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Why Is It…?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q:  Why is it that some people hold pro-life and pro-capital punishment views? Don’t these two outlooks contradict one another?

A:  Your question touches on the one of the most perplexing aspects of human behavior and can be addressed by examining attitudes as they relate to our perceptions of social group membership and our willingness to think critically.

Attitudes are personal judgments of a given strength (strong to weak) that render evaluations about the world around us on a scale ranging from “very good to very bad.” The attitudes we form are based on our belief systems – which are largely shaped by social institutions such as religion, politics, education, media and personal family values. Once formed, we have a tendency to render personal judgments for each event we encounter, resulting in our opinions or indifference.

While many topics are essentially benign (preferences in music, food, fashion), certain issues (abortion, gay marriage, capital punishment) are highly volatile and socially divisive. In these cases, our attitudes tend to be strong and polarized. But how can one individual hold two seemingly opposite beliefs? If one accepts the pro-life premise that “all life is precious,” how can he/she support and defend acts of war and capital punishment?

The answer to this contradiction lies in the fact that people typically don’t think very deeply about the reasons underlying their beliefs. Attitudes have an emotional dimension that can trigger very strong feelings and reactions. These powerful feelings (whether positive or negative) can easily obscure and trump rationality and logic – resulting in views that are driven by subjective perceptions rather than a collection of objective facts. We often stubbornly adhere to a given attitude simply because we “believe” it to be either right or wrong – not because we have critically and thoroughly analyzed the issue from all angles and thoughtfully arrived at a logical conclusion.

This lack of critical reasoning leads many to form erroneous judgments about topics simply because, to think otherwise, would place them outside of their cognitive “comfort-zones.” Simply put, it is easier to perceive the world in clear-cut, moral packages of right and wrong than it is to put effort into reflecting deeply about the specific details surrounding specific situations. Much like the nightly news that presents issues in “sound-bites,” we anchor our attitudes to what is most popular and socially conforming because it is the path of least resistance. In essence, we render judgments according to a “fast-food/drive-through” mentality of knee-jerk reactions.

According to this superficial process of thinking, it is easy to conclude that abortion is “wrong” and capital punishment is “right” because we’ve been taught that “babies are good” and “criminals are bad.” Many seldom take the time to consider that a mother’s life may be in danger should she attempt to give birth or that media saturates young women with the notion that they should be sexually provocative, leading to problematic pregnancies. Likewise, we fail to consider that certain criminals were wrongfully accused/convicted and sentenced to death on the basis of erroneous evidence or a legal system that is notoriously discriminatory. If one were to think critically about the premise underlying a “pro-life” standpoint, it would be clear that the value of life is not conditional.

Our perceptions of social group membership also impact our judgments. We tend to divide the social world into dichotomous categories of sex, race, religion etc. – assigning positive and negative traits to those members that are similar or dissimilar to ourselves. This “us vs. them” dynamic makes easy work of rendering snap judgments about situations and those who are impacted by them. Overall, we tend to view our “in-group members as good” and “out-group members as bad.” This divisive thinking permits us to assign value to those we deem as “good” and justify the killing or exploitation of those we deem as “bad.” These moral distinctions form the basis of all social acts of kindness and abuse. Once a group is labeled as “bad,” the floodgates give way to justifications of slavery, genocide, acts of war, and other discriminatory practices.

So the next time you find yourself rendering a moral judgment about a topic or social group, make certain that you not only know what you believe but why. We are all entitled to our opinions, but only those that have been carefully examined and justified by critical reasoning are deserving of legitimacy and respect.