In November 18, 2016, ten days after Donald Trump won the Presidential election, graffiti appeared on a Brooklyn Heights playground named after Adam Yauch, a founding member of the Beastie Boys. Yauch, who died in 2012, was Jewish; a vandal had spray-painted two swastikas on the equipment and, beneath them, had written, “Go Trump.” The incident received national attention not just for its hateful nature but because it happened in a liberal enclave. To me, though, one of the most disturbing aspects wasn’t the swastikas themselves but the fact that they had been drawn incorrectly—one was backward and the other was misshapen. Apparently, the person engaging in hate speech didn’t know what a Nazi swastika looked like. This was someone trying on the role of anti-Semite for size—someone who hadn’t been a rabid neo-Nazi his whole life but who felt emboldened by the election of the new President. It was a new behavior prompted by a new event. Were such incidents, then, the new “normal”? And, if this shift of norms could happen with such speed, in such an improbable location, then how quickly and how much might the norms of our whole society change?
In 1990, Susan Fiske and Steven Neuberg, then psychologists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Arizona State University, respectively, described the process by which bias sways behavior using what they called the “continuum model of impression formation.” According to their model, our reliance on stereotypes in decision-making exists on a continuum and shifts by degrees, rather than operating in absolutes. No one is ever bias-free, but some people let their biases influence their actions more than others. “You can’t help it if you live in a certain culture,” Fiske, who is now at Princeton University, explained to me. “But are you motivated to go beyond stereotype?”
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