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In the Eye (or Mind) of the Beholder

Construal: “…[A] social psychological term that refers to the way in which (or the process of) people perceive, comprehend, and interpret the world around them.”

—AlleyDog.com Psychology Glossary

 

As a psychology student at the University of Kansas many years ago, I remember becoming particularly intrigued with that branch of the science known as social psychology.  I had enjoyed a course in sociology as well as those pertaining to subareas of general psychology, and social psych seemed to embody both worlds, studying the individual within a group setting.  With the human being regarded as a social animal, much of his/her beliefs and behavior, consequently, was seen as shaped and guided by the influences of the social milieu.

In our contemporary environment, that milieu involves a good deal of political reportage and quite literally an ever-expanding flow of global information.  We are constantly inundated from every direction with the latest “news of the day.”  Yet within the human community it would appear we are diverging further and further from anything resembling a consensus of opinion on anything.

Consider, for instance, the recent dramatization by Michael Gene Sullivan of George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.  A lengthy review of the play in The Kansas City Star emphasized the fidelity and graphic depiction of the torture scenes to a degree that some audience members became ill, screamed in horror or chose to flee the theater.  The true ghastly nature of “Big Brother,” and all he represented, apparently was on full display.  My initial reaction was one of optimism, that perhaps now millennials, not familiar with the book nor the historical reasons for the “Red Scare” of the fifties, might gain some fresh political savvy.  But that optimism, I must concede, might have been premature.

Subsequent discussions with acquaintances spanning the political spectrum in their outlook revealed a surprising trend.  Those older citizens of a conservative or libertarian bent saw in the play a message still relevant concerning regimes such as North Korea or Venezuela—cautionary exemplars of what a collectivist mindset ultimately produces.  However, the younger “progressives,” many of whom had been drawn to support Bernie Sanders in the recent election, saw the drama as a chilling indictment of the likes of the Trump administration.  (I would hope the obvious irony wouldn’t be lost on those with a firm understanding of the accepted definitions of political left and right.)

Perhaps an even more stunning case would be the MeTV’s replays of the old Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone series.  One of the most memorable, and indelibly unsettling, of the episodes was reprised not long ago, the one titled “It’s a Good Life.”  Based on a short story by Jerome Bixby, the plot features a six-year-old boy who has godlike powers to alter or “disappear” anything or anybody that displeases him on a whim.  The small town of Peaksville, Ohio, has become isolated and its few remaining citizens suffer absolutely under the terrifying oppression and total domination of the boy, who, I should add, is capable of reading minds.  So, everybody must only think “happy” thoughts and shower praise on the boy for whatever monstrous actions he dreams up.  It’s a horrific situation from which the story offers no escape.

Now, once again, a survey of opinions on its implications concerning our world today yielded diverse results.  Those on the political right would seem to identify a parallel between the boy and Kim Jong-un, or even Vladimir Putin.  However, those on the left, wouldn’t you know, see a resemblance to President Donald Trump.

The thing that piques my abiding interest in social psychology here is the distinction between persons disagreeing about some phenomenon such as, let’s say, anthropogenic climate change, where both sides cherry-pick the data they adopt to support their positions, as opposed to the instances cited above, where both sides see the exact same facts but draw widely differing conclusions.  That begs for an explanation employing the old social-psych concept of “construal.”  What mechanisms are in operation behind the mental curtain, so to speak, that account for the variance?

Yet another example, concerning a good friend of mine, might offer a little elucidation. Some time ago my friend became enamored with, and bought into, the particulars of that global conspiracy theory typified by Gary Allen’s 1971 book None Dare Call It Conspiracy.  That’s the conviction that a small globalist cabal consisting of international bankers, old-world aristocracy, wealthy elitists and advocates for one world government—operating through agencies such as the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations—dictate the political agendas for all nations of the world.  The Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, even Henry Kissinger are all in.  Not only that, but in the course of enriching themselves, they promote the utter destruction of the common man with policies like those delineated in the 1992 UN Sustainable Development Agenda 21 document and its progeny.

As a consequence of adopting this paradigm for the causal explanation of human events, my friend sees secret evil intent behind just about any and all governmental actions.  School choice and vouchers—a plan to further Federal Government control of education and spread the evils of Common Core even to parochial schools and homeschooling.  Improved mass transit—the scheme to take away our autonomy afforded by private automobile ownership and restrict our movement.  The Affordable Care Act—a plan designed to fail and force us into a single-payer system promoting rigid control of our lives and ultimately depopulation.  All instances of construal in full bloom.

