After three years and five seasons on the air, Key & Peele aired its final episode last week. With its departure, we've lost a great source of pop culture education about social psychology.
There were sketches during the past three years where Key and Peele used their platform on Comedy Central to teach us about key psychological principles in the study of...
According to one theory of aggression, people become aggressive because something has happened to make them feel like their goals have been blocked by an outside source. One issue with this, however, is that you can't always retaliate against the literal source of your frustration, either because it isn't tangible (how exactly can you aggress against "the economy" if that's what's hampering your goal progress?) or because the consequences for aggressing would be too high (you can't exactly punch your boss in the face if you're denied a promotion). Due to this wrinkle, this theory is sometimes called scapegoat theory, because it suggests that frustration often leads to generalized aggression -- which is then most likely to be targeted against powerless groups. For example, in one real-life demonstration of the effect, as the economy worsened between the years of 1882-1930, lynchings of Black Americans in the South went up.
In this video, Key & Peele perfectly demonstrate this process of scapegoating -- illustrating how when goals are blocked or frustration is experienced, people will often look around at their environments for a convenient, powerless stimulus, misattribute their negative emotional arousal to that stimulus, and then aggress against it to feel better.
One of the biggest myths about benevolent prejudice is that it is completely unrelated to its more hostile counterpart. In reality, though, benevolent and hostile prejudice tend to go hand in hand. People who endorse benevolent stereotypes for constructs like gender, race, or sexual orientation typically endorse hostile beliefs as well.
In this clip, Key & Peele demonstrate how hearing benevolent stereotypes about one's own group doesn't always feel like such a great compliment, even if the remarks seem to "sound" nice -- and they also show, quite brilliantly, how those "nice stereotypes" can be seamlessly interwoven with more hostile assumptions.
Traditional racism -- prejudice against racial groups that is consciously acknowledged and openly expressed -- has (thankfully) gone down over the past few decades. After all, we no longer have segregated schools, bathrooms, or water fountains, and Loving v. Virginia established 48 years ago that bans on interracial marriage are unconstitutional. However...contrary to what some people would like to believe with their claims about living in a "post-racial America," this decline in traditional racism doesn't mean that racism itself has gone away. Rather, it has been supplanted by modern racism -- prejudice against a racial group, often unspoken or implicit, that exists alongside the rejection of explicit racist beliefs. For example, someone may vocally and explicitly oppose racial segregation/discrimination, but still treat outgroup members differently in more subtle ways, like sitting further away from them at the table without realizing it, making eye contact less frequently, or construing ambiguous physical behaviors as aggressive rather than as friendly or playful.
Here, during a zombie apocalypse, the "racist [White] zombies" refuse to eat Key, Peele, and their other Black neighbors, they wordlessly guide their White zombie children away from eating their Living Black Neighbors, and they carefully make sure to lock their doors when they see the Black protagonists walking by -- even though they are undead beings whose broken-down cars don't even have windows. All of these nonverbal behaviors are good examples of how people might (even unknowingly) express prejudice, even if they would never explicitly say prejudiced things (after all...the undead can't exactly speak).
...The Dangers of Rigidly Over-Applying Stereotypes
Cognitively, we benefit from having mental shortcuts that allow us to process the world around us as quickly as possible. It's the only way that we can avoid being completely overwhelmed by all the stimuli going on around us on an everyday basis. We use schemas -- organized mental network clusters of information -- to help us make sense of the world around us, and we would literally be unable to function normally without them. Because stereotypes are really just a specific subset of schemas that apply to our knowledge and/or beliefs about groups of people, it's not particularly surprising that we all effortlessly form them -- and that we sometimes rely on them to help us navigate the world around us. They cause trouble, however, when we refuse to take the context/environment or individuating information that we've received into account, and when we continue to over-apply our existing stereotypes in scenarios where they are really inappropriate and/or not helpful.
These two clips provide good examples of how things can go awry if you cling to any existing schemas/stereotypes that you may have and react to situations with those schematic expectations in mind -- without realizing that your environment is trying to provide you with a very, very different explanation for what you are witnessing or clue you into the fact that you need to adjust your behavior for a different type of context/situation entirely.
Another negative side effect of that aforementioned reliance on stereotypes to help us navigate the world is something known as the outgroup homogeneity effect. Because you encounter members of your ingroup fairly frequently, unique and/or identifying information about people who belong to your ingroup is useful, frequent, and attention-grabbing. However, because people often encounter outgroup members less frequently, they are more likely to have to rely on stereotypes (or other expectations) for information. This leads to the tendency to biasedly perceive (and assume) that members of outgroups are "all alike," whereas members of your ingroups are varied and distinct.
This clip serves double duty when it comes to illustrating the outgroup homogeneity effect. Not only does it demonstrate how people often assume that their own ingroups are filled with varied, diverse interests and perspectives (the speakers all stress that although "others think they are a monolith," they are a diverse group with different opinions), Key & Peele themselves also make it clear that "Black Republicans" are their own outgroup, as the skit revolves around how the actors themselves see everyone in this group as being essentially alike.
...and Overcoming Prejudice.
In Bald Brotherhood1, Key plays a new prison inmate (Lewis Lawrence) who doesn't quite understand how prison gangs are formed, and in the process of trying to find his way into a group to call his own, manages to anger both the White Supremacist and Black gangs. As the two gangs team up to beat poor Lewis, the narrator intones that "an unprecedented peace has been broken between Black and White prison gangs [as] the once-insurmountable racial divide [has been] bridged by a mutual hatred...for Lewis."
Here, Key & Peele are touching on the importance of superordinate goals for reducing intergroup prejudice. When researchers have studied what actually gets groups of people to overcome prejudice towards each other, things like simply encouraging them to spend time around each other doesn't do the trick. Rather, the best, research-supported way to get two groups to overcome their prejudice towards each other is to create a shared, common goal that they must work together to accomplish.
Sad as it may be for Lewis Lawrence, he did a great job proving this classic social psychology finding correct, as the two gangs overcame their mutual prejudice and worked together...to keep Lewis down.
All videos available on the Comedy Central YouTube channel.
Promotional image from the Comedy Central press images website.
1. Unfortunately, Key & Peele never posted this sketch online so it seems impossible to find a good version that can be easily embedded/shared, but it is one of my favorite Social Psych demonstrations -- so I refuse to leave it out! In the text above, I link out to a non-Comedy Central Vimeo upload of this sketch. Sometimes the video works perfectly fine, and sometimes it asks for a password in order to watch the video. I do not know the password, as it is not my Vimeo account. I'm hoping that the link works for everyone reading this!
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