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Thomas Plante: People Behaving Badly

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Dr. Thomas Plante says in times of frustration and stress people behave badly. There must be a lot of that toxic mix because people are behaving very badly.

As California plans to reopen with fewer COVID restrictions this month, are we prepared for how people will behave? So far, it seems that many have forgotten how to act in public. There has been an explosion of people fighting on airplanes, spitting at service workers, fans attacking people at sporting events, and other examples of aggression.

Bad behavior is nothing new and technology makes it easier to capture these moments and share them with the world. But there is something about coming out of the pandemic that makes so many of these incidents seem especially ripe for our times.

Stress in America has never been higher according to research by the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America studies. People are really wound up tight, frustrated for good reasons. When you add stress to frustration, you’ll get aggression according to the well-researched frustration-aggression theory. Moreover, divisive politics has a toxic effect on our culture. Social media and cable news fan these flames.

Finally, many elected officials and other so-called high status models who act badly offer permission to others to do likewise. Research on observational learning demonstrates that we tend to watch and imitate the behavior of people we find to be high status or admirable. If these models are reinforced without negative consequences, their behavior is more likely to be copied.


So, what can be done about all this? Let’s take a deep breath, de-stress ourselves, and treat others as they wish to be treated. The Golden Rule isn’t a heavy lift. Living together on an increasingly fragile planet is a challenge. Unless we all find a way to get along, things won’t end well for any of us. Respecting others, treating them with compassion and finding commonalities would go a long way. Pushing back on the negativity, demonization and divisiveness is critical too.

We live in stressful times on multiple levels yet we all have the potential to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We all need to step up and do so now.

With a Perspective, I’m Thomas Plante.

Thomas Plante is a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine.

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