Much has been written about the “chicken” video made by North Melbourne players and displayed on YouTube. Players have been dragged in front of The Footy Show audience to apologise; the entire team (along with the coach and CEO) was paraded at a news conference; coach Dean Laidley has been reported to be taking on the role of counsellor; and many journalists have given their perspective on the issue, from Samantha Lane who broke the story, to Tony Jones from Channel Nine arguing that it was “political correctness” blown out of proportion (which is always a useful argument when something challenges your right to be racist/sexist/misogynist – and is easily interchangeable with “unAustralian”).
Stopping physical and mental abuse of women by men is not political correctness. The underlying attitude being displayed in the chicken video was that it was funny to treat a woman in this way – regardless of the fact that it was a chicken, the implication was that we were watching a male and a female. The video is breathtaking in its violence and contempt for women. One scene, for example, shows “Boris” the chicken buying himself a beer, and then joining the other chicken who is drinking a white wine at a table in the pub, while the words of the song, “Move Bitch [get out the way]” by American rapper, Ludacris is played under. An earlier scene shows Boris first going to the chicken section in a supermarket, picking up the other chicken, then buying a packet of condoms. There can be no doubt what is being implied in this film.
However, there is an additional element that has been hinted at, but not examined in any real detail, that I believe adds some nuance to the debate. This is the issue of conscious and unconscious attitudes, their effect on behaviour, and the ability of people to modify these attitudes.
In both psychology and in neuroscience, it has become clearer and more accepted that we need to recognise the distinction between processes that are conscious (referred to as explicit) and unconscious (or implicit). Conscious motives and attitudes are best described as those attitudes which we know we have, and can talk about freely, whereas unconscious motives and attitudes tend to be inaccesible, yet determine our behaviour under many circumstances. It is now generally accepted that people will act on their conscious motives if they are focusing their attention on them, and have the energy and cognitive resources to do so, but will express their unconscious motives (and attitudes) in their everyday behaviour, particularly in situations of stress or pressure (including the need to “fit-in”).
For example, someone who has just seen a police car is likely to check their speedometer to make sure that they are driving within the speed limit, and will (generally) keep under the speed limit while the experience is still in their consciousness. But once this consciousness wears off, it is likely that keeping to the speed limit will not be such a priority (until they see the next police car or speed camera).
This is why the TAC advertising in Victoria is effective to a point – for many it is in their consciousness after they see an ad, or billboard, and they will modify their behaviour for a period, but this quickly changes when they are under stress, such as getting to an appointment on time. The effectiveness of the TAC campaign is partially determined by constant reinforcement of the issue, and the multiple ways in which the issue is communicated to drivers, including multiple media advertising and support from police through booze buses and highway patrols.
Similarly, someone who has just been told in a counselling session (or by their coach or CEO) that they should respect women is highly unlikely to go out that night and harass women. Indeed, it is likely that they will be more respectful than they would normally be, simply because they have easy access to this (conscious) attitude as it is “fresh” and front-of-mind. And at face-value, we should assume that this attitude is sincere and authentic. This is often referred to as “consciousness-raising”, which basically means we are creating or reinforcing a particular set of associations, and raising them to a level of accessible consciousness. However, that same person a couple of days later may participate in a round of “wolf-whistling” or some other form of sexual harassment, when his unconscious attitudes towards women are again active, particularly if these attitudes reflect many years of positive associations in social situations with “mates”.
In other words, when the individual is relaxed, and able to think clearly about his or her behaviour and its consequences, it is likely that conscious attitudes will take precedence. However, under any form of social or psychological stress or pressure (including simply being with a group), it is likely that unconscious attitudes and motives will determine behaviour.
There is an additional element to this issue – more and more studies are showing that because implicit attitudes are out of conscious reach, you are not able to reflect on them, nor are you able to talk about them with any real effect. We form these implicit attitudes over long periods, and through multiple exposure to all sorts of communications (such as role models, social groups, media, advertising), and we are not aware that we are forming these attitudes. And because of that, they’re difficult, if not impossible to shift, because you are not really aware that you have them.
However, when you are placed under stress, under some form of social pressure, or other form of “ego depletion”, then these attitudes are more likely to influence your behaviour, as opposed to your conscious attitudes, without you even being aware of what is going on. We see this in mob behaviour – normal, likeable people, become abusive, violent and dangerous, when put under forms of stress to conform to the behaviour associated with the group, or when their conscious capabilities are restricted by other factors, such as the consumption of alcohol or drugs.
If this is correct, then many of the remedies proposed – taking responsibility, promoting cognitive understanding, and education – require significant, consistent, and constant reinforcement, to shift actual behaviour. The most frequently cited means to change this type of behaviour is to make the person take responsibility for their behaviour and to educate them as to why their behaviour was wrong or innapropriate.
In the case of the North Melbourne players, this was done through a public apology (although statements such as “if we offended anybody” suggest a lack of understanding of the issue), meeting with victims of violence, and donating to an appropriate charity. This approach can have an effect on conscious attitudes, however, this may have little effect on positive implicit attitudes formed through exposure to a culture that may see women predominantly as sexual objects for personal pleasure and exploitation.
What we need ask is whether the AFL, North Melbourne, the AFL Players Association, and all of AFL players believe that this video was wrong. Having James Brayshaw, Adam Simpson, and Daniel Pratt apologising on The Footy Show was a start (although I got the sense that Simpson and Pratt weren’t really sure what they were apologising for), but it should not be the end of it. If all of the institutions around these players reinforce constantly, without conditions, that this type of behaviour is abhorrent then it becomes easier for the unconscious mind to modify its attitude. However, if the unconscious mind receives any mixed signals it will reject anything that challenges its current attitude.
A longer version of this article was originally published at Online Opinion.