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Trust in Government

Everyone knows that trust is in terminal decline across a broad range of institutions, including government.

Maybe especially government since we expect our legislators to protect us from fraud in all the other institutions and they've done a lousy job in recent years. They not only allowed fraud to permeate our financial institutions, they let salmonella get into our peanut butter, lead paint onto our kids' toys, and growth hormone into our baseball heroes.

Now an MIT graduate student, Michael Sances, has shed a little light onto the causes of this growing mistrust.  Writing in one of my favorite blogs, The Monkey Cage, he points out that -- while trust has been in decline since the 1960s no matter which party was in power -- the rate of decline has always had a partisan twist.  Members of the president's political party have always had more confidence in government, as this chart shows:

Trust partisan gap 1

Sances points out that, "There has always been a 'trust gap' between members of the president's party and the opposition."

Members of both parties became less trusting from the 60s through the 70s. That's probably not too surprising since that period included the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Iran hostage crisis.

But starting in the Reagan-Bush presidencies, Republicans' trust was strikingly higher than Democrats'.  And even though public condidence in government began to build under the good economy President Clinton enjoyed (or helped cause), Republicans remained relatively distrustful.

Yet, while overall trust declined during the Iraq war years of the second President Bush's term, Republicans were far more confident than Democrats. Conversely, they have been far less confident under President Obama.

Overall, the trust gap has been remarkably partisan.  And in recent years, it has been growing ever wider.  Could partisanship itself be contributing to these feelings of mistrust?  







Dirty liberals

Purell Social media played a big role in the last presidential campaign.  

New research suggests that hand sanitizers could be politicians' next secret weapon.

Cornell University researchers report that reminding people about physical cleanliness influences their moral and political attitudes.

 Psychologist Jonathan Haidt showed that the value of "purity" plays a larger role in the moral decisions of conservatives than liberals. This new research seems to confirm that notion.  

Maybe washroom signs reminding employees to wash their hands should be classified as political advertising.




Blue & Pink

Pink-and-blue-gender-520 Will we ever be able to free ourselves from socially constructed stereotypes?

Here, courtesy of my son, whose interests are as wide-ranging as they are eccentric, is historical evidence that social constructs are more fluid than we might suspect.

 He found an article in Smithsonian magazine that answers the question: "When did girls start wearing pink?"

It seems that, baby girls have been swathed in pink only since World War Two. Prior to that, the custom was to put boys in pink clothes and girls in blue. 

 A 1918 article in the Ladies Home Journal advised, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

But even that practice dated from just before World War One. Before that, babies of both sexes were put in white dresses -- and they stayed there until they were five or six -- because white clothes could be bleached clean.

Using colors to mark gender was made possible by the invention of modern detergents. The article doesn't try to explain why pink and blue emerged as the generally accepted markers or why the significance of the colors flipped in the early 40s.

But pink and blue have been gender markers for more than a century, except for a period beginning in the 1960s when the rise of feminism prompted moms to put their kids in neutral unisex clothes.

That lasted until around 1985, when pre-natal testing started giving parents advance word of their baby's sex. (And all those little girls who had been put in unisex clothes were having babies of their own and decided to dump the unisex look.)

So we could do it again. Or maybe change some other social construct that has more significance and a higher cost.  










You have to be carefully taught

South Pacific Rogers and Hammerstein were great composers, but it turns out that they weren't particularly good pscychologits.  

In "South Pacific," they had Lt. Cable sing "you have to be carefully taught" prejudice.

That was consistent with the theory at the time that prejudice is learned, sometimes through the subtle behavior of our parents or other role models. We are literally taught to be wary of people of a different race, ethnicity, religion, or even politics.

But now there's evidence that prejudice is an evolutionary adaptation to living in groups.

Group living increases the odds of survival by making it easier to get resources like water, food, and shelter. It also makes it easier to find mates, to care for children, and to ward off predators.  

But the group itself also needs to be protected.  Outsiders can harm it by spreading disease, harming group members, or stealing resources. Those who developed ways to identify outsiders had a better chance of survival.

Over generations, this process of quickly evaluating others was so streamlined that it became the unconscious, automatic behavior we call prejudice.  

Psychologists have known for a long time that prejudice operates at an unconscious level. There's even an online test for it.  But now there's empirical evidence that prejudice is not unique to humans.  

Several experiments with monkeys support the theory that prejudice is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past.  That doesn't mean it can't be overcome. But it does suggest that we need a better approach than "other group appreciation."  

We need to be more aware our automatic prejudices so we can correct them. And there's also evidence that when we take the perspective of an outsider, it reduces our automatic prejudice towards that person’s group.

It turns out, sadly, that no one needs to be taught prejudice; but we do need to be taught to guard against it.






Is Capitalism working?

Time-Is Capitalism Working Time magazine ran the cover to the left in 1980.

The answer provided inside was essentially "Yes, but..."  

Of course, the '70s and early '80s were a racked by inflation, economic anxiety, and runaway energy prices.  

By the end of the decade, with the fall of the Soviet Union and Communism, the bout between economic systems seemed to be over.

Capitalism was declared the winner.

But now there are disturbing signs that many Americans are considering a recount.

A new poll shows a sharp drop in enthusiasm for the free market among many Americans.  In fact, for the first time, people in China and Brazil are more likely than Americans to consider capitalism "the best economic system for the future."  

 In 2002, when the poll was first put in the field, eight out of ten Americans considered capitalism the best system. In the latest wave of research only 59% do, compared to 67% of Chinese and Brazilians.

