Psychology for Socialists, Part 2

By Jonathan K.

“Psychology for Socialists” is a three-part series designed to introduce people to findings and theories in psychology that are relevant to socialism and activism. The things I will be presenting aren’t exclusively relevant to those topics; in fact, they apply to almost every facet of our lives. What I will be doing is presenting them in relation to the work we do as socialists.

Let me start with a couple of disclaimers. The first disclaimer is that findings in psychology are (almost) never absolute. We can capture general patterns or describe the most likely behaviors or reactions, but there will always be exceptions. So, for everything I’m about to describe, remember that it doesn’t apply to everyone or every situation. The second disclaimer is that psychology is an imperfect science. Like many sciences right now, it is struggling with a replicability crisis. The findings I will present will be ones I have confidence in, or I will be clear that they are still unsettled. However, even the ones I have confidence in could be overturned at some point in the future.

Psychology is imperfect in another sense because, like many sciences, it has suffered from a lack of diverse perspectives, and more than other sciences it has suffered from a lack of diverse data. Many of the findings I will discuss are based on studies of mostly upper-middle-class and mostly white college students, and conducted by mostly white researchers (though somewhat less overwhelmingly cis-male than other fields). In the last two decades the field has become more aware of this and made efforts to self-correct, but it will take some time for us to be confident that these findings apply to all of humanity.

Part 2: Know your comrade
In Part 1, I wrote about how we misunderstand our own minds. Here, I’m going to look at how we misunderstand our comrades.

The Boston DSA code of conduct instructs us to “assume good faith” from our comrades. To be blunt, there have been a number of times when that hasn’t happened. However, in assuming good faith of my comrades, and being a psychologist, I’m going to argue that our disagreements and strife are not (usually) out of any intent or malice, or at least they don’t start that way.

Why do we so often fall into arguments and infighting? It breaks down into a few specific issues. Some don’t require explanation: Living under capitalism sucks, we’re all busy people, we get stressed and overwhelmed. Others are more subtle, and require us to re-examine our thinking and how we interact with each other. The two issues I’m going to point out here are a somewhat controversial idea from social psychology called “attribution errors” and a toxic drive to “save face.”

I. Attribution
Imagine you greet someone with “Good morning!” and they say “Fuck off.” You’re going to dislike that person. Now imagine, as you are having this exchange, that the person is having a broken arm set by a paramedic after tumbling down a hillside and hitting two yellowjacket nests on the way. You could maybe find it in your heart to forgive them for being a bit unfriendly.

A more talented writer could string together some analogy here about tumbling down the invisible hillside of life, but the basic idea is that we cannot always see why someone might act the way they do. This is at the core of one of the more contentious debates in social psychology. For many years, social psychologists argued that people were prone to something called the “fundamental attribution error,” or FAE. The “error” part of the FAE is that people tend to attribute the behavior of others to internal or “dispositional” factors about the other person, who they were, when in fact the behaviors are due to external “situational” factors. The error, in other words, would be thinking that the person in our example was an asshole, rather than attributing their response to the fact that they had just gone through an extremely unpleasant experience.

It is the nature of DSA that people have disagreements. It’s part of being a multi-tendency organization. Sometimes those disagreements get heated. It’s easy for a political disagreement to become a personal one. Sometimes that’s intentional. Sometimes it’s because people interpret what people say as reflecting who they are versus how they are at that moment.

The controversial part of the FAE is how often it’s actually an error:[1] Sometimes the attributions to a person’s disposition are fully justified. Nobody denies that people prefer to make dispositional attributions; that’s been a point of agreement in this debate for well over 30 years.[2] The question for researchers is: Do we make dispositional attributions when there are clear situational alternatives? Ultimately, that uncertainty is a part of the problem. We don’t always know when it’s an error and when it’s not.

This uncertainty is even worse when we don’t have any idea about other people’s situations. This is especially the case in online discourse: We don’t have any context for the people we’re talking to, and it’s easy to read the same post in many different ways. When we read something negative, it’s easy to assume that it reflects something intrinsic about the person who posted it. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it’s someone having a bad day. Sometimes it’s a little of column A, a little of column B. Uncertainty!

Now, let’s consider what it means to assume good faith in your comrades.

To me, it means that, when I see something I read as negative or hostile, I try to make the situational attribution first, especially with people I don’t know well. Whether or not it’s accurate, it is the more generous option. If it keeps happening I will end up deciding that it’s not situational, but it takes some time to tip the scales. To me, assuming good faith means making the default assumption that people aren’t assholes, but that anyone can have a bad day. That means I don’t go into my future interactions with them thinking that they will be the same. In general, I try to avoid attributing hostility to others whenever I reasonably can. This is not easy or simple: From childhood, we find it very easy to attribute hostility to others when they do something we do not like[3], whether they meant it to be hostile or not.

