What Brett Kavanaugh Can Teach Nonprofits

Two conversations at one time result in consternation. We’ve all been a part of them. Mom is asking Dad about an event on Saturday, and he is answering about an event on Tuesday. Or your builder is talking about the design of bedroom #1, and you are talking about the design of bedroom #2. Until we are both in the same conversation, there is no progress.

Here are the two conversations our nation is having trouble with today:

  1. Arguing about the likelihood that Brett Kavanaugh committed a crime when he was 17 years old.

  2. Understanding changing social norms regarding the treatment and place of women in our society.

We’re not touching “a,” except to say, let’s not mix the conversation about it with “b.”

Changing social norms creates sticky situations. Potentially, changing social norms have created the entire hullabaloo with Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Blasey Ford. Here’s how… 

It starts with how most people think about the causes of one’s behavior. That is, behavior is the result of a person’s personality and character, what psychologists refer to as “dispositions.” However, social psychologists will tell you that their ability to predict how a person will behave in a certain situation based on their dispositions is very limited. In fact, this “predictability ceiling” is surprisingly low – a correlation of .30; in other words, 30 percent. This ceiling, for example, would characterize our ability to predict on the basis of a personality test of honesty how likely different people will be to cheat on an exam or behave at a party. 

Thirty percent isn’t bad, but it means that the vast majority of the variance in people’s behavior isn’t due to dispositions, their personality and other traits we ascribe to them. Also, the 30 percent value is the upper limit. For most behaviors, psychologists don’t get close to that. 

Still, we persist in believing that personality traits can be used to successfully predict how people will behave across a wide variety of situations. As it turns out, the word situation is the key. People’s behavior has much more to do with what is happening around them than the personality traits on the inside. 

People’s inflated belief in the importance of personality traits and dispositions, together with their failure to recognize the importance of situational factors in affecting behavior, has been termed the “fundamental attribution error” by social psychologists. When looking at the reasons for a person’s behavior, we attribute far more than we should to personality and character and far less than we should to the situation. 

A powerful situational factor in guiding behavior is social norms. Social norms are the unwritten rules of your social group about how you should behave. They are the accepted standards of behavior. Social norms frame situations, which lead to 70 percent or more of one’s behavior.

In their classic book, The Person and the Situation, social psychologists Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett describe how social norms can be thought of as existing in states of tension. As an example, for decades social norms around the idea of marriage persisted, highly resistant to change. But over time, tension can build from a variety of sources. Then seemingly overnight, the tension can fracture the social norm and usher in great change, as we have experienced in the last ten years regarding same-sex marriage in the U.S. 

Today, we may be witnessing the same fracturing of social norms surrounding the concept of patriarchy. The #MeToo movement has erupted to challenge social norms regarding all kinds of gender issues. As with same-sex marriage, not everyone’s attitudes will change. But once a tipping point is reached in society, accepted standards of behavior are never the same. 

Which brings us to Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Blasey Ford. Assuming her accusations are true, (which we do not) the social norm of the day could have influenced her to say nothing for many years. The social norms of Judge Kavanaugh’s culture (
Georgetown Preparatory School) could have influenced him to be more than pushy in his interaction with her. And, given the prevailing standards of behavior of 1982, Judge Kavanaugh might not think he did anything wrong. If indeed he even remembers it at all, since binge drinking was clearly another social norm among his social group. In his own words, he and his group of friends were, “ …loud, obnoxious drunks with prolific pukers among us.”

As Dr. Blasey Ford pointed out in her testimony, differences in her and Judge Kavanaugh’s memory of that day could also be due to the fact that traumatic events are remembered better than are emotionally neutral events. Dr. Blasey Ford was the only one suffering trauma. As such, Kavanaugh would not have remembered the event to the same degree, or in the same way. Many supporters of Judge Kavanaugh say that the behavior that Dr. Blasey Ford described is common and normal behavior for high school boys. According to a recent Marist poll, 54 percent of Republicans say that Judge Kavanaugh should be confirmed even if Dr. Blasey Ford’s accusations are true. 

Is Judge Kavanaugh a bad guy? Maybe that’s the wrong question. When social norms change rapidly, it can create situations that don’t make sense to many of us, like this one. That could be the basis for the rage we saw in Judge Kavanaugh, anger at the rules of life changing. It feels unfair. It feels wrong. The President of the United States
recently said that it is, “A very scary time for young men in America.”

Obligatory wrap to tie a political blog to nonprofits: social norms provide the context for situations that typically account for 70 percent or more of the behaviors we see from constituents. In order to move our supporters, it’s important to understand them. More later, but until then feel free to leave your comments below.