Behavioral economics shows who’s responsible for rise in racism (if there really is one)

August 14, 2019

by Rob Roper

Many news stories and opinion pieces in the Vermont media are opining about a rise in racism around our state and perhaps the country. In fact, you can’t turn on the news these days without hearing the term “white nationalism” ten times in five minutes.

Our Attorney General, TJ Donovan, just took part in a Hate-Free Vermont forum in Rutland, one of a five part series being held around the state. Governor Scott just appointed Vermont’s first “executive director of racial equity” who will “work with state government agencies and departments to identify and address systemic racial disparities….” Schools from elementary to college are routinely protesting or making us “woke” to the ubiquity racial injustice.

So, what’s the result of all of this? Studies in behavioral economics can give us some insights, and, if there really is an uptick in racism it’s probably because of, not in spite of, all the activity outlined above.

Professor Robert Cialdini did an interesting study in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. At the time, visitors were stealing pieces of petrified wood as souvenirs, and officials needed this practice to stop or it would do irreparable harm to the park. So, Cialdini’s team tried different advertising messages on visitors to see what could reduce the behavior.

The first campaign warned, “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.” It had quite an impact. The percentage of park visitors stealing wood jumped from 5 percent to almost 8 percent – a nearly 60 percent increase.

Why? Because informing the public that lots of people who visit the park steal petrified wood had the effect of normalized the behavior. Even though the behavior was clearly considered bad, if “everybody’s doing it,” then, psychologically speaking, it becomes socially acceptable.

The campaign that succeeded in reducing the removal of petrified wood portrayed the thieves as lone actors and social outcasts.

So, if we apply this lesson to solving the problem of racism, creating the impression that racism is everywhere and everyone’s a racist and racism is on the rise is probably about the worst possible thing one could do. This is the proverbial throwing of gasoline onto the fire.

If you really want to reduce racism, the way to approach the issue is to portray racists as few, far between, socially isolated, and laughable. And this shouldn’t be hard to do. The actual number of KKK members, neo-Nazis, etc. is, thankfully, incredibly small. Recall that the Unite the Right rally on the one year anniversary of Charlottesville attracted twenty or thirty kooks from around the country whereas thousands came out to protest against them.

To solve the problem, that’s the story (and those like it) to emphasize.

Only if your objective is to stoke racial tensions and exploit fear while appearing to oppose racism for political purposes, or to sell newspapers or air time, or to fundraise, should you keep pushing the narrative that the twenty nuts who showed up in Charlottesville have become a national army of bigots poised to take over the world.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ivan August 17, 2019 at 12:48 pm

ever heard of the term “never let the facts get in the way of a good story” ??
It does illustrate how reporting at times can be inflammatory , and while there may be elements of truth in any given story about racism, I find the racism, if any, often exists in the people reporting the story because it is to their benefit to fan the flames.
I think we also see that playing a role in the crazy mass shootings, its as if these horrific incidents are copycatted.
It would be interesting to see what happens if any given event like these were only given a single mention on national news then put aside and ignored.
Nice thought I suppose, but there are over 20 squeaky wheels needing some grease in this Presidential election and they need to fan the flames because theyhave nothing
else of substance to talk about


Weiland A Ross August 17, 2019 at 12:52 pm

This interpretation is spot-on correct. It is silly for the state govt. to create a new state official position to deal with a problem that is, basically, not much of a problem. Racism in Vt. is a minuscule problem, greatly exaggerated by the current climate of glorifying
grievances at every opportunity.

A prime example of this is the recent program by the NAACP in Rutland on “How to talk to your racist neighbor”. In my neighborhood, there are about ten or twelve homes close enough to be called ‘neighbors’. All of us know each other fairly well. So, which one or ones are the “racist” neighbors? The assumption that any of us is racist is a racist slur on the part of the people presenting this program. The NAACP would lead us to believe that Rutland is crawling with secret KKK sympathizers, all of whom are about to pounce on some unsuspecting ‘person of color’. I would submit that this program is an example of false alarming, suspicion implanting, insulting to most of us race baiting in the guise of trying to eliminate racial prejudice.


Mike August 17, 2019 at 9:22 pm

Another beaurocasy which will acheive nothing but flit away a bunch of tax payers hard earned money and hold many meetings and forums which will accomplish zip, zero, nada. The beat goes on.


Pat Finnie August 17, 2019 at 10:33 pm

The State of Vermont already has The Human Rights Commission, and a Civil Rights Division in the Attorney General’s Office. Seems redundant to have a cabinet position dealing with these issues.


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