The scenes that played out at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday will forever live in infamy. As Congress prepared to certify electoral college votes and declare Joe Biden president-elect, thousands of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building, vandalizing the halls and occupying the office of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
Photographs and video show a band of insurrectionists that is overwhelmingly White and male. They carried guns, Confederate flags, flags emblazoned with swastikas, QAnon placards, and, according to police, chemical irritants. They scaled exterior walls, climbed scaffolding, smashed windows, hung from balconies, and crashed through the doors of the Senate chamber, one White man charging to the dais and yelling, “Trump won that election!”
Hours later, more than 120 legislators, overwhelmingly White and male, still pledged to fight Biden’s win.
Although it is certainly true that Trump maintains a significant following among White women, his most fervent supporters tend to be White and male. Distributed across a wide swath of socioeconomic status, these men have unwaveringly — and even violently — supported the president, despite the historic risks his administration poses to public health, safety, and American democratic structures and ideals. No shortage of pundits and prognosticators have speculated about the factors underlying this support: Racism? The economy? Fragile masculinity? Class anxiety? Political fear? Sectarianism? In a New York Times op-ed last October, Michael Sokolove suggested that the political gulf between White men and just about everyone else should be dubbed “the White male gap” or “the White male problem.”
But cognitive scientists long ago coined a term for the psychological forces that have given rise to the gendered and racialized political divide that we’re seeing today. That research, and decades of subsequent scholarly work, suggest that if you want to understand the Trump phenomenon, you’d do well to first understand the science of risk perception.
Let’s go back to 1994. That year, a group of researchers led by Paul Slovic published a study that asked about 1,500 Americans across the country how they perceived different kinds of risks, notably environmental health risks. Slovic and his team found that White males differed from White women and non-White men and women in how they perceived risks. For every category of threat, White men saw risk as much smaller and much more acceptable than did other demographic groups. This is what they dubbed “the White male effect.” They also found that White women perceived risks, across the board, to be much higher than White men did, but that this was not true of non-White women and men, who perceived risk at pretty much the same levels, suggesting complexities worthy of further exploration. Eventually, expansions of this study would include a wide range of risks including handguns, abortion, nuclear threat, and capital punishment.
Over the years, subsequent studies would add layers of nuance to the understanding and interpretation of the 1994 results. By 2007, researchers were explaining the White male effect in the context of cultural cognition, demonstrating that it was only indirectly a product of gender and race — that at a fundamental level, it stemmed from differences in cultural identity, socioeconomic security, and attitudes toward egalitarianism and community. But the through-line was that different groups can perceive the same risk through vastly different lenses. And in the case of White men, it is often a lens that seeks to preserve institutionalized cultural identity and societal status. As many observed, there is a stark difference between the response to and treatment of the thousands of Stop the Steal rioters on Wednesday and the response to and treatment of the thousands who gathered in D.C. in June 2020 in support of Black Lives Matter.
Different groups can perceive the same risk through vastly different lenses. And in the case of White men, it is often a lens that seeks to preserve institutionalized cultural identity and societal status.
This helps explain why a wide and well-defined swath of the U.S. public — from the Proud Boys and other extremist groups who have terrorized Washington D.C. in recent weeks, to the senators ripping up the roots of democracy in Congress — are willing to accept the risks of Trump’s rejection of a legitimate election. They perceive an even greater threat around the horizon: a threat to an elevated social status that they imagine only Trump can preserve and restore, a social status that is inevitably linked to race, gender, and religion.
“Individuals selectively credit and dismiss asserted dangers in a manner supportive of their preferred form of social organization,” wrote Slovic and collaborators in a 2007 research paper that rings no less true today. In other words, for certain individuals, supporting Trump is a psychologically palliative response to perceived risks.
When this perceived need to protect one’s identity is stoked by people in positions of power, it can turn dangerous and ugly. Identity protective cognition can lead to what Slovic and other researchers call “virtuous violence”— violence that people support or commit because they believe it is morally right. In an August 2020 study, Slovic and a team of researchers found that White conservative men were more likely than all others to support virtuous violence, and “felt socially distant from the enemy, dehumanized them, and believed that the victims were to blame for their fate.”
