All photos by Denis Smith

When I came across this handmade sign on display last year in a San Francisco apartment window, I thought that aside from scary reports about curious young children unknowingly poisoning themselves and teens ingesting laundry detergent on a dare, we weren’t there yet in pinning all things bad in this country on bad news Trump.

That was then.

Last March, during our stay in the City by the Bay, a favorite stop on the way home from a Hawaiian vacation, we enjoyed the eccentricities seen there in abundance. At the time, the apartment sign seemed to be a humorous outlier in measuring the state of public sentiment, Tide pod challenges  notwithstanding.

That was then.

Today, there is no humor in that message. But it does serve as a warning.

You don’t have to rely on Tide pod ingestion incidence reports or even frequently occurring mass shootings to know that there are deep and disturbing currents underway in this country. Certainly, mass shootings in Dayton, El Paso and other American locales like Pittsburgh and Parkland might provide measures of societal stress and be worthy of scientific study.

A word or two about some scientific studies might be useful at this point.

There is no doubt that some research, legitimized by the presence and prestige of sponsor organizations and funders, can consist of off-the-wall topics. Some recent examples of far-out studies include the use of roller coasters to study the movement of kidney stones, examining the behavior of octopuses when given the drug Ecstasy, and the physics involved in making good pizza.

As someone who is concerned about the need for improving pizza, ensuring the well-being of octopuses and avoiding kidney stones, it came as no surprise that I was shocked, shocked to read this summary of a 2018 Swedish research study:

In an experiment involving 201 participants, the scientists used Stockholm University’s smell laboratory to assess reactions to strangers’ body odours and measure individual differences in social attitudes on a Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) scale.

The researchers theorised that higher disgust sensitivity leads to a belief in authoritarian regimes because social disgust and pathogenic disgust are intrinsically related and authoritarian societies reduce contact between different groups.

Huh? This research should be studied more in depth. Note to self: check out that Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale. Perhaps the Swedes know more about the subject than we do.

The Stockholm University study, along with other far-out research projects, made me think about those endless papers my friends and I had to produce in our undergraduate and graduate years. Certainly, dear reader, you might also remember those years and be guilty of ending a tired, boring paper with that hackneyed phrase:

More research is needed.

In the spirit of those memorable high school and college years, some might suggest that more research is needed about octopus behavior, kidney stone treatment, pizza physics, and, of course, the allure of Tide pods. We’ll let others have that debate.

But when so many aspects of our society seem to be imploding, as evidenced by increased gun violence, a scandal-plagued and compromised national government, mental health and addiction concerns in our communities, and growing disparities in income between the top strata and working class Americans, I would like to suggest that a research study  be conducted to measure the decline of caring and regard for others during the last several years, since the onset of Donald Trump in the national leadership. Here’s why.

The caring dimension is important in the journey we all experience in becoming a person. Some theorists maintain that caring is a crucial component in character development which enables the formation of other positive character traits such as responsibility, respect, trustworthiness, fairness, and citizenship.

Certainly, all of these traits are important. But then, inevitably, we’re back to the subject of caring.

Does the supposed decline in caring and respect for others have any connection with or influenced by the awful behavior of Donald Trump, a man who has demonstrated throughout his life that caring for others would not be one of his recognized character traits? How might we identify certain behaviors that are assumed to be prosocial and measure the evidence of that decline based on observable behavior among our fellow citizens?

Let us count the ways.

We’ll want to measure changes in behavior that have occurred since January 2017 to the present. If Stockholm U folks could help by putting their smell testing laboratory research aside, we might look at a few common behaviors associated with caring for others that have shown a decline among Americans. Maybe some agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services might be able to assist with such a study … in the next administration.

For starters, we can get in the car, drive the freeways for a short trip across town, and on the way home, travel to the grocery store to see what we experience. Chances are that on our cross-town trip and to the store, we will see unfortunate driving habits, including failure to use directional signals, vehicles driving continuously in the left lane at speeds lower than prevailing conditions, and driving in the center on streets, forcing oncoming traffic to stop and allow passage for errant drivers.

That’s the short list for driving behaviors which seem to have deteriorated rapidly in the last several years.

When you get to the grocery store, you might have to maneuver a bit in the parking lot, as more and more shoppers abandon carts at their trunk or nearby, rather than taking the extra steps to the storage carrels. In some cases, it would have taken only a few more steps to place the carts in the secure space.

Inside the store, people seem to be centered only on themselves at checkout and don’t take the few seconds needed to reach for the divider so the next person can start placing their groceries on the belt. Trust me. There has been a noticeable shift in caring, if only measured by the response in the grocery store to the person immediately behind in the checkout line.

Perhaps these ideas about research and the need to study behavioral changes and attitudes tied with the idea of caring were formed more clearly by a recent experience on our very street, at the intersection which is only 100 feet from our front door. After pulling out of the driveway recently, we waited at the stop sign for a string of about ten cars that were approaching the intersection and breaking to make their right turn onto our street. None of the drivers bothered to use a directional signal that would have allowed us to turn left onto the intersecting street. Instead, we sat there, on our own street, waiting for someone to care enough about using a directional signal that would allow us to turn and be on our way.

If memory serves me, we were waiting to make a left turn so that we could go to … the grocery store, only to dodge some errant grocery carts littering the parking lot and perform a stretch to find the divider bar and thus be able to start our check out. These are small things, to be sure, but they point to some larger issues that, unfortunately, do not bode well for our society.

As we look at identifying some behaviors that show a sense of caring for others that may be on the wane in today’s toxic national climate, the subject areas for research possibilities are endless. Perhaps the absence of a baseline for measurement of certain pre-Trump, seemingly mundane caring behaviors, might pose a limitation on such a study, but that is but one variable among many others as we try to deal with the continuing toxic effects of the Trump presidency.

Navigating around abandoned shopping carts and the disuse of directional signals might not be an appealing subject for a future doctoral dissertation. Come to think of it, such topics may not be as sexy as examining kidney stone sufferers in roller coasters.

But researching Tide pods – now that’s a whole other story with its own appeal.

In any event, if such research was ever conducted but no conclusions were reached or, heaven forbid, the conclusion would be something like more research is needed, I will nevertheless believe that a leader who exhibits intolerance for others and has no caring sense has somehow provoked a growing lack of caring for others in this country, as evidenced by the suggested research study involving grocery store and driving behaviors.

Yes, to play it safe, we could bring a university partner to add prestige for the study. But I would also add that I’m not a professional researcher and am prepared to fall back on the Potter Stewart rule, as captured by William Goldberg:

“I know it when I see it” can still be paraphrased and unpacked as: “I know it when I see it, and someone else will know it when they see it, but what they see and what they know may or may not be what I see and what I know, and that’s okay.”

When it comes to research studies that may never be conducted, I’m with Justice Potter Stewart.

One more thing: are Tide pods a good thing to chew on when you’ve just been outraged by another demeaning Trump attack on someone? It used to be that caring was part of a person’s character. Maybe The Orange One has undermined the caring dimension in us, along with responsibility, respect, trustworthiness, fairness, citizenship and a host of other character traits.

So perhaps more research is needed, at least on the physics involved in making good pizza. That’s a winning study these days, for a good pizza beats a Tide pod any day.