The Psychology of Incivility: Fear, Distrust, and Certainty

If incivility harms us in so many ways, both as individual citizens and as a society, why does it seem to have reached epidemic proportions?  I think the answer has to do both with the internal dynamics of incivility, some of which I alluded to in my last post, and several more historically-specific facts.

Why are people uncivil in the first place? —Not because there’s something medically amiss.  That’s where the disease analogy I invoked last time ceases to be helpful.  No, the three main reasons people stoop to incivility have more to do with psychology than biology.  These reasons come down to: distrust, fear, and certainty.  Each of these beliefs or feelings paves the way for incivility in a slightly different way.

hostility photo

Distrust undermines our felt need to listen to another person; why listen when we already know they’re no good?  Fear of what might be revealed during a disagreement naturally makes us want to shut it down before it starts.  And the person who’s 100 percent certain of their views logically has every right to silence those who are “incorrect.”

Once begun it is in the very nature of incivility that it will spread by contagion if not actively checked as victims respond in kind and bystanders imitate bad behavior to achieve what they think are its spoils.  As the contagion spreads, incivility is accepted as normal, making it all the harder to resist.

As for why incivility seems to have escalated recently to levels not seen since perhaps the civil war, one doesn’t have to look far: polarization among politicians and the mass media, a retreat from civics education in our schools, and the massive influence of social media.  We’ll be having much more to say on all these issues—and what to do about them—in weeks to come.

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