Why America is So Divided


By Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

As we face the final days before American voters cast ballots in this presidential election, the political tension increases and we see an up-tick in behavior between even close friends that can be described as simply nasty. I, for one, feel as if we are a divided people. I am especially aware of this gap during election seasons but have been interested in the phenomenon for several years. Looking at this from a behavioral systems perspective can help our understanding. Because I have a background in television journalism and Americans are exposed to so many news reports each day, I began there.

Last year, Ramona Houmanfar and I published in Behavior and Social Issues a systems analysis of the behaviors of news room personnel. The example we used to demonstrate how workers’ behaviors were influenced centered around news coverage during the 2008 presidential election. We first defined two versions of news presentation style, “objectivist” and “advocacy,” with objectivist including reports that are balanced and contain information about both sides of an issue and advocacy reports leading consumers to reach conclusions. Advocacy reports generally contain one-sided arguments, consensuses, and solution statements. But how does a news organization go from presenting stories in the objectivist style to one with primarily advocacy reporting?

This is where behavioral systems can help. Looking at the news organization with from the perspective of an elaborated metacontingency (Houmanfar, Rodrigues, & Ward, 2010; Baker et al., 2015), one can see how the organization is operating within the larger cultural milieu. The news organization’s milieu, including ownership, practices, traditions, and resources, influences the socio-interlocked behaviors (socio-IBs) of the news personnel which result in the aggregate products of news reports. Those reports are then contacted and selected by consumers, described as consumer practices. Data on the practices then form the feedback received by the news organization leaders and managers who then generate rules. Additionally, organizational rule generation, organizational milieu, and socio-IBs can each affect one another.

Metacontingency, used with permission from Wilhite
The metacontingency, adapted with permission from Wilhite and Houmanfar (2015).


If, at any point in the system, the contingencies change, the socio-IBs can change, resulting in a dramatically different aggregate product. Something as simple as a substitute anchor engaging in slightly more emphatic verbal behavior can result in a changed consumer practices which, in turn, affects the rules generated by the organization’s leadership which then alters the organizational milieu and the socio-IBs.

Take MSNBC’s coverage of the 2008 presidential election for example. The shift from a cable news organization which presented news in the objectivist style to one which presented news in an advocacy style can be traced to the rise of Rachel Maddow. Maddow became prominent on MSNBC after filling in for host Keith Olbermann on his top-rated show several times during in the run-up to the 2008 election. The unusually high ratings MSNBC got during Maddow’s performances led to a shift in rules, milieu, and behaviors that resulted in the network producing and becoming known for advocacy journalism within a few months.

Looking at our nation’s news coverage from a systems perspective allows us see the possible relationships between consumer behavior and news personnel behavior and the important steps between. These processes resulted in radically different information available to consumers. Fox News Channel and MSNBC, for example, can cover the same event and present information leading to opposite conclusions. I further maintain part of the reason we, as a people, feel so divided is because we are. With isolated, polarized political news media perspectives available to consumers, people can get the latest current events without ever hearing the opinions of or information pertinent to an opposing viewpoint. We are divided because we do not hear or see one another’s stories, we do not hear or see one another’s struggles and successes, and we do not hear or see one another’s shared experience. Many ingredients lead to our divided nation, but our common values are not so different, our hopes for the future are not so different, and our joys and sorrows are not so different. One way to cross the divide is to talk to one another. Perhaps a systems analysis can point the way to making that happen.


Baker, T., Schwenk, T., Piasecki, M., Smith, G. S., Reimer, D., Jacobs, N., Shonkwiler, G., Hagen, J., & Houmanfar, R. (2015). Cultural change in a medical school: A data-driven management of entropy. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 35, 95-122. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01608061.2015.1035826

Houmanfar, R., Rodrigues, N. J., & Ward, T. A., (2010). Emergence & metacontingency: Points of contact and departure. Behavior and Social Issues, 19, 78-103. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210%2Fbsi.v19i0.3065

Pew Research Center (2016). Partisanship and political animosity: Highly negative views of the opposing party⸺and its members. Pew Research Center: U. S. Politics & Policy, June 22, 2016. Retrieved October 23, 2016 from http://www.people-press.org/2016/06/22/partisanship-and-political-animosity-in-2016/

Wilhite, C. J. & Houmanfar, R. (2015). Mass news media and American culture: An interdisciplinary approach. Behavior and Social Issues, 24, 88-110. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/bsi.v24i0.5004

Chelsea Wilhite, M.A. chelsea.wilhite@gmail.comChelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA has always wanted to better understand the world around us. As a television journalist, Chelsea worked her way up the ranks to produce the number one rated television news broadcast in the Fresno television market, an area covering five California counties. Along the way, she won two regional news Emmys and a Radio and Television News Directors Award for best news producer. In an effort to further her understanding of natural phenomena, Chelsea left television after more than a decade, turning to Behavior Analysis. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nevada, Reno. While behavior science research and instruction is now her primary interest, Chelsea never lost her passion for journalism and regularly contributes to behavior science oriented blogs, magazines, and newsletters. You can contact her at chelsea.wilhite@gmail.com.

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