingly normal people, with normal jobs. In many cases, their co-workers and even their own families didn’t know about their racist beliefs. And only a few years ago, these young men were little children just like any others. Just like our own.

Yes, sometimes violent hate crimes are committed by the mentally ill. But there are mentally ill people all over the world, and in most places this isn’t what they’re doing. And yes, there have always been racists. But the last time mobs of them marched through the streets with torches in proud procession they were members of the Hitler Youth in prewar Germany.

Violence, hatred and aggression are a part of our nature. They’ve been hardwired into our brains since the first Homo sapiens picked up rocks and brandished them against outsiders from another tribe. The limit on that aggression, and our only real protection from it, is social condemnation.  And when we fail to condemn aggression, or we lift the social penalty for expressing it, we unleash a demon that we may not be able to control.

It matters when we deny that social context encourages individual acts of violence. It matters when our leaders paint entire ethnic or religious groups as rapists, murderers or terrorists. It matters when our president claims that the ranks of white supremacists are filled with “very fine people.”

There’s a man with a bobo doll. He’s screaming at it and beating it with a hammer. Our children are watching. What happens next?

Jeff Lee writes, works and (these days) worries in Seattle.

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