Two weeks have passed since Donald J. Trump took the oath of office as president of the United States of America.
Needless to say, a lot has happened in two weeks. In response, there has been a seemingly never ending barrage of press coverage. Our Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with small wars of people flinging their opinions, facts, and even “alternate facts” at each other. Even for those who are peaceful in presenting their thoughts, it’s hard to know what to make of all of this information. Things have gotten pretty messy.
I’ve gone back and forth internally about what my role ought to be in response to this as a therapist. It’s not my role to offer my own political leanings. And I definitely don’t want to add another voice to the whirlwind of confusing messages already out there. However, when I remember that my role as a therapist is to help people find a sense of peace with themselves in the world we live in, I find a centering platform to speak from.
My office has gotten busier since election day, and the stress levels of many my clients have further ramped up since inauguration day. I’ve been surprised to find less reaction coming from a place of passive fear (e.g., “I’m scared for my own safety and there’s nothing I can do about it.”). Instead there’s been more of a sense of urgency to do something meaningful in reaction to everything that’s going on and not knowing the best way to do so. The thought sounds like, “I really want to do something meaningful in the midst of this, but I’m stressed because I don’t know what I can do that would be helpful.”
This election cycle highlights our human tendency to become polarized in our thinking. Our nature is to view things as all-or-nothing, good or bad, black and white. The world feels cleaner when we can easily categorize a person as a “good guy” or “bad guy.” We have been prone to make these distinctions throughout history based on skin color, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, religious background – you name it, if there’s a way to categorize people into a group, we’ve probably had polarized opinions about that group in our history.
One of the most famous research studies of this phenomenon is Philip Zimbardo’s work from 1971 known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment.” In this experiment a group of college students volunteered to participate, after which they were randomly assigned either as a “prisoner” or a “guard.” The study proceeded with the intention to simulate prison conditions. The guards were not given any instructions on how to act, aside from being given the freedom to respond however they felt was necessary to maintain law and order in the simulated prison environment.
I won’t go into all the details of this study. I encourage you to learn about it if you’re unfamiliar with it: click here to read more. The overwhelming takeaway from the research was just how quickly these Stanford students fell into their assigned roles and took on an “us versus them” mentality with each other based on completely made up labels. Within 36 hours of the experiment one “prisoner” began to display signs of mental instability and needed to be released shortly thereafter. The simulated prison environment was so similar to a real prison environment that the experiment needed to end prematurely due to how harmful the context was for those participating – even the experimenter found the lines of reality blurred for him as he reported feeling more like a prison superintendent than a researcher.
This research highlights how quickly we judge people and treat others poorly when we label others as part of a different group than us – even if our label is completely arbitrary. Our human nature is to ostracize the “other.” People who are not in the “in” group with us are automatically considered an outsider and “less than.” We take liberties to judge and harm people in ways we never dreamed we were capable of.
What I’m hoping to convey here is that we are all capable of ostracizing others in this way. Yet I also believe our hope for a brighter future is to break down whatever barriers we set up by acknowledging the ways that we are together in the same group as others. At one point in Zimbardo’s prison study a participant in the “prisoner” group was having an emotional breakdown. Zimbardo approached the participant and reminded him that he was a student just like the other participants of the study, and that they were in an experiment; he could leave at any time. Zimbardo reported that at this moment the participant snapped out of his hopeless state, almost as if awakened from a bad dream.
Reminding ourselves that we are all human beings levels the playing field. We are all in the “in group” together. We all live in the same world. We share the unified purpose of caring for each other and our world – even within the bounds of whatever differences exist between us.
I wonder if some of the tensions being flung around during this season are a replay of Zimbardo’s prison experiment all over again. The only way to feel safer is to realize that no matter what might divide us – be it party affiliation, religious beliefs, ethnic background, or anything else – we are fundamentally all in the same “in group” together. We are not “us versus them,” we are “us with us” and “us for us.” Let’s never forget that.