Blame and Political Attitudes, a recently published book by Professor Gail Sahar, is a new look at the current American political scene. It is receiving positive attention.
“Blame and Political Attitudes is a thoughtful commentary on the state of American politics,” says the Providence Mayor, Brett P. Smiley. “This piece digs deep into the long-term impacts of blame-placing and how we should come together to refocus on the problems our generation faces.”
Gail Sahar is Jane Oxford Keiter Professor of Psychology, Wheaton College, Massachusetts USA who has been researching the effects of causal perceptions on political attitudes for over 30 years. Her research focuses on the links between political ideology, perceptions of the causes of social problems, blame, emotions, and attitudes toward controversial social issues, such as poverty, abortion, and terrorism.
Gail will be at the HARVARD COOP on Tue, June 6 at 6pm
Professor Sahar generously agreed to answer questions about her book as follows:
What inspired you to write this book?
Many of the issues I consider in the book are ones that I have investigated. I have conducted research on attitudes toward abortion, poverty and terrorism—three of the main topics of the book. So, I discuss my own research, but I also summarize the related work of other psychologists, as well as sociologists, political scientists and even some philosophers. I have been researching these issues for over 30 years, and I wanted to place my work and the work of others in a broader context—in the general public beyond academia, so that the power of perceptions of causality and blame become clear. I really enjoy discussing social issues with others from all walks of life and wanted an opportunity to do so. In addition, I have been struck in recent years by the fact that blame perceptions underlie many current topics that have become lightning rods for debate: police violence against Black Americans, the teaching of critical race theory, ‘cancel culture,’ the #MeToo movement, and others. I aimed to shed some light on the so-called ‘culture wars’ that political pundits talk so much about.
You are a social psychology professor teaching at Wheaton College. In what ways does your research affect your work students in the classroom?
There is a lot of interplay between my teaching and research. To be a good teacher, one must be on top of the latest literature in the field. Doing active research allows me to stay current so that my students can benefit from that knowledge. Students also like learning about the work their professors do, in my experience. It means something to them that we are not just reporting what’s in a text book but rather speaking from our own experience in conducting research. I frequently run mini-studies in my classes. I might bring in a short questionnaire I’ve used in my research, have students complete it, and then discuss their own results and the results we obtained in the lab. That sort of active learning, in which students are thinking about why they respond in a particular way, is not only enlightening, but it helps students to recall the material. We better remember things that we apply to ourselves. It is important to note that my teaching also affects my research. I often learn things about the way people think about issues by listening to my students, and they are great sounding boards for ideas. Finally, I often involve students in my work as research assistants, so in that way, they are getting useful first-hand experience as researchers.
How would you conduct a conversation between 2 people on opposing sides of an issue – for example: abortion, guns…
Rather than attending to how the issue fits into their broader worldview (e.g., political ideology or religion), I would try to get them to focus on thinking about the causes of the problem. There is evidence that although we imagine Americans to be polarized about abortion, meaning either strongly Pro-Life or strongly Pro-Choice, most are actually ambivalent about it, approving in some cases and not in others. For example, the vast majority of Americans approve of abortion in the case of rape, whereas fewer would support it for other reasons, such as a failure to use birth control. Therefore, a focus on the cause of the unwanted pregnancy is a more promising avenue for finding areas of agreement. If they could talk about their responses to various possible causes, they would likely find that they do see some causes the same way, with even those who are generally opposed to abortion approving of it in some cases, and even those who lean in favor being less comfortable with some causes than others. I am not suggesting that they would agree about all causes but rather than there would be more agreement than many people imagine. That common ground can make for a more fertile discussion that gets beyond the right-wrong or good-bad distinction and into a more nuanced consideration of the issue.
Are there lessons politicians could learn from this research?
At the present moment, Americans feel divided. There is great resentment toward people in the other political party. I think this is partially because the media and, to some degree, politicians themselves are playing to their base. That is, their messages are aimed at folks who already support them. The problem is that this approach only increases political polarization. I think we would all benefit from politicians talking more pragmatically about the causes of social problems and the possible solutions to those problems. In spite of what one would think from media portrayals of American politics at the moment, there are a lot of politically moderate people in this country. My research suggests that people’s views of issues are strongly informed by their beliefs about causes. So, what if politicians talked more about the causes? Why are poverty rates so high in the US? Let’s talk about the evidence. Recent data show that shifting people’s views of the causes of a problem makes them open to solutions they would not have considered. For example, if one recognizes that many factors that cause poverty are not the fault of the poor themselves, the poor are not blamed, and people want to help. Politicians could make use of the research on blame to frame problems in ways that encourage the electorate to consider new solutions to those problems.
Is there a message you’d like your readers to take-away after reading Blame and Political Attitudes….?
I think we could all use to think a little more about how easily we place blame on other people. Even outside of the political context, people are quick to assume that a person in a negative situation is responsible or to blame for it. We prefer to think that others deserve what is happening to them. It makes us feel better to believe that a person who is sick didn’t take good care of herself, that the person who isn’t financially successful isn’t trying hard enough, and so on. It makes us feel better to believe that the world is just, with good people rewarded and bad punished. But, if we take the time to think about it, most of us understand that bad things happen to good people all the time. We can interrupt the automatic assumption of blame of the individual and think more deeply about why they might be in a given situation. When we are able to get ourselves to consider forces outside of the individual’s control, we blame them less, we experience sympathy, and we want to help. That makes the world a better place.
Available locally and on amazon, Blame and Political Attitudes will help to think critically about how we place blame and offer pathways for bridging opposing viewpoints.
Photos are courtesy of Gail Sahar