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Are we considering a Nazi enthusiast for Congress?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | October 14, 2010

If CNN contributor John Avlon is correct, we now live in a world where polarization and extremism seem to be increasingly popular strategies for gaining notoriety and media attention and thereby garnering votes. The lengths to which some politicians will go to gain attention, from conservative Carl Paladino to liberal Alan Grayson, should no longer astound us.

lott in SS garb

lott in SS garb (from The Atlantic Online)

But donning a Nazi costume and explaining it as a way to bond with your own son? Even that seems too hard to believe.

To quickly catch you up on the story: Rich Iott was running an otherwise unremarkable campaign for congress until the Atlantic published photos of him wearing a Nazi uniform and outlining his affiliation with a group that re-enacts the exploits of a WW-II era Nazi SS division. Iott’s explanation is that he is a history buff who is interested in reenactments from a purely historical point of view, and who saw it as an opportunity to spend time with his son. Iott claims he has done similar reenactments dressed as a Civil War solider and a US soldier from World War I.

But detractors are having none of it. “A Nazi enthusiast,” is the label assigned to him by the press secretary from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It sends a shiver up my spine to think that people want to dress up and play SS on the weekend,” historian Rob Citinio was quoted as saying.

Iott’s claim is that someone has to play both sides in any re-enactment. Why is it so hard for us to believe Iott’s explanation?

The reactions to the Iott-gate (you know it’s big when Colbert weighs in) remind me of one of the most classic findings in all of social psychology. We should keep these findings in mind before passing judgment.

Jones and Harris (1967)  presented study participants with one of two position essays. One of these essays was a pro-Fidel Castro essay, and the other was an anti-Castro essay. The participants were explicitly told that this essay was part of a writing exercise and that the writers of the essays had been assigned the essay topic to write about. Later, though, when asked to imagine what the writers’ true attitudes were, the study participants reported, overwhelmingly, that they believed the writer of the essay actually held the attitudes that they had written about–even though they knew the topic had been imposed upon them. This phenomenon is referred to as the correspondence bias, and refers to the tendency to attribute personal dispositions and attitudes to others’ behavior even when there are strong contextual explanations for the behavior.

In other words, if a person writes an pro-Castro essay, s/he must be a Castrophile. And, if you wear a Nazi uniform in a re-enactment, you must be a Nazi.

My colleagues Incheol Choi and Dick Nisbett have found, furthermore, that Westerners are particularly prone to the correspondence bias. In 1998, they replicated the 1967 finding, with a twist. They showed that both Koreans and Americans made assumptions that the true attitudes of the author of a pro-capital punishment essay even when they knew that the writer had no choice in which side to argue. In a second study, however, both the Koreans and Americans actually went through the exercise of having to write an essay arguing a particular side, regardless of their own attitude. As one might expect from such an explicit demonstration, the Korean participants responded by reducing their dispositional attributions towards the writer of the capital punishment essay. Americans, however, did not—they continued making the correspondence bias. This remarkable finding serves as a powerful demonstration of the strength of the bias in America towards assuming that a person’s behavior can only reflect his or her true nature or attitudes.

The lesson for Rich Iott? Given that he wants American (rather than Korean) votes, he’s fighting a huge uphill battle trying to convince voters that his attitudes may differ from his behavior. If one reads closely, commentary dissecting Iott’s statements sound suspiciously slanted towards proving what is already assumed about him. “He couldn’t hide his admiration for the Germans in an interview with the Atlantic after the picture surfaced,” wrote David Gardner in the Daily Mail.

The lesson for us? As difficult as this may be for us to see, we as social perceivers are particularly prone to the correspondence bias, and this should give us pause and make sure we are not judging this candidate unfairly. My point here is not to argue whose interpretation is right; rather, it is for each of us to take pause and be aware of our own potential biases when judging others. We will keep coming back to this theme in this blog.

I must reveal, though, that even after this cautionary note, I still find something deeply incongruous about Iott’s long-term participation in the group, and the group’s own cleaned-up account of the history behind the SS Division. What were the conversations with Iott’s son about their participation in the group like? How do you approach a three-year stint with this group from a purely historical perspective?

Check out lott’s CNN interview on YouTube. What do you see, what do you notice? Are we being unfair, or does this reflect something sinister about Iott? Weigh in by posting a comment.

Cross-posted from Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton’s blog on Psychology Today.

Comments to “Are we considering a Nazi enthusiast for Congress?

  1. professor: Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton you have true grit and I am proud to be and American. I would follow you into Hell!

