How The Hell Did We Get Here?

Wednesday, January 6th, is a day we won’t soon forget. As much as we’d like to forget, it will be etched into American history as one of our darkest moments. I woke up from a short nap that afternoon, checked my phone and couldn’t believe what I saw – Americans storming our nation’s Capital Building! Like so many others, I turned on the television and was riveted in a way that I’d not been since 911. All I could think was how sad I felt and how embarrassed I was for our country. 

Like many of you I wonder; how the hell did we get here? Below is my take based on the psychology I understand and my world view. There’s no way to explain everything in a short blog post but I hope you’ll read through to the end so you can give thought to how you can help start the healing.

Rationalization Machines: We All Think We’re Right

I think it’s fair to say based on much of the research from social psychology and behavioral economics, we are not rational beings. We’re rationalization machines who act and then justify our actions. 

I’ve no doubt those who entered the Capital Building rationalized their actions as patriotic. Many will equate their cause with those who led the Boston Tea Party. Of course, that’s a matter of viewpoint. Many more Americans looked at their behavior labeling them terrorists and insurrectionists. 

Prior to the protests this summer, I think it’s fair to say the vast majority of Americans looked at Martin Luther King with pride believing his cause was righteous. However, many of those same individuals, when confronted with people trying to further social justice today, vehemently object. They will rationalize why now is different than it was in MLK’s day. It’s one thing to look back on history but entirely different to live through it. 

Just know this; whomever you’re dealing with directly, or watching from a distance, they will rationalize their behavior. It may not make sense to you but it makes complete sense to them. 

Mob Mentality: Social Proof Gone Astray

Social proof is the human tendency to look to others to see how to behave in certain situations. Understanding this natural human response, are we surprised that large scale protests are now breaking out from Trump supporters?

Beginning with the death of George Floyd, we’ve seen more and larger protests than ever across the nation. Estimates are, anywhere from 16-25 million people have taken to the streets. While the cause for racial equality is righteous, and most protestors were peaceful, we cannot deny what we saw when it came to looting and destruction in many cities. Unfortunately, peaceful protestors were painted with the same broad brush as those who broke the law. Now, many peaceful Trump supporters will be painted with the same brush.

The events happening across the country since May have sent clear signals when it comes to social proof:

  • When protests are big enough, even a show of force cannot quell them. 
  • Protestors can occupy some areas – CHAZ in Portland for example – with little or no consequence.
  • Attacks and destruction on certain places and structures don’t matter much because they’re just buildings and statues.

If you don’t think this is a real phenomenon I urge you to read Influence Science and Practice. In the chapter on social proof Robert Cialdini details how high profile suicides and school shootings lead to more suicides and shootings. Unfortunately, I think a similar pattern has emerged with protests turning violent. 

Perhaps now you understand how one side views the other and thinks, “If they can do it so can we.” We seem to have lost our way when it comes to operating within the confines of a peaceful democracy. 

Blatant Hypocrisy: You Can’t Have It Both Ways

Consistency is a rule of human behavior where people feel internal and external pressure to live up to their word. Not doing so is considered hypocritical and hypocrites lose their persuasive appeal. 

Laws, curfews, and other societal rules are meaningless when enough people decide they won’t comply or believe they are exempt for certain reasons. 

  • Witness mass protests at the same time we’re told not to get together with loved ones or attend religious services. Either gatherings are dangerous or they’re not but it cannot be that some are condoned while others are not. This falls squarely on the shoulders of our leaders.
  • Speaking of leaders, too many have told us one thing but done another. Examples include California Governor Gavin Newsome going out to dinner when no one else could, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot went to salons when no one else was allowed, and Donald Trump claiming he’s the law and order president but does nothing to reign in his most zealous followers. This list could go on and on with people from all sides. 

What leaders say and do matters! If they set the right example perhaps more people would follow their lead.  

Tit For Tat: The Ugly Side Of Reciprocity

Reciprocity, that natural feeling you have to give back to someone in the same manner as you received, is usually positive. Someone smiles at you or compliments you and it’s likely you smile in return or pay back the compliment. 

However, the ugly side of reciprocity happens when someone says or does something you don’t like. You return the insult or bad behavior almost reflexively without thinking. As I wrote about last fall, it’s a sick cycle and as a nation we’re in the middle of it. 

  • Chants of “Not my president” from disappointed democrats in 2016 will likely be met with similar sentiments from many disappointed republican voters when Joe Biden is sworn in on January 20th.
  • Trump supporters treated those who disagreed with them horribly, including verbal and physical assault at some rallies. Should we have been surprised then when people wearing MAGA gear were assaulted by those on the left?
  • Republicans held the presidency, Senate and House in 2016 and told those on the left, “Elections have consequences.” The tables have turned and this election will have consequences. 

It’s undeniable what goes around comes around. While it may feel good for the side that’s winning, it serves to slow or stop the healing and unification we so desperately need right now.

What Can You Do?

You may think you’re not part of the problem but that’s irrelevant at this point. The big question is: Will you be part of the solution? I certainly don’t have all the answers but I believe this; it’s going to start with dialogue. 

Dialogue is how relationships are formed and others are mended. Dialogue helps bring an end to conflict and sometimes it is how conflict is avoided altogether. I regularly talk with friends who are black so I can understand their perspectives and struggles. Trust me, if you’ve not had an in depth conversation with someone who is different from you, be it race, religion, sexual orientation, or politics, then you cannot truly understand them and their struggles. 

I also communicate with people on both sides of the aisle, republican and democrat, who hold different views than I do. In no case am I trying to convince them of anything. My goal, as Steven Covey said, is to “seek first to understand, then be understood.” 

I encourage you to start a dialogue. Do so with someone you know and trust. It should be someone who will not judge you when you ask sincere questions and who will allow you the freedom to share your views.  

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An author, TEDx speaker, international trainer, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the science of ethical influence.

Brian’s book, Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical, was named one of the 100 Best Influence Books of All Time by BookAuthority. His LinkedIn Learning courses on sales and coaching have been viewed by more than 100,000 people around the world.

10 replies
  1. Ryan Pritchard
    Ryan Pritchard says:

    This was great. I have been stressing this exact sentiment across the board to my peers, friends, and family. Thank you for putting this out. Hopefully this message can spread and people will invest the time to really digest the concept and understand how we all can help begin to move beyond our current mindset.

  2. Michael D Mathias
    Michael D Mathias says:

    Thanks for the article. I enjoyed it. Agree quality dialogue, which interestingly includes listening, is critical and key. Seems it’s more difficult to find that “quality” part and the listening part these days. Too many people get only half the equation and don’t understand the listening part. Looking forward to future articles.


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