One of the reasons that I became a social scientist may have been a bit naïve: I couldn’t help thinking that, if people truly understood the reasons for other people’s behaviors, they would blame them less and they could have stronger, more positive interactions. Thus, I had a notion that learning more about ‘why people behave the way they do’ would be good for everyone.
I’ve been reading some research lately that continues to reinforce the idea that I was (and am) fairly naïve – but it also gives me hope. My colleague, Nicole Stephens, does wonderful work on the fact that people from different social classes in the US have markedly different perspectives on actions and decisions that people view as appropriate in a variety of challenging situations. One of my favorites of her studies concerns the public’s reactions to people who did not leave New Orleans in advance of Hurricane Katrina. Although we can easily argue about whether there was enough time for people to get out of town (FEMA’s responses to the crisis did not fare well in the court of public opinion, for many good reasons), people who stayed were scorned for their actions: they were accused of being lazy and irresponsible, endangering themselves and their families, and requiring more government support than they deserved.
Nicole’s research shows that this is a truly middle class view of the situation. She and her colleagues note that the primarily middle-class White people who left had more education and income, easier access to news and warnings, more reliable transportation, and more geographically extended social networks than the primarily working-class Black people who stayed. In addition, she and her colleagues surveyed and interviewed three groups of people who had opinions about these events: outside (neutral) observers, relief workers, and survivors themselves.
Their survey results reveal that outside observers were decidedly negative toward the people who stayed: they portrayed their actions as stupid and passive even though they clearly recognized the many reasons that made it difficult for them to evacuate (e.g., limited money and transportation options). Although relief workers were less negative, their reactions were also negative; they basically said that they really couldn’t understand why people stayed.
Nicole and her colleagues’ interviews were extremely revealing. One person who left town presented a simple, logical explanation: “I wanted to beat the hurricane so we decided to leave early to beat traffic.” Another described the decision process as rational and forward looking: “I started making plans. I immediately got on the phone and called hotels.” Leavers were also afraid that they would lose their sense of being independent, e.g., “Being away from home means you’ve lost your independence and feel totally dependent on others.”
In sharp contrast, people who did not leave had a broader, more interdependent focus, e.g., “We’re all in this world together and we’re stronger together.” Not surprisingly, people who stayed and survived noted that they valued strength and not giving up, e.g., “You have to be so strong-minded to survive. You do the best you can do and if you fail, you get up again. That’s all you can do.” People who stayed also focused on fate and faith: “Through much prayers and faith in God, that’s how we made it.”
Thus, even though Leavers and Stayers reported having a similar set of general emotions, feelings of well-being, and overall mental health, they viewed the challenge of Hurricane Katrina in markedly different ways. In addition, our ultra-individualistic society supported leavers over stayers, viewing them as active agents who were shaping their own destiny even though stayers were also active, forceful agents who, instead, had to cope with a resource-poor rather than a resource-rich personal environment.
Some of Nicole’s other work addresses another aspect of the way that people from working and middle class families approach challenges: she and her colleagues have focused on the gap in college achievement exhibited by students from working class versus middle class families. Leaving home and attending college is stressful for almost every new college student; it can be even more stressful for freshmen whose parents did not graduate from college. Nicole documents the performance gap that results and shows how interventions can help alleviate it. In particular, by having students read a welcome statement ostensibly from the University president espousing a team-oriented, communal atmosphere at the university or by having them hear a panel discuss how their diverse backgrounds can shape their transition and adjustment to college, Nicole’s work shows that the performance gap can not only be reduced: it can even be obliterated completely.
This is very exciting research: it is careful, thoughtful, and it packs a powerful message. As human beings, we really have a hard time when we try to appreciate and understand other people’s experiences. As just one example, I’ve always remembered a conversation that I had, years ago, with Amnon Rapoport, another accomplished academic who had served as an officer in the Israeli army. We were driving by the buffer zone along Israel’s northern border and he was describing some of his experience in the military. I offhandedly replied, “I understand.” He quickly replied, “No, you don’t.”
I have never faced military combat. Although my father and several friends have, and I have heard many stories and read many depictions and seen movies about it, Amnon was absolutely right – I really couldn’t understand it.
In the same way, most of us in the middle class can’t really, deeply understand the constraints of a less well-endowed environment, even in our own country or our own home town. It is probably even harder for us to understand the consequences of growing up in poverty in Somalia or India or other poor countries, especially countries that are half way around the world. Nicole’s research also makes it clear that, even though we can’t really understand the impact of these other kinds of existences, if we understand the fact that we can’t understand them, maybe then we can blame people less when they don’t live up to our expectations or don’t act as we would in the same situation. Thus, we may not be good at ‘putting ourselves in other people’s shoes,’ but if we understand that we can’t get their shoes to fit our feet, this could also reduce our natural tendency to find fault and blame. Maybe then, if we take things a step farther (no pun intended), my naïve hopes for reducing blame are actually possible.
Stephens, N. M., Hamedani, M. G., Markus, H. R., Bergsieker, H. B., & Eloul, L. (2009). Why did they “choose” to stay? Perspectives of Hurricane Katrina observers and survivors. Psychological Science, 20, 878-886.
Stephens, N. M., Fryberg, S. A., & Markus, H. R., Johnson, C. S., & Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen Disadvantage: How American Universities’ Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 1178-1197.