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What is Causing Social Divisiveness and Animosity?

After providing active shooter training at a nearby university and nation-wide realty company, one of the participants asked my opinion about where all of the hate is coming from that leads to these types of events. I gave her my answer which was that it is more of a cyclical development of factors, rather than just hate. Hate is a very strong word, and although there may be some hate involved, I feel it is much more common than pure hate. The shootings stem from a variety of factors, that when linked together create social divisiveness and animosity toward individuals, groups and even organizations. Having felt strong reactions to social media posts myself a few years ago, I began looking at what causes social divisiveness and animosity in the "information age" then, and now I would like to present a prototype model of how the social divisiveness and animosity develop and manifest in our society.

It is my opinion that there is a cyclical process involving several psychological, sociological, and behavior-based factors which create the divisiveness and animosity, especially involving social media. The following is a proposed model to help understand the factors involved in creating animosity, anger, divisiveness, and violence.

Here is how the model works:

There are five conditions of focus and then five actions that lead to animosity and social divisiveness.

Condition 1. Misrepresented Value Sets

In present day western culture, we find ourselves in a nation where the values that are projected and represented to the public in mass media is that of prosperous, attractive people who have everything they could ever want and is due to them. Regardless of the situation, we find a culture demanding of respect from others, even if it is unwarranted just because of who they perceive they are. This can be observed in television, movies, music, podcasts, blogs, webcasts, social media and other media. These misrepresented value set are observed and become subliminal expectations for both terminal values (how we feel things should end up, such as: life, justice, liberty, and peace), as well as instrumental values, which is how we treat each other (e.g. fairness, courage, honesty, and responsibility). The values may or may not be a reflection of the current philosophy or societal norms.

Condition 2. Incongruence in Values/Reality

Because of these misrepresented value sets, we find more and more incongruencies in the espoused values (especially those that are not reflective of the general society) of our culture and the reality of our daily lives. Mass media, media, social media and society in general espouse the values that people start to believe such as everyone can be a star, or make millions inventing the next best technology or computer application, when, most people won’t do either. What we find is that society is being sold dreams to dreamers that will never come true for most people. Yet, because there is the “exception to the rule,” and many of these “outliers” are publicized and shown to be possible, this reinforces that possibility, however in normally outweighed by the probability of the average prospect.

Condition 3. Magnified Sense of Victimization and Vicarious Trauma

Caused by repetitious mass media of dismaying news, fear-based marketing, and misrepresented value sets, whether actual or fabricated, what once would have seemed very distant and non-threatening, is now, due to the proliferation and repetition of information, seemingly abundant and immediate, even if it is a one-in-ten million chance event. With continued repetition of visually disturbing images, fear-based media reporting and marketing, and misrepresented value sets, there is a greater sense of victimization for not attaining the otherwise unrealistic expectation or being traumatized repeatedly which creates vicarious trauma.

Even through fictitious events such as those portrayed as in T.V. shows, video games, movies, etc., the brain and the nervous system don’t recognize the difference. Which is why we are “entertained” by these events when we get our adrenaline pump by being scared or nervous for the outcome. We still get the adrenaline rush or “amped up feelings” and come away with a “view” of the events which may reinforce or enhance our sense of victimization.

Continual repetition of maligned or disheartening information creates the vicarious trauma of having actually encountered these events, which in turn creates a sense of continual and heightened sense of victimization.

Condition 4. Feelings of Entitlement

With our false sense of a “hero” culture, we are all capable of everything we dream possible. Everyone can be a star, or an internet success, or a “hero” in some way or another, maybe it is based on “views” on social media or how many “likes” we get. Maybe we feel we can become a multi-millionaire if we hit the lottery, and everyone feels they are entitled to the same outcomes as they view in T.V., in movies, on the internet, etc., from our misrepresented value sets and our heightened sense of victimization. Additionally, there are very little, if any, consequences for anti-social ideology, statements, comments and posts of differing views, even extremist views, unless there is explicit threat or hazard implied (active shooter threats, etc.). Because of this, we have created a culture of entitlement, where everyone is entitled to (and demanding of) what they feel they are due based on their perception of the misrepresented value sets, sense of victimization and proliferation of actual or perceived incongruities, and they are willing and able to promote their ideology.

Condition 5. Feelings of Inequity

Addams Equity theory states there are three factors in determining how we perceive we are being treated when it comes to “equity:”

  1. People weigh their inputs vs. their outcomes, however in determining the sources of divisiveness and animosity, they base it on the false persona and feelings of entitlement.

  2. People weight their inputs/outcomes vs the inputs and outcomes of another person. But again, in determining the sources of divisiveness and animosity, this view is founded on the false persona and sense of entitlement and victimization, based on misrepresented value sets.

