SPEARFISH — There’s no denying that the national temperature has been high recently. Racial injustice, alternative “facts,” a global pandemic, and all but out right political civil wars breaking out over every diner table across the country has caused some very serious divides amongst we Americans.
But as divided as we seem to be of late, it can still be difficult to define what it is that’s dividing us. We use vague terms like “they,” and, “them,” versus, “us,” and, “we,” to signify the elusive “other side,” without truly defining who “they,” or even who “we,” are. As it turns out it’s because there actually is no “they,” or “them,” in this situation. It turns out “we” are all in the same boat.
The Pioneer sat down with Dr. Emilia Flint, a clinical psychologist at Black Hills Psychology and a professor of psychology at Black Hills State University to discuss just where all this anger seems to be coming from and what it might mean for the future of the nation. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, read on to confront some potentially harsh realities, but fear not, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“To just say, ‘oh, it’s definitely an increase in anxiety,’ is sort of underplaying all these things that you are very well aware of too. That anger and that frustration is there,” Flint explained “At times it might even feel like it’s diseased. People who are otherwise rational human beings, who think logically, just aren’t acting like themselves anymore.”
At this point, you might picture someone who fits that description, but keep in mind; someone else may be picturing you.
Flint said on top of the external upsetting elements of the world today, when people are aware that they’re acting uncharacteristically they can become frustrated with themselves as well.
“We’re trying to fix that, while at the same time still being upset and still being angry at what’s going on (around us),” she said.
Flint suggests that mounting internal frustration is a major contributor to the explosion of outward hostility and extreme behavior we’ve seen throughout the past year.
“Whether that’s Black Lives Matter (riots), or storming the Capitol in January, those stem from this place of inherent frustration,” she said.
The main cause of all that external frustration can be different for different folks. Some people may be more triggered by racial injustices than the turmoil taking place in national politics and vice versa. But to get at the root of societal frustrations and its effect on groups of people, Flint pointed to a now notorious research study complied in 1971 called the Stanford Prison Experiment by psychologist Dr. Phillip Zimbardo.
“He essentially had normal human beings, and they were all psychologically tested and screened before hand, randomly assigned to either play the role of prison guard, or prisoner,” Flint said. “And then he set up the basement of Stanford University Psychology Department to look like a prison.”
According to www.prisonexp.org, the official website reporting the findings of the experiment, 24 young men were chosen from a pool of 40 volunteers to participate in the experiment. Each of them were psychologically evaluated, and it was explained to them how the experiment would work. “Guards” and “prisoners” were chosen of the subjects at random by a flip of a coin. The purpose of the experiment was to study the effects of the prison system on inmates and correction officials. To do this, the researchers had to simulate functional prison conditions that generally accrue over time. To accelerate this the “prisoners” where exposed to extreme humiliation tactics such as making them wear dresses.
“Real male prisoners don’t wear dresses, but real male prisoners do feel humiliated and do feel emasculated,” according to the report. “Our goal was to produce similar effects quickly by putting men in a dress without any underclothes. Indeed, as soon as some of our prisoners were put in these uniforms they began to walk and to sit differently, and to hold themselves differently – more like a woman than like a man.”
Meanwhile the “guards,” received no specific instructions how to play their part, but were left, “with limits,” to their own discretion on how to run the “prison” and set their own rules.
By the second day of the experiment, the “prisoners” began to rebel over the abuse of power being executed by the “guards.” The “guards,” in turn took the “prisoners’” rebellion as a threat to their established role of authority and responded by blasting them with fire extinguishers, stripping them naked, and taking their beds to assert their dominance.
Flint added, “The ones who were randomly assigned to be prisoners started feeling like they had actually done something bad. And it was because of the way that the assigned guards were treating them.”
The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks, however, after six days, Zimbardo pulled the plug, saying, “Prisoners were withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways, and (…) some of the guards were behaving sadistically.”
Remember, all of these young men knew they were participating in a social experiment and were psychologically determined to be normal, rational members of society. However, the preserved injustice of one faction being given disproportionate authority and privilege over another, not only seemed to take a toll on both groups.
“Because of those experiments and other observations about human behavior over the course of his many years of study, (Zimbardo) observed that people are inherently evil, and he calls that “the Lucifer effect,” Flint added.
Flint summarized the experiment’s findings as unfortunate and able to be debated, but said, “It’s like, ‘once I get to strip myself of my own identity and become a part of, ‘this group,’ I do act outside of the bounds of my character,’” she explained. “And I say that so hesitantly because I don’t want to admit that as a human being.”
In the throws of a world-wide pandemic a time when people were becoming increasingly isolated and felt they were losing their identities, it became easier than ever for extremist groups to offer them a place they finally felt they fit in again, whether they truly believed in the cause or not.
“Some folks who showed up for what they thought were going to be peaceful protests this last summer, which then turned violent, they almost conscientiously have a choice – ‘do I continue to participate, or do I leave; and if I leave, do I face the wrath of someone who’s trying to push me towards the crowd,’” Flint said.
The media also plays a role in aiding the awareness of extremist views.
