Trump Is a Case Study in How Drawing Attention to Antisocial Behavior Backfires

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Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A curious case occurred not too long ago at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Visitors were regularly snatching bark from trees for souvenirs, as thoughtless tourists are wont to do. So the park staff sought to correct that, erecting a sign reading, “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.’’

That should do it, right?

Well, not quite. As was documented in a 2006 paper in Social Influence, the bark thefts went up with the sign. This is because, as Yale philosopher and cognitive scientist Joshua Knobe argues in a new column at Vox, when people are condemned for abnormal, antisocial actions, it can backfire.

Awareness gets raised in the wrong direction.

“By drawing attention to the fact that people often steal, it made people see theft as normal,” Knobe observes. “Many of the park visitors might have seen theft as something that wasn’t even worth considering (like trying to eat your shoe), but the sign helped to switch them over to seeing it as something that might be bad but was still among the normal options (like eating chocolate cake).”

This matters a lot because, as Knobe contends, cognitive science and its siblings social psychology and behavioral economics are all teaching us that humans don’t select from a great range of possibilities when making decisions; they make a selection from a limited range of what they think is “possible” or “normal.” (Consider the work of Daniel Kahneman or Ellen Langer for explorations of these things). Which brings us, as everything else does, to Trump.

With Trump’s multivariate personal attacks and barely masked racist assertions, those toxic social behaviors are being modeled as within the realm of possibility. They’re shoehorned into the inventory of potentially acceptable social behaviors — they are, in a word, normalized. This is evidenced by the spike in hate crimes in the wake of the election (though reports of hate crimes have declined since then). Knobe observes that blaming the media for normalizing Trump has “become something of a cliché,” and there doesn’t appear to be much that can be done about it: Just like the park sign denounced theft yet enabled it, lambasting Trump doesn’t lessen the way he models toxic behavior. Unfortunately, we can’t all just look away.

Trump and How Shaming Antisocial Behavior Backfires