Of course, echoes of these ideas can be found in much of the speculative theorizing about today’s political polarization and sectarianism. And it’s not hard to imagine why the term “White male effect” would struggle to gain traction in a media landscape dominated by White men. But given the power of this research to explain public perceptions of issues as diverse as nuclear regulation, climate change, food systems, politics, and technology, it would be helpful to share a common language for, and understanding of, its meaning.
Perhaps, in the end, the name we use to describe social and cultural differences in risk perception matters less than what we do about it. This academic research is valuable but should not obfuscate the real-world violence and harm. Virtuous violence is still violence and there is nothing abstract about identity protective cognition’s role in White male supremacy. What the science seems to clearly suggest — and what people like Paul Slovic have observed for decades — is that society’s multiple overlapping crises can’t be solved when governing bodies composed primarily of White men, who are outliers in terms of risk perception, are tasked with making decisions about risks for the entire population. The individuals who hold power over decisions about what’s risky and what’s not should be representative of the community at large, and those individuals should have the agency and authority to be part of the final decision-making.
The rich and rigorous cognitive science of identity, status, and risk unites many of the nuanced threads in the discussion of our current political crisis. It should be an essential component of any analysis that attempts to explain how we arrived at this violent political divide, and it will be an invaluable tool for bridging it.
Catherine Buni (@ckbuni) and Soraya Chemaly (@schemaly) are award-winning writers and frequent collaborators, covering online content moderation, risk, and security in collaboration with Type Investigations. Their stories and essays have been published by TheAtlantic.com, The Verge, OneZero, NBC Think, and others.
An opinion article with Science in the title – cool. Here is a simpler perspective: the appeal of Trump cannot be understood outside the context of the present day left. The conspiritorial right and the woke left, both of which have a priori (made-up) narratives about the world, are continually bouncing off each other such that they are both moving toward extremes and away from reality and fact based discourse. To be clear, BLM/Antifa operate on objectively false narratives (based on actual data we have available) about racism in America. Given that, is it really shocking that the same phenomenon is happening on the right. The reality is that there is a positive feedback loop of accusation and false narrative. The drivel in this article does nothing to help us understand what is going on in our country right now. And the title alone, at face value, serves only as inflammation of the other side. Lingering inequity in this country is the lagging effect of past (not present) systemic racism. Chasing phantom problems and blaming people for things they are not responsible for is ONLY divisive. This is the current state of things. Here is the choice: contribute the the ever-increasing rebound of each side to the extremes (by writing “…Whiteness this and Whiteness that…” articles), or start having responsible, nuanced, logical, data driven discourse that assumes good faith on the part of the other, until the other has done some action to unearn the assumption of good-faith.
“This helps explain why a wide and well-defined swath of the U.S. public … are willing to accept the risks of Trump’s rejection of a legitimate election.” Hmm, I wonder if it also explains why a still much wider “swath of the U.S. public are willing to accept” the official U.S. government’s “rejection of the legitimate election of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela”? Could it be that all of those Americans also “perceive an even greater threat around the horizon: a threat to an elevated [exceptionalist and imperialist, American supremicist] social status that they imagine only” [supporting the establishment duopoly parties’s uniformly imperialist/interventionist, and massively citizen-killing policies on Venezuela] “can preserve and restore, a social status that is inevitably linked to race, gender, religion, and [undying sadistic fantasies of American domination of the entire world]? Just asking for a friend, mind you.
It’s a sad day
I would like an article that spelled out actual experiments, statistics that pointed to these conclusions rather than them be given as scientific dogma.
