How Far is Tehran From Your Door? Your Estimate May Depend on How Scared You Are

Feeling threatened changes people's perceptions of other people. Before World War II, for example, American university students described the Japanese as artistic and progressive, while the Chinese were supposedly treacherous and deceitful. By 1943, those stereotypes were reversed—just as American descriptions of brave, hardworking Russians in 1942 gave way to images of cruel, conceited Russkies in 1948. Now this study, in the current Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggests that fear also alters people's perceptions of geography. For example, the authors found that Americans who fear Mexican immigration estimate Mexico City to be closer than it is (and closer than less-concerned Americans think). And die-hard Yankees fans think the Red Sox's Fenway Park is closer to New York than do people who don't care about that rivalry.


It's the Yankees-Red Sox result that got all the press this week, but the whole paper, by Y. Jenny Xiao and Jay J. Van Bavel, is well worth reading. (A pdf is here.) The baseball experiment—giving candy to 46 Yankees fans and 27 non-fans at a game in 2010 in exchange for their answers to a few questions—was just the first of three interesting tests. People whose responses indicated that they really cared about the Yankees put Fenway Park slightly closer to New York than it actually is—and slightly closer than Camden Yards, stadium of the (then completely unthreatening) Baltimore Orioles. In fact, the Baltimore stadium is slightly closer than Boston's, as the non-fans correctly guessed.

But of course most of life isn't lived at war or in baseball arenas. In regular life, the identities that matter to us rise and fall from awareness in accordance with what is happening at the moment. You might be a Yankees fan, but in the context of a political argument, that identity might never come to mind, so caught up will you be with being a Tea Partier or Occupier or Third Way Democrat. And what goes for identity also goes for relationships between groups. Boston can be the home of the enemy Red Sox (bad!) in one conversation but the site of the great original patriotic Tea Party (good!) in another. So for their second experiment Xiao and Van Bavel looked to see if they map the effects of this kind of difference: They wanted to see if the same place felt closer to people it spooked than it did to people who saw that place in a different, non-threatening context.

They had NYU students and staff read about New York City's other great university, Columbia. Some read an article that made Columbia out to be entirely superior to NYU (ouch!) while others got a version that even-handedly compared the two schools. Asked afterward to estimate the distance from NYU to Columbia, people rated Columbia as closer than it actually is—if they were strongly identified with NYU. People with no particular feeling for NYU, on the other hand, guessed that Columbia was further than it is. Xiao and Van Bavel think this is the default for uninvolved people: any discussion of a difference between two groups will make them seem more different. That will make them feel more literally distant to people who don't have the personal stake in the comparison.

Now, you might have noticed that in both these experiments, the notion that people feel threatened (Yankees fans by the Red Sox, NYU folk by Columbia) was presumed rather than measured. So the authors did a third test, where they asked directly how people felt. They asked 329 NYU undergraduates some questions about their identity as Americans, and their views on immigration from Mexico. Then they asked them to estimate the distance as the crow flies from New York to Mexico City (and, for comparison) to Vancouver (part of that big, friendly country Americans aren't afraid of) and Los Angeles. Results: people who felt threatened by immigration thought Mexico City was closer.

Interestingly, though, this result only appeared among people who were strongly wrapped up in their American identity and who were worried about the cultural and psychological effects of immigration. That is, these were people who strongly agreed with statements like "I am proud to be an American" and statements like "Immigration from Mexico is undermining American culture." However, people whose fears were more practical and economic (sample statement: "Mexican immigration has increased tax burden on Americans") did not imagine that Mexico is closer than it is. It seems fear of dilution and disappearance—not rational dollars-and-cents concerns—is what makes it feel like the Other is too close for comfort.

Xiao YJ, & Van Bavel JJ (2012). See your friends close and your enemies closer: social identity and identity threat shape the representation of physical distance. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 38 (7), 959-72 PMID: 22510363

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.