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Behavioural insights could be harnessed to pre-empt mob violence (Photo: AFP)
Behavioural insights could be harnessed to pre-empt mob violence (Photo: AFP)

Why America must remember 6 January as its Day of Infamy

Americans need to exit their echo chambers and secure democracy

January the 6th, 2021, is a day that should live in infamy—a day on which the fundamental institutions of the US were suddenly attacked. It will take a long time to understand fully why political passion crossed the line into an insurrection at the US Capitol, but social science research illuminates part of the picture. Long-standing feelings of rage, humiliation, racism and hatred did not explode spontaneously. They were fuelled and unleashed, above all by President Donald Trump. That’s what turned those feelings into action.

The fundamental idea, brilliantly elaborated by the Duke University economist Timur Kuran, involves “preference falsification." Kuran’s starting point is that for better or worse, people’s desires, beliefs and values are often silenced by prevailing social norms. If you despise immigrants or hate Jews, you might keep your thoughts to yourself because you think that other people think differently—and perhaps would hate you if they knew what you think. Kuran’s claim is that when a lot of people silence themselves, the conditions are ripe for some kind of explosion. But precisely because of the self-silencing, it’s impossible to predict how, when or whether the explosion will actually occur.

Once people begin to learn that other people think as they do, they might start to speak out and to act, because they have been granted a permission slip. Usually, what’s needed is a kind of critical mass leading to the erosion or collapse of social norms, sometimes authorizing savagery.

Sometimes a prominent figure, such as a national leader, can make that happen. Kristallnacht, in which Nazis under Adolf Hitler burnt synagogues and killed almost 100 Jews in 1938, is a horrific example.

To see what Trump unleashed on 6 January, consider this version of a fruit fly experiment. In late 2020, economists Leonardo Bursztyn of University of Chicago, Georgy Egorov of Northwestern University and Stefano Fiorin of the University of California at Los Angeles published an essay asking a simple question: Did Trump’s political success affect the willingness of Americans to support, in public, a xenophobic organization?

Two weeks before the 2016 election, Bursztyn and his colleagues recruited 458 people from eight states that Trump was certain to win. Half the participants were told that Trump would win. The other half received no such information. All were then asked whether they would authorize the researchers to donate money to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigrant organization whose founder has written, “I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that." Half the participants were assured that their decision to authorize a donation would be anonymous. The other half were given no such assurance.

For those who were not informed about Trump’s expected victory in their state, anonymity mattered a lot: far more of them authorized the donation under cover of secrecy. But for those who were informed that he would probably win, anonymity did not matter at all. The key finding, then, is that when people were given a clear signal that Trump, who championed xenophobia, was going to win the popular vote in their state, they felt free to say in public what they thought in private.

Sure, there’s a big difference between a donation to a controversial outfit and a decision to storm the Capitol. The value of the study lies in the finding that when people are reminded of Trump’s popularity, they are willing to say and do things in public that they would not have done before.

Unleashing is only part of the picture. Social scientists have also explored “group polarization": when like-minded people get together, they usually end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk. So if people in a group start with the conviction that Joe Biden might have stolen the November election, their discussions with one another might well lead them to think that Biden certainly stole it—and that something had better be done about it.

The two can be a toxic brew. If social norms start to weaken, and people begin to think that it’s fine to say and do horrible things, those things are all the more likely to be said and done if like-minded people are talking to each other. What can be done? The best answer is also the simplest: Work to restore pre-existing norms, to reduce echo chambers, and to increase the likelihood that diverse people will talk with one another. Of course, that’s easier said than done [given the polarization]. But one place to start is by trying to establish a clear, single national meaning for 6 January: a day of infamy.

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and co-author of ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness’

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