I don’t understand why a white male would write such an anger inducing article about white men. Is it because he is white? This article seems racist to me against white males and does more to induce hate in society. I think this article may be missing information, such as the fact, that there were many violent protests involving nonwhite males and females causing destruction and death in 2020. There are many examples of this. This article, in my opinion, doesn’t do anything to promote a positive peaceful message. It’s only stoking the flames of division. ☹️
There are two (2) types of opinion in this world… Substantiated and Unsubstantiated, e.g.,
(1)Substantiated is researched, sourced, and grounded in science and
(2) Unsubstantiated… merely personal opinion, pulled out of one’s arse, myopic observations, and vested interest.
I didn’t vote for Obama, not because he was (half) black but because he was obviously a racist Marxist. I’d happily vote for many persons of color. There are many who would uphold the Constitution and our God-given rights.
It’s obvious that Trump’s white male followers have fused their identities with Trump. I think this article briefly explains a few dynamics involved, and definitely, loss of socio-economic power is part if it. But with demographics changing the electorate in this country and a 40-year-old Republican ideology that has included white supremacy (subtle and not so subtle) losing decision-making power, I am not surprised that “virtuous violence” has broken out.
So, after hundreds of rallies, both the ones attended and unattended by Trump – all being peaceful, fun, inspiring – attended by tens of thousands of culturally diverse happy Americans (and happy to be in each others’ company) – THEN we decide to desecrate one of the very institutions we claim to be proud of? Who among us has spoken of desecrating national monuments or buildings? Not Trump supporters. But those supporting and committing the riots by BLM and Antifa. They certainly have.
Please get your “facts” in a more reliable location. You know not of what you speak.
The world is changing, and it will continue to do so. Clearly you’re struggling with that fact – for all the reasons noted in this article. Just go back to Parler where mediocre white men still rule and the world makes sense again.
A Black Man in the White House was quite unsettling to many in their ranks. It is easier to be angry than to admit fear.
All! septuagenarians should be retiring, Yeah Biden included. Black, brown, multi…Vote!!!, get your voices recognized, I’m a middle aged white guy that is essentially seeing MY
parents/grandparents making decisions that will impact my/your life. Get involved, have a voice, use your voice…please.
What explains why liberals self loathe and accept bald faced lies from other liberals, even though they see the truth with their own eyes?
What a joke article
Can you explain what you mean? I wasn’t aware it was written to elicit a response of amusement.
As a 51 yr old white male, I think a lot of the problem is accepting change. We are no longer given the top titles just because, and we wont hold the same top positions that our fathers inherited due to completion.
The tough high school mentality is something most never outgrew. Bullies are respected and admired, yet silently feared. Most are really cowards too afraid to think and talk for themselves.
You hit the nail right on the head!
If you’re talking ‘risk perception’ then you are probably talking about the scale of sociopathy. The vast majority of sociopaths are men and it should be pretty clear by now that Trump’s base has the market cornered on sociopaths.
It’s interesting how this article aligns with the overall efforts to suppress or obfuscate the economic conditions that lead to the behavior being described. Some stats on terms in the articles:
white – 26x
economic: 2x with socio
The question of economic conditions has to be couched with socio the two two times it appears! Would these same things be happening if we had healthcare and education support like all other developed countries? Would this behavior be happening if we provided financial support during the pandemic equivalent to all other developed nations? Would this be happening if the media did not find profit by employing a divide and conquer strategy to create a red/blue dichotomy? So many more questions could be added that show these authors and the researcher has not considered the economic dimensions that lead to this behavior correctly.
Are there parallels in other majority-white nations in Europe, Canada etc, or is this more of a uniquely American pattern?
I would imagine that in countries where non-white males dominate the political scene, those would be concerned about maintaining their status. Afterall, it’s a man’s world until men willingly step aside and cede power to women. That’s the same everywhere regardless of skin colour.
A common denominator appears to be a lack of empathy.
What do you mean by that? And Can you give any examples?
How are 2 women supposed to know anything about how a white male think and to categorize white male in one category is absolutely disgusting
The two women authors are describing the foundational research of a white male, Paul Slovacs, and subsequent research on the subject. As in all categorization of groups, it is statistical, and describes characteristics of the individuals at the center of the bell curve. The value of any such study depends largely on the size and randomness of the selection of participants.