construals

            Are we innately good or bad, or do we have a choice?  

           Is every act of kindness actually a selfish act? Advocates of prosocial behavior and altruism would definitely oppose this notion of selfishness; to them, people are willing to do good for no personal benefit, even at a cost to their own well being. For instance, a rich person who gives away a huge portion of his money to an orphanage would certainly lack the norm of reciprocity. Wouldn’t that then, be purely altruistic? After all, he must have empathized with the poor and fulfilled the empathy-altruism hypothesis, where a person who empathizes with others tries to help them for unselfish reasons. Further supporting his cause is his ability to help members of an out-group, the orphans, to whom he cannot identify with. Not only that, but he would also defy the urban overload hypothesis, since he did not give in to the overwhelming stimuli around him. What if, however, these assumptions were incorrect? What if he gave away money in order to raise his self-esteem, or to reduce his cognitive dissonance through self-affirmation?  Would that make him a bad person?

            Let us consider another situation. A group of people watched a rape take place but did nothing to stop it. Wouldn’t those people definitely be bad? No. The bystander effect is perhaps more powerful than their best motives, for the greater the number of bystanders, the more that pluralistic ignorance takes place. In other words, everyone depends on the others to help, so no one actually helps. A huge diffusion of responsibility takes place, where each person’s sense of responsibility decreases.  Consequently, the assumption that those bystanders are innately bad would be a fundamental attribution error. But what about the rapist committing the crime? Such an aggressive act that is aimed to cause physical and psychological pain must truly make a person bad! Rape, in this case, is far from instrumental aggression, but an act that is solely hostile. Perhaps this can be explained by the frustration-aggression theory, where an aggressive response was elicited due to the inability to attain a goal. Regardless of social scripts, emotional catharsis was far more critical. So the question is, was this rapist put in a bad situation, or is he innately bad? Are people born “blank slates” and develop their personalities along the way, or are they born either good or bad?

            I guess we can take a final example. A little child watches his mother use a knife to cut bread, while another one watches his father use it for murder. Couldn’t that single scene permanently alter a child’s understanding of what knives are for? The Social Learning Theory suggests that people learn negative and aggressive social behavior through imitation. Not only that, but phenomena such as operant conditioning and classical conditioning also play a huge role in a child’s behaviors, attitudes and construals. I think it is safe to say then, that we are born not knowing what is good and what is bad, but we learn along the way. Accordingly, it is possible for acts of kindness to be selfless acts, for ignorance to be situational, and for negative acts to stem from personal traits. However, it is ultimately up to each person to decide whether they will overcome the bystander effect, perform philanthropic deeds, or act in ways that are purely selfish.

Below is a video which displays people who chose to stop and help, others who were urbanely overloaded, and those who simply decided to walk away.

Children Harass Too!

            For my attitude analysis paper I will discuss the theme “Gender Issues in Egypt,” with a particular focus on sexual harassment performed by children from low socioeconomic levels. I chose sexual harassment because it is one of the most dehumanizing and degrading acts and it has become increasingly evident in Egypt; according to a recent report by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, 99.3% of Egyptian women have been previously harassed. Below are a few pictures of sexual harassment.

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 Sexual harassment is also an issue that can be perfectly explored through Social Psychology, as it emphasizes the formation and maintenance of negative attitudes and behaviors (two extremely relevant topics to Social Psychology); accordingly, I will begin by addressing the attitudes which I find sexual harassment most rooted in.

            The cognitively based attitudes are primarily based on the children’s beliefs and construals about how a woman should look like, whether they think her “properties” are good or bad. Of course, good and bad are extremely relative terms that depend on individual differences, and so several children may react very differently to the same woman; however, they all use their cognitive attitudes to decide which kinds of women they are most attracted to and which ones they should sexually harass. Moreover, the children’s affective attitudes stem from their feelings and moral beliefs about the nature of women. Those who sexually harass adopt a value system that there is nothing wrong with such an act; in fact, it is completely fine to do so as long as it elicits positive emotions and raises their self-esteem. A huge factor that contributes to the formation of these attitudes is operant conditioning: the idea that our behaviors depend on the reward or punishment that follows. For instance, the children who are actually praised by friends or relatives for their actions will develop the affective attitude that sexual harassment is a good thing. Also relevant, are  behaviorally based attitudes, in which one’s attitudes are based on one’s observation of his actions. In this case, when a child realizes they sexually harass women a lot, they automatically develops a positive attitude towards sexual harassment. Therefore, behaviorally based attitudes would go hand-in-hand with the self-perception theory, as it explains that the children only know how they feel, after they see how they behave. But is one aware of all their attitudes and mental schemas? While some attitudes are explicit (yes, there is nothing wrong with sexual harassment), others are extremely implicit. Implicit attitudes are both unconscious and involuntary, yet they highly impact our behavior. For example, a child may claim that sexual harassment is wrong while adopting the implicit attitude that there is nothing wrong with sexual harassment, and vice versa. Due to the formations of these negative attitudes towards women and their bodies, children the associated negative behaviors. They then use self-serving attributions and external justification, such as blaming the woman for her clothes or her perfume, to explain their actions to others.

            I have chosen to target children between the ages of 8-12 who live in poor districts and low-socio economic levels in Egypt. These children, who constitute a huge percentage of the Egyptian population, develop positive attitudes towards sexual harassment at a very young age. Helping to maintain those attitudes are factors such as operant conditioning, self persuasion and the over-justification effect. Consequently, I aim to use various methods of persuasive communication to try to change these schemas and affective attitudes. I want to alter the attitude and not the behavior because attempting to change the behavior is ineffective if the actual driving force (the attitude) is still present.

             I will essentially use the peripheral route to persuasion, for although it is not as long-lasting as the central route to persuasion, it will be more effective with children. I will make my argument personally relevant to them and I will try to increase their internal motivation towards avoiding sexual harassment. Moreover, I will follow the heuristic-systematic model of persuasion, where there will be a strong emphasis on creating certain heuristics that are against sexual harassment. I will also adhere to fear-arousing communication, where the feeling of fear will be strongly associated with the targeted behavior; as a result, the children will be able to empathize with the victims of sexual harassment. Here is an example of a video that could possibly change the children’s attitudes.

            I am expecting to be opposed by counter-arguments and replies due to the idea of attitude inoculation: When one’s attitudes become immune to change due to one’s exposure, in small doses, of attempts to change those attitudes. Having said that, I am sure that these children receive an excessive amount of comments from the women they harass, and so, over time, they have developed a fixed mindset that leaves their attitudes immune to change. In this respect, resistance to persuasive messages is a drawback to my goal, however, I can make use of other methods of resistance. For example, I can raise the children’s awareness of peer pressure and social tuning, and then teach them ways to oppose it. So if a child’s friend tries to persuade him to harass a lady passing by, the child would know how to oppose him. This concept is very much related to counter-attitudinal advocacy, for if the children are taught to oppose the attitudes that they personally have, their behavior will begin to change; their actions conform with what they say, even if they initially did not believe in it.  Furthermore, I will give the children the freedom to do what they want to do and I will not try to control them, for according to the reactance theory, when one feels that his freedom to perform a certain actions is threatened, one is internally motivated to perform that behavior.  I may also use subliminal messages as a way of unconsciously persuading the children.