New Ghostbusters provokes widespread psychological reactance, narrowly focused laughter

What if the ghost librarian looked cooler and slimed her right away? That would be funny.

A scene from the new Ghostbusters, which wisely makes everything look more badass.

“[Psychological reactance is] the feeling you get when people try to stop you from doing something you’ve been doing, and you perceive that they have no right or justification for stopping you. So you redouble your efforts and do it even more, just to show that you don’t accept their domination. Men, in particular, are concerned to show that they do not accept domination.”

Prof. Johnathan Haidt, describing the phenomenon of psychological reactance to Thomas Edsall in the Times. Props to Ben al-Fowlkes for the link.

I have not seen the new Ghostbusters movie, so I cannot say if it is good or important. Judging by the trailer, the decision to cast women is the most interesting thing about it. I am not as interested in the promise of worse jokes but better effects, or in the decision to remake a hit from 30 years ago whose charms are not just fondly remembered but hard to explain. The first Ghostbusters should not have been good. I’m not sure lightning is going to strike that premise twice.1 Yet rather than not seeing the new Ghostbusters because it doesn’t look funny, large numbers of men are not seeing it because it’s “all women.” On Twitter, they are not seeing it so aggressively they sent threats and racist memes to Leslie Jones, who plays the black Ghostbuster who isn’t a scientist like the other three.2 After Twitter banned Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos for inciting the abuse, the hashtag #FreeMilo cast him as a victim of censorship. Clinical discussion of what makes people so awful after the jump.

First of all, the new Ghostbusters doesn’t have an all-female cast. Men appear in the trailer, even—at least one in a significant role. I mention this not to be persnickety, although that’s nice, but to emphasize that we’re not talking about a movie with no men. It’s a movie with fewer men and more women, such that the ratio of women to men approaches most other films’ ratio of men to women. It therefore represents, if only for itself and not for society as a whole, a reduction in men’s power.

If you ask me, that reduction is pretty small. It’s not like deadbeat dads will have to pay child support now that the Ghostbusters are women. But degree doesn’t matter here, because the remake is a symbol. In addition to symbolizing Hollywood’s fear-induced creative paralysis, it symbolizes society’s growing interest in giving women the same privileges as men. If you read that process as taking men’s power away, Ghostbustersymbolizes popular culture’s ongoing attempts to dominate men.

Enter psychological reactance: the tendency to resist attempts to change your behavior by doubling down on it. As a person who is definitely not a pussy, I experience psychological reactance all the time. So too, I think, do the kind of men who believe society has conspired to emasculate them. If you are the kind of guy who posts men’s-rights memes to Facebook or sends images of apes to Leslie Jones, you probably encounter a lot of people who try to change your behavior. That makes you want to do those behaviors more, which occasions more attempts to change you, until showing people you won’t give in to PC orthodoxy becomes the organizing project of your life.

Anyway, I think that’s the kind of thing that would drive a Twitter user to send death threats to a comedian he doesn’t know. But Jesus, how do we stop it? It’s cool social media lets us interact with celebrities as though they were our high school classmates, but no one’s going to sign up for it if it’s just a lens to focus hate. It’s too easy to send a quick tweet to Jones wishing for her death, and it’s too hard to read several dozen of those tweets at once, even when you know they’re bullshit. Maybe the answer is to spread the idea that psychological reactance makes people do these things. That way angry dudes will be like, “psychological reactance can’t tell me what to do,” and go watch the new Ghosbusters in silence, as its creators intended. Then we’ll all be happy.

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  1. Dear Mr. Fowlkes,

    Please accept the enclosed props c/o D.Brooks for your insightful op-ed link. When journalists and pundits cover the horse race it should be to improve the thinking of voters, like this.

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