“The media does have this bend toward reporting on the bad right now,” Flint said. “In the absence of information, people latch on to what they consider to be truth sometimes. That then effects their mood, (and) it effects who they interact with.”
Psychologically speaking, there are similarities in the way individuals process a problem and how groups of people process a problem. Flint said once a problem is identified, it’s human nature to want to figure out who is to blame, the same goes for groups.
“It comes down to, is blame healthy, and what purpose does blame serve for me or for anybody else for that matter,” she said. “Now that we know that there’s a problem whose fault is it, but rather than spending time there, (it should be) just an analysis.”
Flint said she suggests to her students and clients that rather than spend time trying to find someone to blame, we should be looking at ourselves to figure out why we see the issue as a problem, what is motivating our frustration with the issue, and what role we may actually be playing in perpetuating the issue.
“I think it starts with reminding yourself to listen for the commonality, to understand that there are reasons behind your passion and that other person’s passion and to genuinely commit to listening to them,” she said. “Maybe the goal is to walk away still disagreeing but not be fighting.”
That sounds infinitely reasonable; and I’m sure it’s nothing you haven’t heard before. People have been imploring folks at odds to seek common ground since the first caveman said, “We go left,” the second caveman said, “We go right,” and the third caveman said, “Hey guys, let’s just talk this out over a macchiato.” So why doesn’t it work? Why don’t cooler heads prevail? If everybody just wants to get along, why are we still so angry?
“It’s a lot easier to just complain and that seems to be the dominant conversation piece even with people who aren’t necessarily rageful,” Flint explained. “Then it becomes sort of this learned helplessness, ‘I don’t know what to do, so I’m just going to surrender to what’s happening to me right now, and that also doesn’t feel good but at least it’s knowing what is happening and I can stay secure in knowing rather than try for something different.’”
Flint said there’s so much hitting all of us at once, it can be very appealing to just take a good feeling where we can.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for that good feeling we get when we experience pleasure. When our brains are exposed to something we perceive as pleasurable, dopamine is activated and our nervous system is flooded with that good time feeling. However, not everything we perceive as pleasurable is good for us. This function is also mimicked by many types of controlled substances and is one of the underlying causes of addiction.
“If you think about the good feeling that emerges from that high, that same thing can be produced when you lose yourself in the service of others,” Flint explained.
However, whether our actions are positive or negative, if our brain releases dopamine into our system, our mind will associate that action as something we should continue to do.
“That is the messenger in our brain that says, ‘keep this up, do more,’” she said.
Flint said that dopamine flow can so easily become associated with negative reinforcement; it can lead to serious psychological clinical conditions like depression and even thoughts of suicide.
“We’re seeing the increase in demand for (psychiatric) services now because, right away people were very focused on the practical, here’s what I need to do, here’s how I get my kids online, here’s the information from their teacher that they need to do online, and all of that,” she said. “It’s now hitting us at that emotional level, and that’s consistent with a lot of trauma based research. And lets be honest, this is a pretty traumatic situation that we’re all living through right now.”
In the meantime, Flint said there are ways to look at the world as it is, with all of it’s chaos and see it as an opportunity to teach as well as learn.
“Once we’re beyond this pandemic, or once we’re beyond this political turmoil, 10 years from now or so, we’ll be able to see maybe some of this as the trigger point for someone’s severe depression, and if we know that then we might treat that differently then if it were complicated grief due to loss of a loved one or something like that,” Flint said.
For children and young people especially, however, Flint said it’s difficult to deal with the ambiguity and the negativity right now. Flint said parents should be on the look out for increased interest in blood or gore, and a passive attitude towards death, as well as withdrawing from friends and social gatherings.
“Don’t just assume that it is this new normal. It’s better for you to go to the doctor, and the doctor say, ‘everything’s fine,’ than for you to play doctor yourself and in six months you have to go to the doctor and the doctor looks at you like, ‘you should have been here six months ago the problem is not fixable now,’” she said. “A phone call, just with a couple quick questions those things can be assessed fairly simply or we will say, ‘yeah, maybe you should set your son up with a couple counseling sessions.”
So in the case of an isolated individual, yearning for acceptance by a group working to act out against a shared enemy perceived as disproportionately oppressive or authoritarian, there can be a very real sort of chemical conditioning that takes place within the brain, evolving and escalating as the individual moves further and further to the outside fringe of a belief.
But that road goes both ways, and there’s rarely a point of no return.
“Behavior is learned, and so (positive) behavior, through time, when reinforced, whether its an ‘atta boy’ or ‘atta girl,’ or ‘you got you picture in the front page of the paper for doing something great,’ those kinds of things, while external to the person encourages them to sustain that behavior over time then it becomes internal.”
So there it is, that light at the end of the tunnel I promised. If we can progress out of the blame stage and acknowledge that we all have parts to play not only in the problems of this county, but in the solutions as well, we will get through this. We will struggle. There will be more very terrible things that happen along the way; but we can learn. We can heal. And we can do better.
“We’re unified in this global pandemic and the misery that we feel from enduring this together, that is unity, it’s not the most positive unity but it’s unity. So can we be unified and divided? We sort of are,” Flint said. “You posses the power of the narrative that you write for the next generation. I do too and that is cool, that is hopeful.”
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