First came the new names—Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and others—all added one by one to the long list of tragic, unjustifiable police killings of Black Americans. Then came the batons, the pepper spray, the tear gas, the flash-grenades, the helicopters, the armored vehicles, and the rubber bullets wielded against nonviolent Black Lives Matter protesters across the United States, from Minneapolis to New York City to Portland. And then came the chorus of privileged beneficiaries of our country’s discriminatory status quo, denying and defending the reality of brutal, racist, militarized, and unaccountable over-policing.
This sequence—grievous harm and public outrage followed by false reassurances from self-serving voices—is a familiar pattern. It’s one that I’ve studied as a psychologist, focusing primarily on the manipulative “political mind games” that the rich and powerful use to preserve an oppressive and inequitable system, one that rewards the few at the expense of the many. I’ve found that these propaganda ploys often target five specific concerns in our daily lives—namely, issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Each of these concerns is linked to a key question we regularly ask ourselves: Are we safe? Are we being treated fairly? Who should we trust? Are we good enough? Can we control what happens to us?
Because these questions are so central to how we make sense of the world, it’s not surprising that the so-called one-percent aren’t the only ones for whom disingenuous answers become rhetorical weapons. The same appeals are used by other status-quo defending authorities when their apparent wrongdoing and corruption are too obvious to ignore. This is clearly the case in the current national crisis over police brutality and institutional racism, where these mind games are promoted to create the doubt and division that undermine the solidarity necessary for achieving long overdue progress.
This essay describes ten of these pernicious mind games. First, however, it’s important to emphasize a crucial point: the evidence of racial injustice in our system of law enforcement is overwhelming. Areas in which scientific research has convincingly shown that Black Americans are treated much worse than their white counterparts include the issues of police violence, profiling, misdemeanor arrests, drug possession arrests, plea-bargaining, jury selection, sentencing, mass incarceration, and death penalty cases. The manipulative appeals I examine here are all designed to shield these indisputable inequities from both our awareness and our efforts at reform.
Vulnerability: Are we safe?
Whether as passing thoughts or haunting worries, we often wonder if the people we care about are in harm’s way, and if there might be danger on the horizon. Our judgments on these matters go a long way in determining the choices we make and the actions we take—it’s only when we think we’re safe that we comfortably turn our attention to other things. Unfortunately, we’re not very good at assessing risks or the effectiveness of possible responses to them. That’s why psychological appeals targeting these concerns are a frequent propaganda tactic of defenders of the status quo. Here are two examples.
Status quo defenders regularly use the “It’s A Dangerous World” mind game in their efforts to justify aggressive action or authoritarian control. By encouraging us to imagine fraught scenarios and catastrophic outcomes, we become more obedient when we’re instructed to follow commands and relinquish our rights. Similarly, claiming that they’re keeping everyone safe from ominous threats is how extreme law-and-order advocates defend bloated budgets and military-style weaponry for police departments, and even violent crackdowns against peaceful protesters. In the same way, police representatives defend the unwarranted use of force against unarmed civilians by insisting that they themselves feel threatened and under siege, and they exaggerate the dangers they actually face by falsely characterizing a group like Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization. If we fall for these alarmist accounts, we’re more likely to conclude that outrageous transgressions by law enforcement are necessary to ensure the public’s welfare and security.
Defenders of the status quo turn to a second vulnerability mind game—“Change Is Dangerous”—whenever reforms proposed by others are likely to diminish their power or hamper their ambitions. At such times, they misleadingly argue that these new policies will place everyone in greater jeopardy. Unfortunately, this appeal often works because psychologically we tend to prefer what’s familiar to us over what’s different or new. It’s therefore no surprise that law enforcement representatives are now out in force warning us how dangerous it would be to adopt changes like reducing police budgets, or increasing community oversight of police operations, or removing the “qualified immunity” protections that prevent victims of police brutality from suing their perpetrators. When we’re persuaded by these and other unfounded claims of peril, we’re less likely to support urgently needed reforms.
Injustice: Are we being treated fairly?
Cases of real or perceived mistreatment frequently stir anger and resentment, as well as an urge to right wrongs and bring accountability to those we hold responsible. That can all be very good. But our perceptions about what’s just and what’s not are imperfect, which makes us potential targets for manipulation by those who have a selfish interest in shaping our views of right and wrong to their advantage. This is exactly what defenders of the status quo work hard to do. Consider these two examples.
Status quo defenders routinely use the “No Injustice Here” mind game to quell public outrage over their wrongdoing. They either deny that misconduct has occurred or insist that it’s been greatly exaggerated. This appeal frequently succeeds because we like to believe that we live in a just world, and that those in positions of power are fair-minded rather than driven by self-interest. So law enforcement officials will portray instances of police brutality as necessary acts of self-defense. And when the evidence of abuse is beyond dispute, they’ll then contend that there’s no systemic racism—the problem, they insist, is merely a few “bad apples.” At the same time, the “blue wall of silence” strongly discourages police officers from speaking out about the crimes of their colleagues. The public’s embrace of deceptive claims like these stands in the way of justice for those who’ve been victimized.
