Football, protests, psychology, and inertia, Oh My!

What does psychology tell us about the differences between conservatives and liberals in relationship to BlackLivesMatter (BLM) and Colin Kaepernick?

Conservatives place a very high value on tradition, sameness (both congruity of group and congruity of situation), and loyalty. Liberals place a high value on things like social justice and equality. That doesn’t mean that conservatives don’t care about equality or that liberals don’t care about tradition. It just means that we place different emphasis on the importance of different things.

Physiologically there are differences also. Conservatives tend to have a larger amygdala. The portion of the brain responsible for certain emotional responses. Particularly strong negative emotions such as fear, anger, and disgust. Liberals tend to have a larger anterior cingulate cortex which is the part of the brain that regulates conflicting emotions and conflicts between emotions and logic. Basically, conservatives are more likely to have a strong “gut reaction” to something and to go with that than liberals.

When Kaepernick sat through the national anthem, several things happened. He broke with tradition and he diverged from the normal of the group in a perceived display of disloyalty. For conservatives, that is a huge no no which elicits a very strong emotional response of disgust. For liberals, it is still frowned upon, but it doesn’t carry as much weight.

For conservatives, overcoming the disgust they felt about him sitting through the national anthem would require that the reason why he sat would have to be something that they agree with very strongly. Something that elicits an even stronger emotional response. Even something that conservatives agree with, but not deeply, would not be enough of a reason to break with tradition.

Strong negative emotions are the hardest to overcome. For liberals, sitting through the national anthem is not as taboo so it doesn’t elicit as much of an emotional response. Even if liberals only mildly agree with the rationale behind why he was sitting, it is given a pass.

Conservatives also place a very high value on individual achievement while liberals place a high value on group success and empathy. “I got mine, screw everyone else” vs “the socialist progressive libtard coddling”. That is why so much of the conservative backlash focuses on how much money Kaepernick makes. It more or less boils down to this. Kaepernick has already beat the game (of life). His individual achievement is at the top. He isn’t really affected by the things he is talking about. He shouldn’t be criticizing the rules of the game after he has beaten it. It is hypocritical and he is just wanting attention for himself. Liberals look at it and say he is empathizing with those less fortunate an using his position of prominence, which comes with a big microphone, to try to change the rules so that the group has an easier time reaching success. The old Spiderman quote “with great power comes great responsibility”. If Kaepernick was a straight A high school student from the Bronx who sat to protest that he had been stopped and frisked 3 times in 3 blocks the day before, conservatives would likely have at least agreed that he had the right to do it. As in the moral right to do it, not the legal right which nobody disputes. However, as a HS student from the Bronx, he would have had no microphone to spread his message.

In a great twist of irony, this incident shows the cognitive dissonance on both sides. Standing during the national anthem is the conservative version of being politically correct. Sitting during the national anthem is the conservative version of a trigger warning. Liberals don’t see or understand that at all. Conservatives rail against the common expressions of being politically correct and trigger warnings because it means accepting that which is not the same or “normal” as equal. Liberals rail against the conservative versions of political correctness because they don’t have the same emotional ties to things like tradition, so those things can be pushed aside in the pursuit of other goals.

There are other big differences between conservatives and liberals that come into play.

Conservatives tend to favor things like law, order (not just societal, but personal, such as an organized house), structure, hierarchy, deference to authority, and defense (threat awareness). Liberals tend to favor things like experience (as in experiencing new things), empathy, connection, and understanding complexity. That is why conservatives are more likely to join the military. That is why conservatives in congress will almost always vote together while liberals are more likely to vote against their party.

Conservatives tend to focus on the negative while liberals tend to focus on the positive. When shown a group of photos conservatives will focus on the more negative photos longer and have a stronger physiological reaction (capillary response, etc) than liberals because it elicits a stronger emotional response.

Given 10 pictures of a BLM protest, 8 pictures were of people walking down the street chanting, 1 picture of someone shaking hands with a a police officer, and 1 picture of a person breaking a window. You are almost guaranteed that the liberal would share the picture of shaking hands and the conservative would share the picture of the window being broken.

That is one of the big disconnects between conservatives and liberals on BLM. If 1 person out of 100 breaks a window, conservatives are naturally drawn to that. It is a negative thing which draws and keeps their attention. It violates their beliefs in law, order and triggers a threat/defensive response. That strong negative response is then tied to the starting point. There was a protest, something bad happened during the protest, therefore the protest is bad. The other 99 people not doing bad become irrelevant. Liberals focus on the other 99 people. To liberals, that 1 person is an aberration to be condemned while still supporting the overall protest. To conservatives, the whole thing is associated with a strong negative emotion and therefore the 99 are seen as at least complicit or enabling.