What seems to hold sway in the psychology of it all, in my humble opinion, are two overarching factors: (1) people tend to see in any given situation what they desire it to be, or (2) people tend to see what their prior assumptions lead them to expect it to be.  We either ignore some facts in favor of others or taint the facts to suit our will.  So the real dilemma becomes, in this modern era, has even the pretense to “objectivity” become passé?

It has been asserted by some that Aristotle was the last human to know everything there was to know in his time.  Now it seems the question of our time has simply become, does anybody ever know anything?

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Mark Scheel
Mark Scheel grew up in east-Kansas farm country. He attended both Kansas State University and The University of Kansas, majoring in psychology and English. Prior to writing full time he served overseas with the American Red Cross in Vietnam, Thailand, West Germany and England, taught at Emporia State University and was an information specialist with the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. His stories, articles and poems have appeared in numerous magazines including The Little Balkans Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Cincinnati Poetry Review, The Kansas City Star, Heritage of Kansas, Samisdat, and Poet as well as many sites online such as Common Ground News. His literary activities have also involved membership in The Kansas Authors Club, a seat on the board of directors for Potpourri Publications Company and an editorial position with Kansas City Voices magazine. He co-authored the book Of Youth and the River: the Mississippi Adventure of Raymond Kurtz, Sr., and his collection of stories and poems, A Backward View, was awarded the 1998 J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. His most recent book is titled The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom.

6 comments to In the Eye (or Mind) of the Beholder

  • mistermuse

    Mark, we are subjected to so much intentional “fake news” and “spin” that it’s often very difficult, if not impossible, to “know anything” — which is exactly what such diversionary tactics and obfuscation are intended to accomplish. Thus, those on the far right and far left not only can’t see the reality of what’s going on, but they don’t want to see (aka willful ignorance).

  • Hi muse,

    Absolutely. You got it, muse. I agree totally.

    Mark

  • Don Frankel

    Mark,

    I think and I’m not sure but all these current very dark, the world is being controlled by a select few theories seem to be a reaction to WWII. If you notice someone is always compared Hitler. I’m beginning to wonder if Hitler was even Hitler.

    As we are all beginning to do or have been for a while is taking note of the change in the media. Somebody changed the Matrix. Oh wait who? The Trilateral commission? The Innumeratti? I think I spelled that wrong. Tim pointed out a few things. One thing is also that no one has a broad based audience. It’s all these little niche audiences of a million here or less or a few million at most. Those little audiences will lap up the over heated partisan rhetoric. And, who ever is speaking is getting paid and paid well to speak to that audience. It is their bread and butter.

    But what I’ve really found funny over the years is how people attribute everything in politics to altruism and ideology. The prime directive, if I can invoked another Sci-fi reference in politics is spending the money, your money. No one seems to notice that. I know to think that is just well cynical. So I must be wrong here. I’m sure everyone in politics is working for the common good. It’s just well when you’re getting paid it must be, it just has to be the common good come to fruition.

    Don

    Don

  • Don,

    Yes, that brand of conspiracy theory that Allen writes of–and that includes the John Birch Society material–came to bloom after WW II during the “Red Scare” of the fifties, although the “conspiracy mindset” has been with us long before that. And yes, Tim makes some points that resonate with my thesis here. As for your last paragraph, I’m sure you wrote that with tongue planted firmly in your cheek! Ha.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Mark

  • Don Frankel

    Mark,

    Tongue in cheek? Me? Yeah guilty as charged. But I find if I dare mention money as a motivator in politics instead of ideology, people invariably tell me I’m cynical. Why? I don’t know as money seems to drive everything else in the world. But if you admit to something well then it takes the starch out of the other guy’s argument.

    And yes conspiracy theories are as old as the human race I’m sure. But I also think the Red Scare was based on WWII and Hitler. The commies were coming just like Hitler. We needed to stand up to them because if someone had stood up to Hitler…

    Don

  • Don,

    Yes, remember that Gen. Patton wanted to rearm Germany once Hitler was removed from the picture and go after Russia. He probably was right. I’ve often heard old military types lament that civilian top control of the military and war always, after so-called victory, leaves one more war to fight. That was true with Russia after WWII ended. And it was true of Korea and Vietnam, both “hot” proxy wars actually with the USSR during the cold war era.

    Good comments, Don. Just be careful not to “bite” that tongue when moving from cheek to cheek! Ha.

    Mark

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