May 2 Pearson Blog: Success Rules in Flux: Evidence from a Confounding Political Year

By Carol S. Pearson

CP square 125I’m visiting with friends and one of them asks, “What is going on? Is this America? On one side, we have a candidate for president of the United States whose fans love him for saying racist and misogynistic things, for wanting to round up a minority religious group, and who says that torture and the use of nuclear weapons are on the table for use. On the other, we have a candidate who calls himself a socialist at a time when many Americans do not know the difference between Communism and Democratic Socialism, yet a hefty group, especially the young, have no trouble with that!” Another friend adds, “Yes, and at the same time we have possibly the first woman nominee for president who proposes major progressive policies that, according to polls, reflect the views of the majority of Americans, but who gets lukewarm support.”

What is going on, and what does it have to do with you and me, not just in our voting behavior, but in the ways we see ourselves? What do social scientists and psychologists tell us that can help us understand emerging trends that affect our ability to succeed?[1]

Trend #1: Dualistic Culture Wars Are Unraveling

The diffuse enemy of terrorism is undermining Cold War us/them thinking, since danger comes from a variety of terrorist groups. Efforts to defeat it by traditional means (like the war in Iraq) are destabilizing, causing additional groups to spring up. Communist countries (like Vietnam, where I just visited) are becoming as capitalistic as our own, lacking democracy but, in some cases, permitting religion, so the idea of godless Communism is dead or dying. Our political parties are splintering into subgroups that claim to be more right than those that have been on the same side in our dualistic culture wars. Yet today, our heroes in novels, films, and even cable television are more and more grey, with both good and bad sides.

Trend #2: The American Public Has, Overall, Become More Progressive

Peter Beinart, in “Why America is Moving Left,” summarizes news reports and political science that says that even though Congress has moved right (partly as a result of voter suppression and gerrymandering), the majority of the American people have become increasingly liberal. Over the past 60 years, we have seen the emergence of a series of liberation movements, starting with the Civil Rights movement, and then the women’s movement, the Gay Rights movement (progressing quickly to include transgender rights), and the Latino Liberation movement, which encompasses immigration issues. All these have captured public opinion to the point that opponents’ efforts to undermine them often inspire boycotts, even on relatively new issues like transgender rights. Political holdouts are left complaining about “political correctness,” since the majority of people find sexist and racist statements distasteful. And this shows no sign of abating. Beinart writes, “On issue after issue, it is the young who are most pleased with the liberal policy shifts of the Obama era, and most eager for more.”[2]

Trend #3: Real Life Undermines Linear Forecasts

Modern science tells us that in complex systems with multiple causalities, linear projections are not necessarily what is likely to happen. Most of us take for granted the dualistic competition in our two-party system, but the parties could be splintering. The Republican alliance of corporate interests, right-leaning evangelicals, and disaffiliated white working class males may be coming apart once and for all, with moderates increasingly out in the cold. The alliance of moderate and progressive Democrats seems similarly vulnerable as the animosity between the Clinton and Sanders camps intensifies, with some traditional working class Democratic support co-opted by Donald Trump.

Older women, who fought for the changes young women now enjoy, have been somewhat blindsided when these same young women have declined to support the first woman candidate for president that has a chance of winning. It appears that many young women identify more with their progressive views than with their gender, and, not having been socialized by Cold War rhetoric, do not see “socialist” as a dirty word. Many comfortably lean toward Bernie Sanders. With a growing sense that gender is on a continuum, young women also do not want anyone to think that their roles, sense of identity, or opinions could be predicted by their sex. Indeed, it is just that which they fear.

Both young women and men who are college educated tend to think of countries like Sweden and Denmark when they hear the words “democratic socialism,” so they have no trouble supporting a socialist if they agree with his views. Here again we see an example of the young defying dualistic formulations like capitalism vs. communism to allow for multiple forms of governance.

Some Caucasians, seeing linear projections that they soon may be a minority of the population, fear that other races will turn the tables on them by becoming the norm group and depriving them of the status they’ve enjoyed. In truth, however, current population changes actually will make the U.S. a nation of subgroups, with no single majority. Moreover, we actually have a growing number of mixed-race citizens, and many people who identify as African-American or White actually are of a mixed-race background. In the most recent Census, a substantial number of Americans either said they were of mixed race or refused to answer that question; colleges are finding the same thing in admissions applications, making it difficult for them to report on progress in diversifying the student body. The new normal could realize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a day when people would be judged by the quality of their character rather than the color of their skin.

The emerging pluralistic view that we can see all around us can be disquieting if the story we tell ourselves is that society is unraveling. However, if we shift the metaphor to an agricultural one, we can imagine a plow breaking up the clods of entrenched old thinking, so that new ideas can sprout and thrive. From a psychological perspective, such disruption can be felt at the microcosmic individual level, as well as at the macro national and planetary levels, so many people may well be experiencing disorientation. However, we can welcome this as shaking up our tired old ways of being so that renewal can occur.

Trend #4: An Unexpected Rise in the Authoritarian Personality

All this change, however, clearly is terrifying to some people, who then respond with anger. As Amanda Taub notes in “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,”[3] social scientists are studying the growth of the authoritarian personality in the U.S., linking it to fear-based thinking that wants to stop change and considers any kind of outsiders to be threatening. This can mean, for working class people, anyone who they believe is taking their jobs, such as undocumented immigrants and foreign workers in plants outsourced by U.S. firms. For Whites, it can mean minorities of any kind, and for men, women. For some religious conservatives, fear is related to the social acceptance of sex outside of the marriage between a man and a woman, or people making nontraditional choices about parenting or what gender they believe they are, which they perceive as sinful and thus potentially undermining their religious beliefs, and with these, a social consensus about morality.