  2. Gary: That was eloquent your take of Iott being deposed on nationwide tv and, your reserved demeanor when confronted with a man although wearing a SS uniform considering your heritage I applaud you. However I could not support my Political Party if one of its candidates were so oblivious to sport a Nazi SS uniform, surely it might cause me some pause. I as a War Veteran, like my father before me who was in WWII, a Tank commander who was killed by a German Tiger tank near Caun France. Find the vision of seemingly jovial comrades smiling at the camera in their nifty SS get up. I can surely tell you were my father alive with his fellow crew members, and could view and reenactment their wood have been blood shed. And by the way Gary I don’t identify myself with ether Party [they are both pathetic failures]. However it is a free country? And the media is unbiased [Fox News]ready to give you your opinion, I do not want to see Germans in SS uniforms, or Japanese with their rising Sun flag flying, doing some Bataan death march reenactment. WWII was the pivotal tipping point on the continuum. I see Socialists on the far left of the continuum, and I see Fascist and neocon conservatives on the far right.

  3. Iott was at a big disadvantage in the interview with Anderson Cooper. Cooper is very subtle, unlike Dylan Ratigan, and probably more effective than Ratigan because he does not come off like some kind of raving lunatic. He clearly has the advantage in the interview and keeps pressing his point. I think Iott came off very well because he is the anithesis of a polished, professional politician, which appeals to members of the Tea Party. However, the big picture is this – the media tries to smear Tea Party candidates whenever possible. To someone like Anderson Cooper the Nazi picture was the smoking gun. He knew in his heart of hearts that all right wingers, particularly Tea Party Members, are the worst Nazi sympathizing scum on the face of the planet. Now he has a mental image of all of us goose stepping our way to Tea Party rallies and has the ammunition he thinks will stop us dead in our tracks. What this really shows is the bias of the liberal media and their desire to control the flow of information so it only benefits the ruling elite and statists. For example, Prof Reich wrote about the Republicans campaigning on foreign donations and it turns most of that PAC money went to Democrats. How many people heard about the evil Karl Rove, heard Obama denounce the Supreme Court Decision but never heard the real truth? For me it’s more of the same from the left wing, they are ruthless about holding onto power, fill the media with propaganda, ignore the real problems that confront our society and smear anyone who threatens the status quo. As someone who is Jewish, I find the current welfare state, deficit spending and massive governmental regulations smothering free enterprise incredibly more threatening than someone who dresses up occasionally in a Nazi suit.

  4. Julio:
    If I think what you said is that ethnics in your country are excluded from being part of political debate,would it mean that Mestizo”s and Indio’s are not considered as citizens.Or are you trying to say that the Creoreo, and Peninsulare don’t care how you are treated at the place of your birth or abroad/

  5. The Mexican laws do not allow for ethnicities to take part in government or social inclusion. Our representatives never say a damn thing about other countries racist policies. So I careless about complainers about white poeple.

  6. What a noble gesture for someone with a Name like Goldstein.You may not know much about your most recent role in world politics,but i think trying to forge fantasy,with Historical reality by using Hollywood, as a example of
    racial justice is misunderstood.Nazi is the personification of Racial intolerance.In the event Nazi philosophy were to have taken over the world we who could not prove pure German blood lines,would be slaves.And anyone considering the Senate to have the worst judgment in matters of this kind, should not be under any stretch of the imagination ,. considered for leading a Republican style Democracy.Bad philosophical match.If you new what it took to defeat this perverted style of Government,I think a one eighty could be your only choice left to you.

  7. Wow. I’d better make sure that no one sees me in my Civil War reenactment Confederate Army clothes. Guilt by association will brand me a racist slave master. What does that make half of the actors in Hollywood? Is Tom Cruise a Nazi for playing one in a movie?

  8. Oh was I off on this response,I thought I was talking on another subject wow!Nazis must feel very safe here,to so openly parade around wearing uniforms that were worn by men of the SS,the reason this went unnoticed for so long, is most of the people who could have identified these uniforms have passed into History.In the event they were around in force,violence would have spontaneously erupted with the distinct possibility of major bloodshed,so reviled were the SS with American troops because of liberties taken by SS troops against American wounded in aid stations, over run during counter attacks.Many SS troops who surrendered to Americans never made it to prisoner of war detention centers alive.

  9. Civil Government, hardly,, self serving absolutely,collective decision making behind closed doors.The power elite will raise your taxes and the propaganda used will convince you to believe,it is the only way to fix the fix they put us in !

  10. Actually, Politics is a very broad topic to discuss on. However, I can defined it this way, Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to behavior within civil governments, but politics has been observed in other group interactions, including corporate, academic, and religious institutions.

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