  3. People will compare their inputs/outcomes against someone comparable, and if they cannot find equality, they either change their person of comparison, or act upon it. In determining the sources of divisiveness and animosity, this is where the situation becomes ripe for actions against those we feel we cannot compare ourselves to. We’ll either change the person of comparison, or in many publicized cases, the person acts upon the perceived inequity.

Action 1. The Common Reactions to Inequity are: Anger & Guilt

Guilt is not as common a reaction as anger. Guilt may manifest itself in the form of wanting to balance the perceived inequities of those less fortunate or mistreated, abused, etc. Examples: Donating to those struck by disaster or other negative circumstances. Anger is the more common reaction to inequity and causes people to do the following:

  1. Act out against the person, people, groups, that they feel is causing the inequity. This is done by adjusting the inputs, outcomes, or both from the perspective of the person who feels the inequity.

  2. Act against the person, people, or groups they are comparing themselves with.

  3. Psychologically distortion of the information or situation is made to “protect” themselves or justify their feelings of anger or guilt.

  4. Change who they are comparing themselves to in order to “feel better about themselves” since they can’t cause the other person, group or individual to change.

  5. Quit or leave the situation. Move out of state, leave a company, go into clinical depression, commit suicide, etc.

Many people will quit or leave the situation by avoiding watching the news, T.V., or certain media, or limiting social media to “insulate themselves” from the information/misinformation. Basically, they withdraw from society and social interactions. Others will psychologically distort their situation and “pretend” that there is no problem or issue. These ways of adjusting and coping with the inequities are self-preserving, yet don’t cause any harm to others, however may become self-damaging.

Action 2. Adjusting Information as a Power Balancer

Whether we look for information to prove our perspective and preconceived ideas, or we look for information to prove other ideas wrong, because of the “abundance of information,” it is possible to prove and disprove many conflicting ideas. So, people turn to “information power” as a means of balancing the perceived inequities or proving/disproving their own ideas and philosophy, regardless of abundant facts. Providing or limiting information as a means of balancing power is made very easy by using the internet and social media sites to “modify” or adapt the information to create the persona that is preferred over the actual identity of the person.

Ability to project one’s “preferred persona” over the internet, mass media and social media gives a false sense of prerogative and value of one’s own views.

Action 3. Ability to Conceal a True Self Behind “Preferred Persona” on Social Media:

Individuals may project a misleading, deceptive, ambiguous or “preferred persona” on social media which creates false or misleading persona is frequently heightened by the “Pygmalion Effect” in which people start to believe in, and portray, their own created persona, even if it does not accurately represent the person in real life.

Because social media allows for selection of information, the real person may never actually be viewed.

Action 4. Where animosity, anger, divisiveness, and violence come into play:

Where the anger and violence start to manifest itself in actions is when the feelings of inequity are acted upon by means to make changes. This can be done through advocating for changes in social settings and through social media posts and comments. Encouraging action or force for change on other individuals, people, groups, that they feel is causing the inequity, and even up to and including violence.

Eventually these actions may change from just talking about making the changes to acting out upon them. As an example, consider the shooting at YouTube headquarters by a person who thought they were being blocked and treated unfairly.

Action 5. Escalation of Cyclical Design

The advocation, encouragement, of change is then further intensified by having it presented via the internet, social media, and mass media. When people see others modeling behavior and/or participating in actions (good or bad) that they feel addresses the perceived inequity, then they are also likely (as observational learners) to follow that example. If these behaviors are then shown or repeated in a widespread manner with social media, media, and internet postings, etc., then they are more likely to seem more abundant than they actually are.

This may cause reinforcement of the misrepresented value sets, or an increase in perceptions of incongruence in values/reality, or even a more magnified sense of victimization or vicarious trauma. Because of these we may feel an increase level of feelings of entitlement and the need to adjust the amount of information used as a power balancer or modify our “preferred persona” on social media and in our comments, actions, and behaviors. This then causes people to feel a little more inadequate and creates a greater incongruence within themselves for which they feel a greater inequity, thus causing more actions necessary to “adjust” for the perceived inequity.

So, the cycle repeats itself and continues to strengthen and intensify in a cyclical design with very little oversight or consequences for what is posted on social media, and a higher sense of worth placed on perceptions that are misleading and incongruent with society in general. The process then starts over with these perceptions of stronger value sets. We must always remember that “perception is reality,” but also acknowledge that “misperception is also reality” for the person doing the perceiving.

About the Author: Dr. Chris Fuzie is the author of "Because Why?...Understanding Behavior In Exigencies." and of "S.C.O.R.E. Performance Counseling: Save the Relationship, Change the Behavior," and Owner of CMF Leadership Consulting. Chris is a developer/trainer/consultant for leadership of public, private, profit, and non-profit organizations. Chris holds a Doctorate of Education (Ed.D), M.A. and B.A. in Organizational Leadership, and has graduate certificates in Human Resources and Criminal Justice Education. Chris is honorably retired from the Modesto Police Department after 28 years of public service where he last served as the Assistant Division Commander of Investigations.

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