We all suffer from confirmation bias. That is why conservatives will find any video of someone who is either inside the protest or perceived to be sympathetic to the protest who speaks or acts out against the violent actions as being the aberration that reaffirms that the whole thing is bad. The video of the mom whipping her teenage son on national TV and dragging him away from the protests during the Baltimore riots. The one guy who was interviewed during the Minnesota riots who was saying “we are just hurting ourselves”. Liberals will point to the many people who stood in front of storefronts to prevent looting on the second night in Baltimore or that the Minnesota riots weren’t actually a planned BLM event. The reality is somewhere in between. Was it just a minor aberration of 1 in 100 doing bad things like liberals like to think? Probably not, the numbers were probably significantly higher. Was it a majority doing bad things, or at least being silently complicit, like conservatives like to think? Nope, not even close.

Conservatives have a natural aversion to protests. Protests, by definition, are disruptive. It violates their predilection for structure, order, and normalcy. Whereas liberals have a much higher tolerance for change and disorder. In addition, conservatives place a lower value on things like social justice. So it takes a topic of very high importance to a conservative to break their norms in order to protest whereas liberals tend to protest anything and everything.

There is a reason why highly disruptive protests are important though. That does not mean violence. Violence elicits a strong negative backlash which causes any supposed justification to become irrelevant. Non-harmful disruptions, such as blocking off a highway, are very important and effective though. At least when paired with proper messaging. The messaging part is where many protests fail to follow through.

Outside of full time activists, most of us, liberals and conservatives, have very little time or mental energy to focus on injustices for very long. Individually, we have our own lives filled with our own problems. Collectively we have the attention span of a goldfish. As such, when something doesn’t affect us directly, we tend to default to a position of “sit down and work through the system”. We only become truly active or passionate when something begins to affect us personally.

We all know the pain of sitting in traffic. It is highly annoying. Particularly when you find out it is for no good reason, such as people rubbernecking a wreck 6 lanes over in the other direction. When we see a BLM protest that shuts down a highway, we feel bad and annoyed for the people who got stuck in traffic. Those people didn’t deserve that. Many of them may have even been supporters of BLM. That affects us indirectly. We can feel their pain and associate with it. What BLM has failed in is the follow-up messaging to move that associated pain to the next step. Those people stuck in traffic because of a protest are being delayed from whatever they are supposed to be doing for no good reason. That is the same thing as being pulled over for driving while black. When a black person is pulled over and delayed from whatever they are supposed to be doing, they feel exactly the same as the rest of us do when we are stuck in traffic because of a protest. BLM has failed in their messaging to make that connection and the 10 second collective attention span means that most people don’t have the time or energy to think about it long enough to make that connection for themselves.

Rosa Parks didn’t become famous because she refused to give up her seat. She didn’t become famous for sitting there and saying “this is wrong” over and over after giving up her seat. Had she been on an empty bus and the driver told her to move to the back and she had refused, we wouldn’t know her name. The reason we know her name is because she disrupted the lives of other people. The bus was pulled over for 30 minutes. Everyone had to stay to be witnesses before she was arrested and taken to jail. We know her name, not because she was arrested in protest, but because her protest disrupted the lives of other people. That is when we pay attention.

If we see a headline in the news of “Protest in [city name], nothing happened”, we all say “next”. If we see a headline of “Protest in [city name], traffic backed up for 30 minutes”, we empathize with the people stuck in traffic, but we begin to think about the why of the protest. Society is reluctant to make large scale changes in a timely manner. If that protest is a 1-off, then 10 seconds later, we move on with our lives. We default back to “work through the system so I don’t have to pay attention anymore”. The system’s default position is inertia. It requires a lot of thought and effort to get it moving. That is why protests and social pressure have to be repeated for an extended period of time. You have to get individuals to keep paying attention long enough to overcome the inertia needed to get the system moving. Only when the system is moving can you then “sit down and work through the system”.

The systemic racial bias in this country has a lot of inertia. After the civil rights movement in the 60’s, society became complacent and inertia set in. Minorities have basically been waiting for 40-50 years trying to work through the system. White people, for the most part, haven’t been directly affected by those things. We have 40 years of our normalcy (habits) that have to be overcome so that we don’t run screaming back into the comfort of our daily lives at the first opportunity. That isn’t a liberal or conservative thing. Everybody naturally wants to do that. We don’t enjoy being dragged, kicking and screaming, into someone else’s fight. That is why repetition is so important. It has to be repeated enough so that people begin to empathize. When they empathize, it becomes, at least partially, their fight too and inertia crumbles. That is how large scale change happens.