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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.