Some social scientists argue that racist, sexist, anti-Moslem, and anti-foreigner messages, such as those that have been propagated by the current leading GOP presidential candidate, promote the development of rigid, authoritarian personalities, while Taub and others stress how those with such a personality gravitate to these messages. Experts also warn that anyone can begin thinking in autocratic ways if they get frightened enough, and that this can occur within many political ideologies. Such authoritarian mindsets lead to a withdrawal of empathy, so that some people are regarded as Other, and thus less valuable, whether because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, level of ability, nationality, or religion. In this way of thinking, it becomes acceptable to make jokes at the expense of these groups or attack them verbally. When someone does not share an empathic concern, they also do not understand it, so they can easily dismiss it or experience it as social repression.

Many media outlets and politicians seek ratings or other advantages by stoking the fires of these fears, with some promising to eliminate these “outsider” threats by turning back the clock on affirmative action and building walls to keep out the rest of the world. Because the problems of stagnant wages and lost jobs in some sectors are real, what we need are answers to how to offer employment with decent wages for all Americans, including the white working class males who are feeling left behind as well as historically underrepresented groups that have not yet caught up with more advantaged ones. Similarly, the ultimate answer to stemming the tide of the many who flock to our shores fleeing hunger or terrorism is to find better ways to cooperate with other countries to promote better living conditions throughout the world. However, accomplishing this requires more of us to achieve a growth mindset.

Trend #5: Personal Success Linked to a Growth Mindset

Educational psychologists (for example, Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success) have revealed that a fixed mindset, which shares much with an authoritarian one, faced with a learning challenge or information that undercuts one’s views, causes people to dig in their heels and be less successful in today’s world. Success, they have found, comes from a growth mindset, where difference, change, and a learning challenge trigger curiosity and a desire to learn and develop.

The good news is that people with a fixed mindset can gain a growth mindset. This psychological change, along with education and economic opportunity, sets them up for success. How is this done? Students shift their fundamental mindset when they get support for persevering in order to learn, and through this process gain trust in curiosity and how it allows them to grow and change to meet new challenges.

People with a fixed mindset also are more likely to identify who they are with their externals—their sex, race, country, region, class, and so on—rather than with their ideas, strengths, and values and what is unique about them. The good thing about beliefs, however, is that they are susceptible to change, unlike where we were born, the color of our skin, or our sexual orientation. While we can now change our sex, it requires major medical interventions to do so, and changing our class requires luck and really hard work. However, it is possible to stop confusing even our ideas with our identities, so that we feel that we would not be us if our ideas changed. There has been a rather recent trend for some people to become so attached to their political affiliation that as parents, they would not want their child to marry someone of the other party. In such ways, our ideas easily can become a substitute for who we are as individuals. A growth mindset can help each of us become smarter, more curious, and better at problem solving, both individually and collectively, when decoupled from limiting ideas about what makes us us, me me, and you you.

Implications For You and Me

So, how does this help you in your life? Politically, you can advocate for the issues that help groups you are a part of and for your ideas without being so attached to them that you cannot hear and learn from the perspectives of others. You also can disengage from sources of news that feed your fears and practice curiosity, so that you can be part of a positive effort to find win/win answers. In your personal l life, you can recognize that when unexpected change you did not choose happens, it is not necessarily something to be feared, if it is handled well.

Rather than viewing a setback, loss, or failure as catastrophic, you can begin tracking what new options are emerging and work to reinforce them. If others involved are moving into fixed authoritarian thinking and digging in their heels, you can explore what their real issue is, and, if you can, help them see options that make them less scared and thus open to the growth that would contribute to finding viable solutions. Or, if you catch yourself becoming rigid, you can take time to breathe and gain perspective through focusing on the specifics of the situation. Then, you can consider what part of the answer to the problem is in your control to fix and work on that manageable bit. Finally, remind yourself that people with a growth mindset have a head start on success and fulfillment. Explore how you can trigger curiosity about what is happening and enjoy the resulting learning process.


  1. What have you learned to do to break free of fear and move into curiosity and a growth mindset where learning occurs?
  2. When you are torn between two things, how able are you to move out of this tension to explore a third, fourth, or fifth way to understand the situation?
  3. What practice helps you withdraw judgment from others you dislike or who scare you to find the part in yourself that can feel empathy for them? What also helps you have compassion for that part of you?
  4. What does recognizing who you like and admire show you about who you aspire to be more like? How might you reinforce this natural growth process in yourself?
  5. What do you see as emerging from the social breakdown that appears to be happening in our society? What is sprouting out of the resulting plowed fields that gives you hope? What kind of water and sunlight do those new sprouts need to flourish?[4] Is there anything in your power to do to assist in nourishing and protecting those sprouts? If so, what?


[1] This conversation occurred with my colleagues Judy Brown and Mary Parish, both of whom utilize growth mindsets in their work—Judy in her leadership consulting and training practice, and Mary as a trainer and executive coach specializing in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator™ and Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Mary recommended the article cited about authoritarian personalities, and Judy currently is writing about mindsets and also about moving out of dualistic thinking (www.judysorumbrown).

[2] The Atlantic, January/February 2016, p. 66.

[3] March 1, 2016, Ideas from this article weave throughout the Trend #4 section of the blog.

[4] See Kathleen Allen, “Dancing on a Slippery Floor: Transforming Organizations, Transforming Leadership,” in The Transforming Leader: New Approaches to Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, for the equivalent to sunlight in social systems and more on living system ideas.