Of course, sometimes it’s us having the bad day. We say things that other people take badly, and then we get defensive. But defend what, exactly? Here, we run into the deeply ingrained problem of saving face.

II. The problem of face
Whether or not it’s accurate, the FAE applies only to our judgments of other people’s actions. When it comes to ourselves, we go almost exactly the other way. Whenever we do something that we’re not proud of, or that we are criticized for, we push the causes onto external factors. We try, as much as possible, to say “that’s not who I am,” and make excuses. Our concept of “who I am,” our self-concept, is complicated and multifaceted. One aspect is referred to by social psychologists as “face,” defined as “the positive aspects of character that a person lays claim to (or is treated as having laid claim to) in a particular interaction.”[4]

We are very protective of “face.” When it is challenged, by our own actions or by what someone else says, we get embarrassed. If you are around people you want to think of you as smart and you try to push a pull door, you feel embarrassed. Most people have a powerful drive to avoid embarrassment. We work very hard to save face.

Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t a good thing. In fact, I think it’s toxic, especially for activist organizations, and even more so for socialists that must ultimately trust each other to accomplish real change.

Let’s take a (minor) recent example from my own interactions with my local DSA chapter. I got into a discussion about a candidate who the chapter was considering talking to and endorsing, who had, as part of their platforms, police body cameras. I hadn’t worked out the intrinsic problems with body cameras (surveillance state, in short), and so I was confused when this got a strong negative reaction from some comrades. When I asked questions about this, I briefly found myself on a platform arguing about whether body cameras were a problem or not.

It took about four comments for me to realize that I was doing it exclusively to avoid being wrong, and for no other reason. So I stopped. Even then, I couldn’t bring myself to admit, publicly, that’s what had happened, and found myself trying to make excuses until I forced myself to stop. Eventually I just managed to put together “I didn’t think it through” and left it at that.

This isn’t the event that made me think face is toxic, by the way. I worked that out a while ago. But even with that in mind, I couldn’t stop myself. Saving face is practically reflexive. Maybe more for me than for some people, but research has concluded that saving face is nearly a cultural universal, with some variation in how far people will go to protect someone else’s reputation versus their own.

In any case, my anecdote is just an example of why face is bad. Why couldn’t I just say up front that I hadn’t thought it through? Why is it so difficult to even write about now? Because I hate being embarrassed. Kind of a lot, in fact. If this post makes it to the public eye with all of this intact it’ll be the greatest success I’ve had yet fighting the impulse to save face.

Now let’s think about this in a broader context of our organization: Callouts, arguments, and how people respond to being called out.

Let me start with a very important disclaimer: I’m not talking about callouts for personal harassment or extensive abusive behavior. There are such things as unforgivable actions, real harms that cannot be repaired by simple apologies. That’s not what I’m talking about here. You’re not “saving face” if you’re making excuses for deliberately hurting someone, you’re just an asshole. There is no situational justification for actions that cannot ever be justified. When someone causes real, serious harm, they should admit they’re wrong, but just admitting they’re wrong doesn’t absolve them. Nothing I’m going to say here applies to those kinds of cases.

I’m talking about the kind of day-to-day squabbling an organization like DSA generates. In our chapter we’ve seen public arguments about political education programs, electoral work, technology infrastructure, accessibility options, and the general internal political structure of the chapter. I don’t want to dismiss the importance of any of these issues, but I hope it’s clear that there is a difference between public arguments about these issues and public callouts for extensive individual harassment and abusive behavior. For one, when you’re dealing with what I’ll call “political” callouts (for lack of a better term), there’s some expectation that you will be working with the people involved in the future. That’s the kind of case I’m talking about here.

With that in mind, political callouts are sometimes justified, and sometimes it turns out they are not. However, when people are called out, more often than not the response I see is some kind of self-justification. Sometimes it’s an admission that something isn’t right and a situational excuse, sometimes it’s a doubling-down on the justification for whatever they are being called out on, to the point where they will express pride in it. Either way, the goal is clearly the same: to save face. The most awful forms of this are the non-apology (“I’m sorry you were offended”) and the outright denial.

The intended outcome of (most) callouts is a correction. Saving face doesn’t do that. Most face-saving responses will drag the problem out, or make it worse, or at best ultimately correct the issue but leave some lingering resentment from the parties involved.

What if we didn’t try to save face? What if we fought the impulse to protect our self-image with excuses, and simply said, “I was wrong, and I feel bad about it”? It’s hard to say because it so rarely happens, but personally, I think it would usually work out a lot better for everyone involved. If you are the one making the callout, it would address the issue they wanted addressed. If you are the one being called out, it would feel bad, in the short term. Embarrassing, of course. But, ultimately, if you’ve made someone mad enough to call you out, it would do a lot to repair that relationship, it would let you work together moving forward, and in the context of advocacy, it would help you Do Things That Work.

