Evidence for Collective Munchausen Syndrome?

There was a paper recently published in the journal Psychological Science, which I think scientifically demonstrates an issue that we’re currently witnessing in society in terms of a widespread complex of victimhood. In the paper, a team led by Diana Sanchez from Rutgers University report a series of five studies looking at the idea of ‘stigma-by-prejudice-transfer’, which outlines how members of perceived minorities experience subjective feelings of oppression when confronted with examples of wider (and personally unrelated) stigmatisation.

According to Sanchez and her colleagues, this concept is based around the idea that stigmatisation is seen to possess “monolithic qualities”. This means that an individual who is expresses racist views will be perceived by many people to also express sexist attitudes (by way of an example). This idea is linked to attribution theory – whereby people subjectively infer the psychological motivations of others’ behaviour.

Further, in formulating their opening description of stigma-by-prejudice-transfer, the authors of this paper suggest that minority group members who have heightened perceptions of the social dominance orientation within others may be more susceptible to experiencing stigma-by-prejudice-transfer. The social dominance orientation, broadly speaking, is a worldview that places value on hierarchies, with so-called majority groups being seen as deserving their social position over minority groups.

The idea of stigma-by-prejudice-transfer differs from related ideas, such as stigma-by-association. While stigma-by-association suggests that those who associate with the victims of stigma or prejudice may vicarious feel as though they are also victims (probably due to physical or emotional proximity to the actual targets of stigma), stigma-by-prejudice-transfer does not assume any relationship between the two (or more) people between whom stigma is being transferred. The stigma is transferred merely because both parties perceive themselves as being stigmatised, and judge malevolence on the part of other people (particularly majority group members).

Academic Findings in the Paper

Sanchez and her colleagues conducted five studies to examine these ideas in more depth, specifically looking at the transfer of stigma both to and from women and ethnic minorities. They used a series of online surveys using participants from the Amazon Mechanical Turk system. This is an online crowdsourcing platform where members of the public can sign up and be paid for completing short tasks, and has become increasingly popular as a method for recruiting participants for psychological experiments over the past five years. Participants across the studies were White men (who always acted as a control or comparison group), White women, and ethnic minority (Black and Latino) men.

In the earlier studies of the paper, the authors used simple experimental designs to see the extent to which ‘discriminated against’ groups (the White women and ethnic minority men) anticipated that they would be discriminated against by an individual depicted in a fake profile. This fake profile was presented as being another participant in the study, with their supposed answers to racism- or sexism-related questionnaires being presented. There was also a control condition where no racism- or sexism-related information was presented.

Consistent with the hypotheses of the stigma-by-prejudice-transfer effect, White women experienced greater anticipated stigmatisation after reading a profile where the individual was portrayed as being racist than did men, while ethnic minority men anticipated greater stigmatisation than White men when presented with a sexist profile.

Also consistent with the authors’ predictions was the role of perceived social dominance orientation. That is, these effects were exaggerated among those participants who thought that the person depicted in the fake profile who have a strong social dominance orientation. This perceived social dominance orientation was calculated by having participants complete a measure of this construct as they believed the person depicted in the fake profile would complete it.

In the later studies in the paper, the authors used a mock chat room design to see how profile attributes (sexist and racist views, manipulated in the same way as the earlier studies) influenced judgements of anticipated stigma and unfair treatment from the fake profile within a mock job interview. The same trends were observed using this design as the straightforward questionnaire method used in the earlier studies. White women anticipated more prejudice when presented with an ostensibly racist profile than White women in the control condition, while men did not show any difference in anticipated prejudice as a function of the experimental condition that they were placed in. This effect was also replicated in a controlled lab setting, where White female students anticipated inflated levels of prejudice from a White male evaluator of a presentation when he was depicted as being racist than when information about his racial attitudes were not presented.

How Do These Findings Fit with Social and Political Trends?

Importantly, all condition effects were non-significant when the researchers ran mediation analyses examining the role of perceived social dominance orientation. What this means in practice is that it appears that the anticipations of unfair treatment among minority or stigmatised groups from majority or non-stigmatised group members is driven by the extent to which the majority group member is judged to value social hierarchies. This is support for the idea that stigma-by-prejudice-transfer is rooted in the “monolithic judgements” about stigmatisation that were mentioned earlier. It’s here that there is a lot of overlap between this research and ideas about sensitivity to perceived microaggressions. Whether these actually exist, or if they are merely reflections of an individual’s own perceptions of the implicit malevolence of another person, is still up for debate.

This is an interesting paper because it highlights some important trends that we’re witnessing in political discourse at the moment. We commonly see high-profile attacks on Donald Trump, for example, where his political opponents are happy to smear him as a racist, sexist, homophobic Nazi, in spite of mixed evidence on each for each of these accusations. Implicit in these claims, though, is a polarising dichotomy of the oppressor (Donald Trump), and a homogenous group of people who are oppressed.

This collectivism in victimhood is a trend that has been labelled by Gad Saad, a Professor in Evolutionary Behavioural Sciences at Concordia University in Canada, as a form of “Collective Munchausen Syndrome”, whereby members of perceived disadvantaged groups (and those who know them, possibly via the process of ‘stigma-by-association’) develop victimisation narratives that serve to gain sympathy and attention from ostensibly concerned onlookers, and perpetuate a cycle of increasingly polarised political discourse. This cycle leads to what Jonathan Haidt refers to as Manichean thinking, where there is the good/virtuous on one side of the debate, and the evil/bigoted on the other, with very room for nuance in between.

For me, the paper by Sanchez and her colleagues is reflective of these processes, and offer the first scientific evidence that Collective Munchausen Syndrome – a society-wide state of perceived victimhood – may actually be a real construct, and could act as a springboard for further research in this area.

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