The people who conducted the survey deadpanned, "This is not good news for business."  In fact, it may not be good for anyone if it leads to overly restrictive economic policies.

Business leaders have no one to blame but themselves -- income inequality and job insecurity have never been higher in most people's lifetimes. Meanwhile, trust in businesses and other institutions has never been lower.  

Ironically, the Republican Party has chosen this moment to propose shifting healthcare for seniors from a widely praised government program, Medicare, to -- you guessed it -- the free enterprise system.  

No one can argue that healthcare costs need to be reigned in. But someone should seriously consider the question on that Time magazine cover before throwing grandma out with the bathwater.







Cold, hard facts

Ice-Cube In researching my new book, Otherwise, I tried to figure out how people can be so divided over questions of cold, hard facts.  

The answer is not encouraging -- nothing is so persuasive as someone's pre-existing opinion.  In other words, people believe what they want to believe.  

When the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said "people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts," he had it exactly backwards.  

People see, interpret, and weigh so-called "facts" through the lens of their opinions. Decades of psychology experiments have documented this phenomena.

Now a well-intentioned investigative piece by two veteran reporters -- Fortune's Allan Sloan and ProPublica's Jeff Gerth -- demonstrate it again.  

In an article somewhat ironically entitled "Setting the record straight on GE's taxes," they attempted to establish the "facts" on the widely reported story that GE paid no taxes on a $5.1 billion profit last year and, on the contrary, will get a hefty refund.

After chiding the New York Times, which originally broke the story, for misunderstanding the company's financial statements, they tried to set the record straight.

Here's the gist of what they found: GE clearly paid estimated taxes on its anticipated 2010 income, has received no refund, and will probably end up with a modest tax bill for the year.  You can read the whole story here.  

In the first four hours after their article was posted, it had attracted more than 120 comments.  The gist of the feedback ranged from "this is total BS" to "what a fluff piece." Meanwhile, an apparently little noticed sidebar that outlined GE's tax-minimization strategies in great detail attracted only 10 comments.

I have known Sloan for more than a decade -- in fact, when I led PR for AT&T, the company was the target of some of his most penetrating and vitriolic criticism.  I've only dealt with Gerth once or twice and was grateful that my company was only peripheral to his real interest on both occasions. 

These two guys are probably among the smartest, toughest, and most relentless reporters I ever dealt with. They don't do fluff. But they do understand income statements and tax law.

What they may not completely appreciate is the difficulty of explaining the facts to someone whose mind is already made up.  That's something GE's PR people have to do every day.










Parla engles? Si!

342_home_img3_bilingual You can stop worrying about the demise of English in the U.S.  

It seems that immigrants are learning English at an even faster pace today than 100 years ago.  

In fact, according to one study, there were four and a half more non-English speakers in the country in 1890 than in 1990.  

How can this be, you ask? You can't call a company without getting a prompt asking you to press 1 if you want to proceed in Spanish. And the U.S. Census itself claims that seven out of ten Asian and Hispanic immigrants speak a language other than English at home.  

All true.  But there's a difference between not speaking English and being bilingual.  Nine out of ten of people who speak something other than English at home have at least some facility in English; seven out of ten even speak the language "well" or "very well."

The increasing number of non-English speaking immigrants may require short-term accommodations, such as language training and bilingual ballots, but it does not portend the demise of the mother tongue.

On the contrary, it could make the typical American something we've never been before -- bilingual.






Talk English already

1247 Somehow, the evening news missed this.  

Last month, while the rest of us were worrying about the Japanese nuclear disaster, the economy, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Sen. Jim Inhofe (Republican of Oklahoma) and Rep. Steve King (Republican of Iowa) introduced the English Language Unity Act of 2011.  

 The proposed law would make English the country's official language, require all the nation's official business to be done in English, and require anyone seeking citizenship to demonstrate an ability to read English well enough to understand the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and laws "made in pursuence of the Constitution."  Good luck on that last one.  

The bill makes a few exceptions, including "unofficial" communications with constituents and terms of art.  So "et cetera" is safe. 

A similar law has been introduced in every Congress since at least 1985. It has always attracted a large number of co-sponsors; this version has 72.  But for some weird reason, it has never gone to the floor for a vote.

Among other things, the proposed law provides that “A person injured by a violation of this chapter may in a civil action . . . obtain appropriate relief.”  

Where's the Tea Party when you need it?




Koran burning

Flames-3 Word comes, via the New York Times, that as many as seven UN aid workers in Afghanistan have been killed in rertribution for the burning of a Koran in Florida.

The desecration of the Koran was perpetrated by Terry Jones, the same nut-job who backed off from a similar threat last September.  

The massacre of the UN workers was perpetrated by a mob that had just left Friday prayers in a northern province of Afghanistan that, until now, was considered relatively safe.

Sadly, this will only serve to confirm two common stereotypes -- that Islam is more prone to violence than other religions and that the US is full of intolerant hicks.

Ironically, most of the US media chose to ignore Jones' ignorant stunt. But word somehow reached the northern reaches of Afghanistan.   Adding to the irony is this verse from the Koran itself (Chapter 49, verse 13): 

“We have made you nations and tribes that you may get to know one another.”  




Bitter More evidence of bodily cognition.  

In this experiment, self-described conservative were more judgmental after drinking a bitter beverage than a sweet one.  

For some reason, self-described liberals were not influenced by what they drank.  

Theorists suggest that the effect is because feelings of "disgust" play a larger role in conservatives' moral judgments.  

Moral of this experiment?  

If you're trying to influence a conservative, serve fruit juices.