Pavlov’s Standard: The science of how the same symbol can terrorize some people and be clung to by others

The discussion over the use of the Confederate flag has been a heated one over the past few weeks. On one side, you have people pointing out the racial history of the flag and its connection to modern racial violence, and the other is making sanctity of history and southern pride arguments. While the former group can’t seem to understand how the latter group can’t see the racist implications of their stance, the latter group can’t seem to understand how the former group is actually being terrorized by the flag. Even though I can’t explain this in a  way that will get you to experience and feel how another person can feel about the flag, I can use science to explain why a person will feel how they do about this flag.

A symbol’s power lies in what it is associated with. This process of building association and pairing one thing with another is a basic function in how the brain, any brain, works, and is the cause of the salivating dog phenomenon that Pavlov discovered. Also known as “conditioning” this process is at the heart of behavioral science and has been well studied and validated. Essentially, if you pair two stimuli, one will be connected to the other in the brain. With Pavlov, he found that if he were to ring a bell before blowing meat dust into a dog’s mouth, eventually the dog would begin to react to the bell by salivating, meaning that the bell alone would produce the response originally caused by the meat. The bell became a symbol for meat in the dog’s mind.

Another mental process to be considered is that of “modeling.” Modeling is a concept from cognitive science that points out that an animal can learn by watching another’s experience. If an animal sees a kin press a button and receive a treat, than that animal is likely to also push that button to get the treat, and form an association with that button. This phenomenon is also well grounded in science.

With these concepts of behavioral and cognitive science, I can explain why people would associate one symbol with a terror, but not others, and why some people would not associate it with terror at all.

First, for a symbol to have an effect on someone, it has to be “novel” meaning it has to be new enough to the person that it does not have any other associations. This “novel” requirement is necessary because the pairing must be interpreted having a  predictive factor to the event by the brain. This is the reason that people don’t react to the American flag as a symbol of racial inequality the way people react to the Confederate flag as a symbol of racial inequality. The American flag is so common in society that, and has been so frequently used for good acts as well (this is an important part that will be explained later), that it is not novel and it will be perceived by the brain as a common background feature and is therefor not predictive of a negative event to an American.

Second, the symbol must be paired with a harmful act that is either directly experience or seen being experienced by someone seen like the person. To unpack what this means, first, the symbol has to be presented with the harmful act. This will build the association directly to the person who experiences the harm. If someone witnesses the act, they can also build a similar, but not as strong, association. However, this modeled association is only formed if the person views him or herself as being like the person getting hurt. If the person views the victim as being different or as an “other,” then this association won’t get built. This is the reason why some groups will form a connection, and others won’t because the second group does not see themselves as enough like the targeted group to form the negative association.

Finally, the association of the symbol and the harmful event is strengthened each time a harmful event occurs in conjunction with the symbol. Each time a person experiences or witnesses a harm done with the presentation of the symbol, the association of the harm with that symbol will become stronger, and with enough exposure, will become terror.

Harmful events are not the only events that can have an effect on a symbol’s association. Exposure to a neutral event can reduce the severity of the negative association, but only temporarily. With each neutral exposure, the strength of the negative and feared association lessons, and can gradually lead to a nullifying of the association, but only if that neutral experience were to continue perpetually. However, the moment a new negative event occurs paired with the symbol, the harmful association returns at its original strength. Here, with the constant neutral exposure, the terror is not removed, just put to sleep, and is always ready to be woken up.

Positive events can lead to a positive association with the symbol. If the positive effect is introduced when the symbol is still novel, then the primary association will be positive with the symbol. If there was originally a negative association with the symbol, and the person experiences new positive events connected to the symbol, then a true and sustained reduction in the negative association will occur. This is the effect that creates change in relation to exposure therapy, as the person is taught that they can master their fear, connecting the feared stimuli with a sense of mastery that counteracts the fear. This is also the reason why the American flag won’t produce a terror, as either the primary association was positive, or there have been enough positive associations to significantly reduce the strength of any negative association.

