Monday, May 7, 2012

Wherein I dissect a scandal. Sort of. Maybe.

During my little hiatus, a few dramas unfolded in the YA blogosphere, and the two I directly observed had one thing in common: someone well-known did something disappointing.

Now, if you've read this blog for a while, you know I'm not going to hop up on a soapbox and add my opinion about the scandals to the pile. I do that rarely here, simply because there are enough opinions out there, so why would anyone want to hear mine?

What I will do: dissect it a bit, from a psychological perspective. That's why you come here, right? Oh, that or you're a kind, patient person with a high tolerance for eccentricity, and maybe we're friends, or possibly you're my dad (hi, Dad. I love you).

Okay! Someone well-known does something disappointing. And gets caught--and called out publicly. (No, I'm not going to link, sorry.) When these events went down, I read post after post with interest, and noticed that the (hundreds of) reactions coalesced into a few different types:

1. People who had neutral or negative opinions of WELL-KNOWN PERSON (WKP), and openly and loudly (you know, with all-caps and hashtags, etc.) condemned WKP for committing the TRANSGRESSION.

2. People who had positive opinions of WKP, who might have otherwise been extremely offended by the TRANSGRESSION, but who were much more willing to forgive and forget the transgression because of who committed it.

If you're wondering, yes, there were plenty of in-between kinds of opinions, but much of what I saw landed in one of these two camps, and that's what I'm going to focus on today (or else this would be a *really* long post).

Anyway, what's going on here? Both camps were presented with the evidence. Not just he said-she said--there was data! Screen captures! Time stamps! And it was evidence of something that is accepted by everyone in this community as BAD. How could people differ so widely in their reactions to something objectively labeled as unethical?


Well. This happens all the time, doesn't it?

A few psychological concepts are in play here, and I'm only going to mention two of them:

Cognitive dissonance--the discomfort we feel when we hold two conflicting beliefs in our heads at once. Example: TRANSGRESSION is bad. WKP is good. But WKP committed TRANSGRESSION. That's a recipe for a lot of distress ... unless you kind of ... let one of those beliefs become slightly less important. In this case, people who held the above beliefs could either reject WKP or downplay the TRANSGRESSION (i.e., "it wasn't that bad.").

See how that might have been at work here? *Some* of the reactions to what happened could have been due to people trying to resolve cognitive dissonance by de-emphasizing a previously strongly held belief because it was just too uncomfortable to hold onto both beliefs at once. (I find cognitive dissonance so fascinating that I'll be posting more on it next week.)

Person vs. Situation explanations--when we're trying to understand behavior, we make guesses about WHY someone does something. Even when we're not consciously aware of doing so. Sometimes, we attribute behavior to the person: He is lazy. He is dishonest. She is insincere. She only looks out for herself. Sometimes, we attribute behavior to the situation: It was a momentary lapse in judgment. It was an isolated incident. She was under a lot of pressure. He was exhausted from trying to do too many things at once.

Again--you can see how this might have come into play. People who did not know WKP very well--or who didn't like WKP very much--probably erred on the side of person-oriented explanations, attributing the transgression to something inherent, permanent, and likely to generalize across situations--and that would leave them wary of WKP and unlikely to forgive easily, because the transgression was the result of  a character flaw. People who know WKP, or who have had positive experiences with WKP, or who have benefited from association with WKP, probably erred on the side of situation-oriented explanations, attributing the transgression to something external to the person, temporary, and unlikely to generalize to other situations--which makes it easier to forgive and forget, because anyone could find themselves in that situation, right?


There you have it--this is how people react so differently to the same TRANSGRESSION. And it happens to all of us, every single day. None of us is immune to the effects of cognitive dissonance or person vs. situation explanations. None of us is as objective and logical as we'd like to believe. So now it's your turn, assuming I haven't utterly bored or confused you: can you think of a situation where a WKP has committed a TRANSGRESSION, and people had vastly different responses to it? What was your response, and why?

23 comments:

  1. I think I know which scandal you're talking about. I can understand both sides of those reactions. What about the DSK affair? That was heavy!:)

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  2. WAH! I am always behind the curve on scandals. I have no idea what you're talking about.

    However, what you term cognitive dissonance, I've also heard described as "truthiness" -- or the death of facts vs simply choosing the truth that most matches what you want truth to be.

    Cognitive dissonance makes us sound smarter. ;)

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  3. I'm in the dark too so sorry for my ignorance, but I find this very interesting. Thanks for explaining it.

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  4. I'm with Dianne!! Can you say social blinders?? Anyway, I took this post and applied it to my little town. *sighs... So often this happens here. I despise inner conflict, even though I know this is how we grow as people. But the confusion. :(

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  5. I was only aware of the one scandal, but obviously your analysis could apply to almost any of these meltdowns. The fascinating thing for me, in this one, was how political it got, because the WKP was SO WK.

    Thanks so much for breaking down some of the reasoning behind the behaviors, even if they're not necessarily that reasonable. :)

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  6. This is one of the reasons I love your posts, Sarah. I think I know what you were talking about, but honestly, this could be applied to so many different things I've seen it's amazing. Have an awesome Monday!

