Psychology professor examines blame, behavior, politics

Gail Sahar and new bookGail Sahar’s new book details how perceptions of responsibility for problems and ideology are linked and drive divisiveness

Professor of Psychology Gail Sahar’s research and teaching focus on social and political psychology, quantitative research methodology and statistics. Her scholarly work examines how perceptions of responsibility for social problems are related to culture and political ideology, and how they are linked with emotions and attitudes. In her book Blame and Political Attitudes: The Psychology of America’s Culture War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023), she  examines how perception of blame informs political views and actions and fuels deep societal division. Wheaton magazine editor Sandy Coleman recently asked her a few questions.

Can you give us an overview?

“In this book, I suggest that blame plays an important role in our social and political lives. A great deal of research in social psychology has demonstrated that individuals want to understand the causes of events, especially negative ones. The causes we identify lead us to hold individuals or entities responsible, or to blame, which, in turn, influences our emotions, our actions and our attitudes. I also consider how worldviews, such as political ideology, as well as culture, nudge us to place blame for social problems in particular ways.

“This approach holds that there is not simply a direct path from ideology to attitude but rather that blame is the missing link between the two. So, for example, attitudes toward welfare are not only influenced by one’s political stance [liberal vs. conservative], but also by perceptions of who or what is to blame for poverty [the individual or the system]. Many different social issues and current controversies are analyzed using this model—from poverty to abortion to racial inequality. I also consider how politicians strategically place blame for societal problems to influence the electorate.”

What inspired you to write the book?

“Many of the issues I consider in the book are ones that I have investigated. I have conducted research on attitudes toward abortion, poverty and terrorism—three of the main topics of the book. So, I discuss my own research, but I also summarize the related work of other psychologists, as well as sociologists, political scientists and even some philosophers. I have been researching these issues for over 30 years, and I wanted to place my work and the work of others in a broader context—in the general public beyond academia, so that the power of perceptions of causality and blame become clear. I really enjoy discussing social issues with others from all walks of life and wanted an opportunity to do so. In addition, I have been struck in recent years by the fact that blame perceptions underlie many current topics that have become lightning rods for debate: police violence against Black Americans, the teaching of critical race theory, ‘cancel culture,’ the #MeToo movement, and others. I aimed to shed some light on the so-called ‘culture wars’ that political pundits talk so much about.”

How do you describe “culture war?”

“In general, the term ‘culture war’ refers to the idea that Americans are strongly divided by their values, traditional or conservative versus liberal or progressive. And indeed, the media tend to suggest that Americans’ attitudes toward an array of issues and policies diverge sharply based on values. However, much current research indicates that most people do not actually take extreme positions on issues but rather are relatively moderate, thus undercutting the idea that we are in the midst of a culture war. One important way in which Americans are more polarized is in their feelings toward the other political party. Research has shown that hostility between political groups has absolutely increased, so we are more emotionally polarized than we are divergent in regard to policy attitudes.”

What are the sources fueling the “war” and how do we find peace?

“Politicians themselves and the increasingly politicized media are fueling the fire. Each side, politicians who are Democrats and those who are Republicans, have moved farther to the left or right, respectively. There is less overlap in the views of political elites on many issues. And gone are the days of the media trying to take an objective perspective—as we often observe, many media outlets lean strongly in one direction or the other and spend a good deal of coverage attacking the other side. I believe the best path forward would be to focus less on political ideology and more on the causes of the problems we face and potential solutions. Researchers have demonstrated that it is possible to change an individual’s view of who is to blame for social problems, and that change is associated with openness to political solutions that the person would not previously have endorsed.”

Will you be exploring the subject matter in coursework?

“Yes. I plan to use the book this fall in my course ‘Political Psychology.’ I have taught this course for a number of years. It is cross-listed between psychology and political science, and it attracts students from both majors, as well as others who are simply interested in the subject. I love teaching this advanced seminar, largely because the discussions we have are fascinating. We consider topics such as the psychology of political leaders, the nature of political ideology, intergroup and international conflict and genocide. This book will guide our discussions of how people think about political issues.”

What do you hope readers take away?

“My hope is that readers will recognize that people, particularly Americans, are quick to blame individuals for the situations they are in. We are socialized to be individualistic and to believe that the world is fair and just and, therefore, someone who is not doing well in the system is responsible for their own disadvantaged position. Sometimes we might be right, but it is likely that we are often wrong, thereby holding someone responsible for a situation that was not of their making. The consequences of that error are significant in that we experience little sympathy and hence no desire to provide help. As a consequence, we reject solutions that could improve our society.”

What important lessons are here for students to learn?

“As a liberal arts professor, I have always focused on critical thinking. This book is, in a way, a  long lesson in critical thinking about social problems. Politicians are adept at framing the problems we as a society face in a way that advances their own political agenda. If people do not think critically about their messages, we may end up endorsing policies that are harmful.  The worst example of this is when entire groups of people are blamed for a problem, something often referred to as scapegoating. Such a simplistic framing of the situation is nearly guaranteed to be wrong, and the effects are nothing short of tragic for the group that is blamed. At the very least, I hope my students will examine the evidence before accepting politicians’ messages at face value. Our democracy depends on it.”