When their policies or actions are criticized, defenders of the status quo take advantage of a second injustice mind game: “We’re the Victims.” They brazenly complain that they’re the ones who are really being mistreated. This turning of the tables is designed to encourage confusion and disagreement among the public over who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s the victim, and who’s the perpetrator. That’s why law enforcement heads disingenuously insist that it’s the police who are actually being “oppressed” or “handcuffed” or “scapegoated” in doing their job; that “Blue Lives Matter” too yet the police don’t receive the respect they deserve from the public; and that they’re denied due process when claims of abuse arise. If these misleading appeals are successful, our concern is directed away from the actual victims of police misconduct and the institutional racism that encourages it.
Distrust: Who should we trust?
We tend to divide the world into those we find trustworthy and those we don’t. Where we draw that line matters a lot. If we get it right, we avoid harm from those who have hostile intentions, and we’re able to enjoy the rewards of fulfilling relationships. But we often make these judgments with only limited and uncertain information. As a result, our conclusions about the trustworthiness of particular people and groups are frequently flawed and problematic—especially when others with self-serving objectives influence our thinking. Here are two examples.
With the “They’re Devious and Dishonest” mind game, status quo defenders smear their opponents by portraying them as untrustworthy and lacking in integrity. In this way, they aim to undercut the public’s concern for those who are struggling by instead arguing that any claims of adversity or mistreatment are mere fabrications. This is the ploy that was used when the U.S. Attorney General dismissed protesters against police brutality as “outside radicals and agitators,” and when the President suggested that an elderly human rights activist injured by police is actually an “antifa provocateur,” and when a right-wing talk show host warned that Black Lives Matter is an extremist political party with ulterior motives to remake and control the United States. When this fraudulent mind game succeeds, our worries over misplacing our trust—and possible betrayal—lead us to disregard urgent voices of dissent.
“They’re Different from Us” is a second distrust mind game regularly employed by defenders of the status quo. By taking advantage of our tendency to be more suspicious and less generous toward people we perceive as outsiders, this appeal is designed to create psychological distance between the general public and those who are most disadvantaged by the current system. This is why spokespersons from law enforcement and conservative media move so quickly to tarnish the reputations of the Black victims of police violence by characterizing them as “thugs” and “super-predators” and by relying on racist dog whistles to promote negative stereotypes. Likewise, Black Lives Matter protesters are falsely depicted as anarchists with principles and priorities that diverge from the values of everyday Americans. If we fall for false narratives like these, our support for the abused and the outraged evaporates.
Superiority: Are we good enough?
We’re quick to compare ourselves to others, often in order to demonstrate that we’re worthy of respect. Sometimes this desire is even stronger: we want confirmation that we’re better in some important way—perhaps in our values, or in our contributions to society. But in these efforts to bolster our own self-appraisals, we’re sometimes encouraged to perceive others in as negative a light as possible, even to the point of dehumanizing them. And since the judgments we make about our own worth—and the qualities of others—are often quite subjective, these impressions are susceptible to manipulation. Consider these two examples.
With the “Pursuing A Higher Purpose” mind game, status quo defenders solicit the public’s support by claiming that their self-serving enterprises are actually aimed at enhancing the common good. We want to believe that our leaders are committed to causes with broad societal benefits, so this appeal can make us more tolerant of the outrages that they portray as merely unavoidable imperfections in the pursuit of collective greatness. In the context of police brutality, “law and order” is enshrined as the higher purpose that must be defended regardless of methods or consequences. It’s disingenuously exploited to justify not only bloated police budgets and military-grade weapons, but also the terrorizing of communities of color, the bullying of peaceful protesters, and the use of excessive force with near impunity. Too often the public is fooled when an authoritarian and racist agenda is disguised in this way.
Defenders of the status quo also use a second superiority mind game—“They’re Un-American”—in their efforts to marginalize critics. This appeal characterizes those who condemn current inequities as unappreciative of our country and the values and traditions that “real” Americans hold dear. It takes particular advantage of the public’s respect and deference toward anything framed as patriotic. When it comes to the battleground of racial injustice, we’ve seen demagogues falsely claim that taking a knee is an outrage against our flag and our soldiers, rather than a denunciation of police brutality. Likewise, Black Lives Matter is intentionally misrepresented as a violent movement controlled by terrorists out to harm the United States. And protesters outraged over monuments honoring the Confederacy and its slavery roots are depicted as seeking to destroy our “national heritage.” When these propaganda ploys are successful, reformers lose the public’s support and are also at greater personal peril from reactionary forces.
Helplessness: Can we control what happens to us?
Feelings of helplessness can sink any undertaking. That’s because believing we can’t control the important outcomes in our lives leads to resignation, which wrecks our motivation to work toward valuable personal or collective objectives. Social change efforts are severely hampered when people feel that working together won’t improve their circumstances. The belief that adversity can’t be overcome is therefore something we fight hard to resist. But if we reach that demoralizing conclusion, the effects can be difficult to reverse. Status quo defenders use this to their advantage. Here are two examples.