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  7. I'm in an online writing course and something like this is happening with the instructor. Those, like, myself who were negatively impacted had a different opinion than the lurkers. Not that any of them have actually commented (san one). Hence why they're lurkers. ;)

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  8. I'm going to attribute my ignorance to the fact I live on the other side of the world. ;) (Now my mind is turning with curiosity, though) :)

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  9. I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. But I do think it's possible we expect too much from people. That's me talking and not knowing what's going on... so I'll just say Hi! :D <3

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  10. This WKP is unknown to me, but I can see the dynamics of the situation you describe by inserting any number of names.

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  11. Ah yes I saw this, but I didn't get into it too much. After all, I didn't know WKP or WKP's blog, so I was merely curious about what happened. It was interesting how people took sides, or readily absolved WKP for her errors, when in truth, she did something blatantly wrong, and knowingly committed the act. (See? I don't know her so I don't feel the need to defend her actions. At best, I guess I'm just a spectator who wants to be on the side of RIGHT. Also, I hope we're talking about the same WKP here--I could easily be thinking of a different scandalous situation.)

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    1. Cherie, I suspect you are indeed thinking of the scandal to which I am referring!

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  12. I don't what this is about, so I can't comment directly. But I've noticed this in other situations. Last week, my cousin's friend did something horrific. My cousin keeps saying that people didn't KNOW him. As if that could excuse the un-excusable. True that when we know someone we give more leeway. It's easier to forgive someone when they're not anonymous to us.

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  13. Urg... I hate being out of the loop. What does that make me?

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  14. I love that you used these situations (I think I know of one of them) to talk about cognitive dissonance (one of my favorite psych topics) and person-vs.-situation explanations! Can't think of another example off the top of my head, but I look forward to further discussion of cognitive dissonance!

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  15. Glad to have a term for it. I am totally a cognitive dissonant. The arena where it happens most distinctly for me is the political. I am an unabashed liberal, so when a righty does something naughty I'm all torches and pitchforks. When my guy/gal does something equally egregious, however, I man the barricades in support. And it's made that much worse because my opponents are baying like attack dogs.

    Having said all that, I love a good scandal--so when you next have word of one, jot me a note. Like most everyone else here these recent "dramas" passed me by!

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  16. Because my opinion of others transgressions is based off my own values system and on the information I am given (which could be filtered or tainted by the time it gets to me), I try not to jump to too many conclusions. People do stupid things, and very rarely do I enjoy hearing about them. Who am I to judge?

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  17. I keep rereading this post because you have dissected the scandal SO WELL. as somebody who was in the loop (and wanted out of it), I can't help but agree. And the sad thing is I looked up to the WKP, but I can't forgive WKP for the TRANSGRESSION.

    I'm very curious, though, what you think of the people who had negative thoughts about WKP and actually bullied WKP because of this TRANSGRESSSION, and used it to voice all their concerns with WKP?

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    1. Thank you, Ashelynn! In answer to your question: I prize civility highly, and I am always sad when discourse becomes incendiary, because I've never seen it lead to a rational conclusion, and people often end up regretting things they've said.

      In addition, I tend to value specificity rather than generalization when it comes to critical feedback. I know exactly what you mean--in some cases, people seemed to take this incident as permission to air grievances that seemed to have little to do with the transgression in question. In family/marriage therapy, this behavior is called "kitchen-sinking", and occurs during arguments when one person brings up every possible past transgression in an effort to "win."

      If the desire was to be constructive and preserve the integrity of the community that was involved, I don't believe kitchen-sinking/generalized criticism was the most effective approach. However, if the goal was to reduce the status of and justify disdain for WKP, as well as to engage in a bit of schadenfreude, then the way it was handled was quite effective, for good or ill.

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  18. I can think of an example of this in my own experience, although not with a well known person. In one of my high school creative writing classes, we gave awards and took turns presenting them as a way to encourage us to create. Our teacher was very patient and took the time to find something for each person based on their writing strengths, and we all loved his class for his care and enthusiasm. One of my classmates, while giving out an award, began to stutter, and our teacher mocked her stutter! The entire class was horrified, and I've struggled with this memory since. The teacher was someone I adored and looked up to, and he did something cruel that probably lingers in this girl's memory. I just can't seem to make the two images of him fit together. :/

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  19. Well, that explains a lot of the different opinions out there for what happened. What happened was sad and I wished it hadn't. I'm still not sure how I feel about it given I knew of WKP and had some very minor interactions in the past, but didn't know WKP very well, if that makes sense.

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  20. This is a great analysis of the psychology behind people's reactions. Thank you for sharing your expertise in using it to shed light on a situation in the community.

    What's interesting is, holding two conflicting beliefs -– in this case, that the WKP is good, AND that the transgression was bad. We think that's where we net out… And we wonder why more people can't accept both as being true. Good people make mistakes all the time.

    But there've been lots of good comments here that show people do feel the need to take sides. We particularly liked Theresa's and Michael's additional observations.

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  21. Love this post. I was a psychology major in school, and cognitive dissonance was one of the biggest things I took from my studies. I am very much looking forward to next week's post!

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