The above only applies to justified callouts. Sometimes callouts aren’t justified, due to incomplete information, misunderstanding, or just failing to assume good faith. Once you’ve made a callout, in a public sphere, you are committed to something that can become a threat to your face. If you discover that your callout wasn’t justified, what do you do next? Well, one option is to admit you were wrong. The other is to try to save face. The pattern of saving face here is generally to double down, or dial back by half-measures. The end result is the same: It accomplishes nothing except to build acrimony. In making a callout, if we expect those we are calling out not to try to save face, and to admit when they are wrong, we must be willing to do the same if it turns out we were wrong.

There is also a third possible situation, which is less of a callout and more of a straight-up argument: when both sides feel, truly feel, they are justified, not because they are saving face but because they really believe in their actions or their positions. Neither of the above points apply to those cases. This isn’t a call to simply give up your position when challenged. This is a call to examine why you want to defend your position. Is it because you really are justified? Or is it because you want to save face? You will almost always think you are justified, at least at first, but that assumption is part of the impulse to save face, and you shouldn’t simply accept it without questioning it.

My advice? Whenever you call someone out, or are called out, challenge yourself on your position. If you think you’re right, really challenge your own position, really think about why someone might feel justified calling you out on it (or why they would feel justified holding the position you are calling out), and if you still think you’re justified, well, then you might be. If you find your position isn’t as strong as you thought, then maybe it’s time to try not saving face. Even if you can find a situational justification for your behavior, let it go. You can know, for yourself, that it wasn’t “who you are,” but making that excuse doesn’t help anything except your own self-image, and so often sounds like an attempt to avoid responsibility. Making a situational attribution for yourself is a way to save face rather than resolve the concern, and even if you can make that attribution, it doesn’t mean that you should.

The earlier you make that determination, the better. We’re no strangers to chapter or national drama. It ramps up. People get entrenched. Even when one flare-up subsides, it leaves lingering distrust and acrimony, which fuels the next flare-up. If you can save months of arguing and bad feeling by not trying to save face, don’t try to save face.

And as a comrade, make it easier for people to make that decision. Do not hold grudges. If a comrade admits they were simply wrong, respect them for it, and remember the problem of attribution. Embarrassment is just a feeling, but disrespect is a punishment. Even if they admit they did something wrong, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a situational factor behind it. They just don’t want to make excuses, and that is a quality we should appreciate in our comrades. Let me emphasize again, there’s a class of action that this advice does not apply to, and never should, but for most of the arguments and disagreements we have, there’s no need to hold a grudge, and no benefit.

III. Being comradely
The message I’m trying to get across here is not that you have to agree with all of your comrades, or even that you have to like them. The goal here is to treat them, and yourself, fairly. Assume good faith by asking, when someone says something you react negatively to, whether it is a reflection of who they are, or a product of their situation. Be willing to accept when you are wrong, and be willing to accept others when they admit they are wrong. Sectarianism is the death of any activist movement, and sometimes that is built on deliberate strife. However, in assuming good faith of my comrades, when it rears its head in DSA I see it as more of a product of failing to assume good faith by the participants, and a desperate need to save face. If we can learn to assume good faith, and if we can be less selfishly attached to our own self-image, we can accomplish more. We can get more done. We can more effectively make the world a better place.

So this is a call to examine yourself and your interactions, to think about what you are attributing to others and what positions you truly need to defend. This is not advice aimed at any one person, but at every member of this organization. Some disagreement will touch all of us sooner or later, and we must all individually be prepared to deal with them in a constructive and comradely way. The common good is greater than any of our egos or our personal dislikes. While we can disagree on valid, principled grounds, we must spare ourselves unnecessary fights, unnecessary drama, and above all unnecessary hostility. Disagreements that start as these simple misunderstandings or mistakes can lead to deliberately hostile actions later. A little hard self-examination now can save a organization-shattering fight later.

[1] Sabini, J., Siepmann, M., & Stein, J. (2001). The really fundamental attribution error in social psychological research. Psychological Inquiry, 12(1), 1-15.
[2] Harvey, J. H., Town, J. P., & Yarkin, K. L. (1981). How fundamental is the “fundamental attribution error”? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40(2), 346-349.
[3] van Dijk, A., Poorthisu, A. M. G., Thomasse, S., de Castro, B. O. (in press). Does parent-child discussion of peer provocations reduce young children’s hostile attributional bias? Child Development.
[4] Sabini et al. (2001), pg. 2.

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