Who do you trust? The urban psychology of Brussels after the lockdown.

The ringing in your ears stops, you try to find your balance and make your way through the dust filled corridors to what you hope is a safe area. On the 22nd of March 2016 it wasn’t a neighborhood in Baghdad that had to deal with a bombing for once, it was Brussels. A war that had been fought thousands of kilometers away suddenly hit home, and we experienced a collective shock unknown to us since the Dutroux case, the attacks by the gang of Nivel or the bombings of the CCC. We had become a target, this was clear.

Recently, social psychology has started to investigate the importance of psychological distance, and how it impacts the way we perceive the world around us. When something is of high personal relevance to us it is reflected by a short psychological distance, it’s close to us. If you weren’t directly affected by the events on the 22nd of March, you might know someone who was, or was at high risk of getting affected. This cognitive mechanism makes it easier to deal with events of this nature happening far away. But because these events occurred so close to us, they affected one of the most personally relevant persons to you, namely yourself. When you’re in danger, anxiety is a natural biological response, but it’s not always a sound guide to sane judgments. The first subway rides after the attacks were drenched in a feeling of distrust towards all those who remotely fit the profile of the attackers. Few things are so detrimental to a society as distrust. When you combine this with an ongoing refugee crisis, coming from the middle east, you start mixing a cocktail so dangerously complex, not even Tom Cruise would attempt to shake it.

Gare Central

The narrative of terrorists hiding among the refugees became the leading justification for distrusting them. Moreover, when we distrust others, we  create a distance between us and them, often through polarization. Additionally, the argument that refugees  would feed of our social welfare, created the ideal atmosphere for what social psychology refers to as ‘dehumanization’ (1). When a person is dehumanized, we are more likely to justify immoral acts or events happening to them. This phenomenon is related to another phenomenon called ‘the belief in a just world’, commonly seen in societies characterized by a large gap between high and low incomes. It’s the direct application of meritocracy on our judgment of others. If you’re successful, this is due to your own merit. Conversely, if you are unsuccessful, this is due to your lack of merit, disregarding all situational factors.

Even though many were ready to help the refugees out (2), the silent majority didn’t seem too much in favor of welcoming these refugees. This sentiment appears to reverberate through the mockery and political decimation of Angela Merkel after her now famous “Wir schaffen das”- statement. Any sign that a refugee had some element of luxury (like a smartphone to connect with family members) was used as an excuse by some for withdrawing assistance to them. The Danish government took this stance to a Western extreme by allowing police “to search asylum seekers on arrival in the country and confiscate any non-essential items worth more than 10,000 kroner (£1,000) that have no sentimental value to their owner.” (3). Through the eyes of a an already anxious society, this behavior is justified by many, because the refugees in the Maximiliaanpark have to reflect the preconceived  image of the “suffering refugee”.

Furthermore, the collective anxiety is most likely maintained by the presence of the military in the streets of Brussels. It’s also important to note that the military itself is not a fan of this law-enforcement strategy, most soldiers aren’t trained to enforce local law, nor do they have the legal authority, their job is to protect the sovereignty of a nation. The soldiers aren’t happy with this job either (4). The decision to flood the streets of Brussels with soldiers is a political decision, which is comprehensible for a short period of time to tackle immediate threats. After a while, the prolonged commissioning of soldiers in the streets is likely to create the idea that this is what a ‘normal’ city looks like, thereby instilling a climate of urban anxiety. Opponents of this matter fear that the military could be used as a political tool to combat social and political opposition (5). Additionally, because the idea of the military patrolling the streets of Brussels isn’t very popular, nor legal, the suggestion has been made to create a security force within law-enforcement, mainly targeted at recruiting land forces (6).

Gare Central

Even though the presence of the military in the streets can’t compare to the level of anxiety felt by one terrorist attack, we shouldn’t ignore the effects of continuous small levels of fear in our daily lives. “Toxicologists, epidemiologists and risk experts study the physical perils one hazard at a time. But the cumulative load of modern threats may be creating an even greater risk that is largely overlooked: the risk that arises from misperceiving risks as higher or lower than they actually are. As a result of some of the decisions we make when we are fearful, some of the choices we make when we are not fearful enough, and because of the ways our bodies react to chronically elevated levels of stress, the hazards of risk misperception may be more significant than any of the individual risks about which we fret.” (7)

One could argue that the constant sight of the military in our streets serves as a constant reminder of an imminent threat to our well-being. Therefore the newly suggested security force should not be a reminder of this. This raises the question whether they will be manned with tanks and assault rifles, and what effect this will have on the well-being of urban-citizens in the long run, both physically and mentally.

You may ask yourself, could this prolongation of collective fear affect the existing social dynamics? Will polarization contribute to increase the gap between differing social groups? Will we start dehumanizing others even more? The answer will reveal itself in time, but it seems rather unlikely that dehumanization will decrease in this kind of context. Dehumanization already goes as far as people paying less to no visual attention towards people of the lowest social classes (8). There are also some indications that death-related anxiety feeds polarization towards people who don’t belong to the same group/social status (9). Such a climate may well disadvantage vulnerable social groups, those who actually tend to benefit most from pro-social behavior. But what is pro-social behavior, and when do we show it?

It’s described as “voluntary behavior intended to benefit another”. The concept encompasses both ‘empathy’ and ‘social responsibility’. At an extreme level of pro-social behavior we find ‘altruism’. Social psychology is generally interested in discovering the contextual factors that aid the development of pro-social behavior. Research (10) has shown that the more quantity of people witness an immoral act or accident, the less inclined they are to help. This phenomenon is called the bystander effect, and it refers to a diffusion of responsibility among the people witnessing an event requiring helpful behavior. Additionally, the available time, the perceived effort, your current mood and your relationship to the victim will play a crucial role in determining your actions. When we have limited time, we will be less likely to help out. If the help requires a lot of effort relative to the harm done (e.g. running 200m to help a young person who fell but looks OK), we will be less likely to help. If we feel disconnected from the person, we will be very unlikely to help them out. This last condition might be the most important one. When we perceive a large psychological distance between us and the victim, this often changes the way we see that person. As I mentioned before, people have a tendency to dehumanize members of other groups that evoke feelings of rejection, fear or discomfort. People with low income tend to give more to charity, plausibly because they know what it’s like to be in a disadvantaged position, and they perceive a small psychological distance between themselves and people less fortunate than them, which makes them act more communal.

After the unfortunate events of November 13th and March 22nd, the psyche of Brussels was embedded with fear and distrust, fed by media and political measures –  indicating that our society might be heading towards an increased polarization and further segregation. Yet, while Brussels was still in shock, the psychological distance between most of the Brussels citizens was reduced for a couple of days. The climate of distrust briefly faded through messages of solidarity. People opened their homes to strangers stuck in the middle of a tragedy. We cared about the fellow citizens of Brussels a bit more. The society reacted in a bit more pro-social, opposite of what politics are indicating. Ironically, after the horror of the second World War, European politicians saw unification as a way to prevent future inhumane acts against fellow citizens. This showed that psychologically, societies can recover, learn and reconfigure after witnessing the detrimental effects of dehumanization.

(Text: Laurens Van der Cruyssen // Photos: Laurens Van der Cruyssen and Flaviano D’Erasmo)