With the “We’ll All Be Helpless” mind game, defenders of the status quo warn that the reforms they oppose would make it impossible for us to control what happens in the future. If we fail to hold the line, they caution, we’ll all face dire circumstances without the capacity to protect ourselves or undo the damage. This deceptive appeal is used by law enforcement personnel to preserve bloated police budgets at the expense of other, under-funded community needs; to retain military-style weapons despite their role in escalating rather than curtailing violence; and to maintain “qualified immunity” from civil lawsuits for abusive police, which enables them to escape accountability for their actions. Unfortunately, the prospect of future helplessness is often frightening enough that even deeply flawed arguments against worthwhile reforms can prove persuasive to an apprehensive public.
“Resistance Is Futile” is a second helplessness mind game that powerful status quo defenders routinely use to discourage much-needed reforms. Their message is simple: We’re in charge and we always will be. When this appeal proves convincing, individuals and groups pushing for change are disempowered and they’re left demoralized, intimidated, and immobilized. That’s why we’re witnessing such fearful displays of law enforcement might—in uniformed numbers, protective battle equipment and gear, state-of-the-art weaponry, and a willingness to assault peaceful protesters. At the same time, police unions often show that they’ll defend even the worst abusers in their midst, and they readily use their political clout when it comes to local and national elections. If we believe that we can’t succeed against these seemingly invincible forces, then change efforts never get off the ground or quickly grind to a halt.
Resisting and Countering Their Mind Games
Because they’re designed to tap into our core psychological concerns, the ten mind games I’ve described here can often seem persuasive even though the arguments behind them are as flimsy as a conman’s promises. Unfortunately, as long as these manipulative appeals continue to be successful, our current criminal justice system—plagued by institutional racism and abusive law enforcement—will garner misguided support from the public.
Overturning this unjust status quo therefore depends, in part, on effectively resisting and countering these mind games. One way to accomplish this goal is through what psychologists call “attitude inoculation.” The basic idea comes from the familiar public health approach used to prevent contracting and spreading a dangerous virus. Consider the flu vaccine (or, hopefully someday in the future, a COVID-19 vaccine). When you get a flu shot, you’re receiving a modest dose of the actual influenza virus. Your body responds by building up antibodies, and this immunization is essential in fighting off the full-blown virus if it later attacks as you go about your daily life.
Status-quo-defending mind games are much like a “virus” that can “infect” us with false and destructive beliefs. So here too, inoculation may be our best defense. Having been warned that this virus is heading our way—often spread by the megaphones of powerful, right-wing, and racist law-and-order zealots—we can become more vigilant and prepare ourselves for the onslaught, not only by learning to recognize these deceptive appeals but also by being ready with counterarguments to them. Here are several examples.
In regard to their vulnerability mind games, research shows that larger police forces and aggressive tactics like stop-and-frisk do not lead to less crime and safer communities. Meanwhile, cutting massive police budgets can reduce crime by making more funding available to better address essential unmet security needs in lower-income neighborhoods, including improvements in housing, schools, jobs, and hospitals.
As for the injustice appeals, the evidence that Black Americans are victims of entrenched, systemic racism is overwhelming, from wages to wealth to healthcare to law enforcement and beyond. Likewise, it’s indisputable that people of color are disproportionately the targets of unfair and abusive policing—seen in shootings, profiling, arbitrary arrests, and more—while police officers only rarely face consequences for their misconduct.
Turning to their distrust mind games, the unarmed victims of police violence obviously aren’t the ones who misrepresent the circumstances surrounding deadly encounters—that dishonesty lies with the police officers and a code of silence that encourages cover-ups of their wrongdoing. At the same time, claims that Black Lives Matter is viewed as deceitful or deviant by the public are refuted by polls showing that the movement has broad and multi-racial support.
In regard to the superiority appeals, the idea that a “higher purpose” is served by protecting a law enforcement system that discriminates against Black Americans—at every step along the way—can only be the province of white supremacists. For much the same reason, opposing these harmful policies is far from “un-American”; the number and breadth of current protests remind us that nothing is more patriotic than standing up for democracy and equal rights.
Finally, as for their helplessness mind games, confronting police brutality and systemic racism makes our country stronger, not weaker, because it combats the inequalities that diminish a society’s cohesion, health, and security. Moreover, collective opposition to oppressive and unjust government is far from futile: non-violent civil resistance has a compelling history of producing real change around the world.
The bottom line is that we need to neutralize the manipulative messages of status quo defenders who aim to marginalize and disempower the nationwide protests against racial injustice. Counter-arguments like these are examples of the “antibodies” that can help do the trick. But just as importantly, we should recognize that there are many whose life experiences—as victims of systemic racism and targets of abusive policing—have already immunized them against the false allure of these mind games. They are particularly well-positioned to be “first responders” when it comes to inoculating others. Indeed, this is among the reasons that the voices of Black activists and community leaders deserve to be elevated above all others (including my own).