This is why some people are being terrorized by the Confederate flag, and others are can’t seem to understand the terror.

For the terrorized group, they see a symbol that was created by a section of the country willing to kill to keep them in slavery, forgotten for years, and then resurrected to oppose them getting legal rights. This created the “novel” status and the pairing with harmful events. This association has been strengthened by all to frequent acts of violence that was paired with the Confederate flag, including murder, arson, brutal beatings, etc. strengthening the connection to the point of terror. This experience has been constantly witnessed and experienced, and the association with terror has become fixed. There have been plenty of neutral presentations, on shirts, belt buckles, random posting of flags, etc, but as explained, these neutral presentations don’t reduce the terror, they only put it asleep only to be woken up at the next act of violence. And because there has been a dearth of positive associations presented to this community where the benefits went to people who were like them, because there were no civil rights groups sporting the flag while fighting for equality, and because the only confederate flag sporting protagonists really did not do much substantially to visibly help people affected by the terror of the flag, there has been nothing to reduce this feared association. The result is that the Confederate Flag has been made into a symbol that terrorizes, not offends, a significant part of our population due to mechanisms known to science.

For the group that can’t understand how they terrorized group can be terrorized, this is because they have never experienced the pairing of harm with the flag, and when they may have witnessed the pairing of the flag with a violent act, the percieved the victim as being too different from them to trigger that modeled learning. What’s more, the association they have formed with the flag has generally been positive, so that when they see the flag, they get pleasurable feelings, not terror.

For an actual racist, this flag is associated with a drug like feeling of pleasure. Aggressive behaviors trigger the same reward areas of the brain that gets triggered by a cocaine high, and not only is this flag associated with that high, but that reminder and association can actually cause them to seek out the aggression as one does when they crave a drug. And since the reinforcement and pleasure can happen through modeling, this pleasure through aggression can occur through watching someone else’s aggression, so long as the person feels they are like the aggressor, and sharing dedication to a flag is one of the ways to build such a connection

For others who are not actually racist, they have been given positive associations to the flag under the guise of “Southern Pride,” “Preservation of history,” or even “rebelliousness.” There is a clever form of manipulation at play here, but the end result is that these individuals built primary associations with the flag that were based on values that are otherwise seen as positive. Because of this, the idea that this flag could be harmful is counter to everything they have been thought to feel about it, making its terrorizing nature an alien concept. Heck, I myself regularly saw this banner carried by heroes that were described as a bunch of “good ol’ boys,” and it took me a while to fully understand the real and terrorizing impact of the flag because of that early association.

And this brings us back to the problem of the flag today. We have a group that is actively being terrorized by this flag by the associations from both its history and people today who are intentionally linking the flag to violence. We also have a group that has been trained to have positive associations with the flag. For the first group, there is a need to remove the flag in order to take away the terror they are subjected to on a regular basis, and they see the second group as being complicit in that terrorism. For the second group, they are seeing the first group telling them that something that causes them forms of pleasure needs to be taken away, and since they cannot understand the very real and reinforced terror of the first group, see this objection as something frivolous like “offense.” It’s these two sets of associations that are keeping us in a state of conflict over the Confederate flag, where one side wants it gone because of the terror it causes them, and the other wants to keep it because of the pleasure it causes them, states that are created by the brain’s process of conditioning.

This does not, however, mean that we will never find resolution. Part of the reason for pointing out why we are stuck is that by understanding this mechanism, we can actually use it to finally make progress. Since seeing others as like ourselves is enough to have learning modeled, we can choose to be more empathic and reject the us-them model that keeps us from understanding what the terrorized group feels. In addition, we can choose to attach ourselves to higher ideals that will give us the same pleasure without the harmful symbols, making the act of rejecting the violence by embracing respect and empathy grant higher rewards than embracing a symbol. This is all possible, and I know it is possible because I’ve seen very honorable people make this change when called upon.

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One thought on “Pavlov’s Standard: The science of how the same symbol can terrorize some people and be clung to by others

  1. Pingback: The Complicated Beyoncé | Dr. Zack's Blog

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