The Situationist

Archive for December 17th, 2011

Choice and Inequality

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 17, 2011

Since the early 2000s, much of Jon Hanson’s (and other Situationist Contributor’s) research, writing, teaching, and speaking has focused on the role of “choice,” “the choice myth,” and “choicism” in rationalizing injustice and inequality, particularly in the U.S.  (e.g., The Blame Frame: Justifying (Racial) Injustice in America).  That work has helped to inspire a significant amount of fascinating experimental research (and, unfortunately, one derivative book) on the topic.   Over the next couple of months, we will highlight some of that intriguing new research on The Situationist. 

Here is an abstract and excerpts from a fascinating article (forthcoming, Psychological Science – pdf of draft here) co-authored by Situationist friend Krishna Savani (Columbia) and Aneeta Rattan (Stanford).  Their article examines how “a choice mindset increases the acceptance and maintenance of wealth inequality.”

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Abstract: Wealth inequality has significant psychological, physiological, societal, and economic costs. We investigate how seemingly innocuous, culturally pervasive ideas can help maintain and further wealth inequality. Specifically, we test whether the concept of choice, which is deeply valued in American society, leads people to act in ways that maintain and perpetuate wealth inequality. Choice, we argue, activates the belief that life outcomes stem from personal agency, not from societal factors, leading people to justify wealth inequality. Six experiments show that when choice is highlighted, people are less disturbed by facts about the existing wealth inequality in the U.S., more likely to underestimate the role of societal factors in individuals’ successes, less likely to support the redistribution of educational resources, and less likely to tax the rich even to resolve a government budget deficit crisis. The findings indicate that the culturally valued concept of choice contributes to the maintenance of wealth inequality.

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Wealth inequality has substantial negative consequences for societies, including reduced well-being (Napier & Jost, 2008), fewer public goods (Frank, 2011; Kluegel & Smith, 1986), and even lower economic growth (Alesina & Rodrik, 1994). Despite these well-known negative consequences, high levels of wealth inequality persist in many nations. For example, the U.S. has the greatest degree of wealth inequality among all the industrialized countries in terms of the Gini Coefficient (93rd out of 134 countries; CIA Factbook, 2010). Moreover, wealth inequality in the U.S. substantially worsened in the first decade of the 21st century, with median household income in 2010 equal to that in 1997 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011), although per-capita GDP increased by 33% over the same period (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2011), indicating that all of the gain in wealth was concentrated at the top end of the wealth distribution.

A large majority of Americans disapprove of a high degree of wealth inequality (Norton & Ariely, 2011), for example, when the top 1% of people on the wealth distribution possess 35% of the nation’s wealth, as was the case in the U.S. in 2007 (Wolff, 2010). Instead, people prefer a more equal distribution of wealth that includes a strong middle class, such as when the middle 60% of people own approximately 60% of the nation’s wealth, rather than only the 15% that they owned in the U.S. in 2007. If people are unhappy with wealth inequality, then policies that reduce this inequality should be widely supported, particularly in times of increasing wealth inequality. However, Americans often oppose specific policies that would remedy wealth inequality (Bartels, 2005). For example, taxation and redistribution—taxing the rich and using the proceeds to provide public goods, public insurance, and a minimum standard of living for the poor—is probably the most effective means for reducing wealth inequality from an economic perspective (Frank, 2011; Korpi & Palme, 1998). However, most Americans, including working class and middle class citizens, have supported tax cuts even for the very rich and oppose government spending on social services that would mitigate inequality (Bartels, 2005; Fong, 2001). What factors explain thisinconsistency between a general preference for greater wealth equality and opposition to specific policies that would produce it? We investigate whether people’s attitudes toward wealth inequality and support for policies that reduce wealth inequality are influenced by the concept of choice.

Choice is a core concept in U.S. American culture . . . .

Recent research suggests that the concept of choice decreases support for societally beneficial policies (e.g., a tax on highly polluting cars) but increases support for policies furthering individual rights (e.g., legalizing drugs; Savani, Stephens, & Markus, 2011). Historical analyses also suggest that Americans often use the concept of choice to justify inequality, arguing that the poor are poor because they made bad choices (Hanson & Hanson, 2006; see also Stephens & Levine, 2011). Building upon this work, we theorized that the assumption that people make free choices, when combined with the fact that some people turned out rich and others poor, leads people to believe that inequality in life outcomes is justified and reasonable. Therefore, when people think in terms of choice, we hypothesized that they would be less disturbed by wealth inequality and less supportive of policies aimed at reducing this inequality. . . .

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You can download a pdf of the draft here.

Related Situationst posts:

You can review hundreds of Situationist posts related to the topic of “choice myth” here or to the topic of inequality here.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Distribution, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Dehumanized Situation of Atrocities

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 17, 2011

From Duke Today, a story about recent research by Situationist Contributor Susan Fiske:

A father in Louisiana bludgeoned and beheaded his disabled 7-year-old son last August because he no longer wanted to care for the boy.

For most people, such a heinous act is unconscionable.

But it may be that a person can become callous enough to commit human atrocities because of a failure in the part of the brain that’s critical for social interaction. A new study by researchers at Duke University and Princeton University suggests this function may disengage when people encounter others they consider disgusting, thus “dehumanizing” their victims by failing to acknowledge they have thoughts and feelings.

This shortcoming also may help explain how propaganda depicting Tutsi in Rwanda as cockroaches and Hitler’s classification of Jews in Nazi Germany as vermin contributed to torture and genocide, the study said.

“When we encounter a person, we usually infer something about their minds. Sometimes, we fail to do this, opening up the possibility that we do not perceive the person as fully human,” said lead author Lasana Harris, an assistant professor in Duke University’s Department of Psychology & Neuroscience and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Harris co-authored the study with Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton University.

Social neuroscience has shown through MRI studies that people normally activate a network in the brain related to social cognition — thoughts, feelings, empathy, for example — when viewing pictures of others or thinking about their thoughts.  But when participants in this study were asked to consider images of people they considered drug addicts, homeless people, and others they deemed low on the social ladder, parts of this network failed to engage.

What’s especially striking, the researchers said, is that people will easily ascribe social cognition — a belief in an internal life such as emotions — to animals and cars, but will avoid making eye contact with the homeless panhandler in the subway.

“We need to think about other people’s experience,” Fiske said. “It’s what makes them fully human to us.”

The duo’s previous research suggested that a lack of social cognition can be linked to not acknowledging the mind of other people when imagining a day in their life, and rating them differently on traits that we think differentiate humans from everything else.

This latest study expands on that earlier work to show that these traits correlate with activation in brain regions beyond the social cognition network. These areas include those brain areas involved in disgust, attention and cognitive control.

The result is what the researchers call “dehumanized perception,” or failing to consider someone else’s mind. Such a lack of empathy toward others can also help explain why some members of society are sometimes dehumanized, they said.

For this latest study, 119 undergraduates from Princeton completed judgment and decision-making surveys as they viewed images of people. The researchers sought to examine the students’ responses to common emotions triggered by images such as:

– a female college student and male American firefighter (pride);
– a business woman and rich man (envy);
– an elderly man and disabled woman (pity);
– a female homeless person and male drug addict (disgust).

After imagining a day in the life of the people in the images, participants next rated the same person on various dimensions. They rated characteristics including the warmth, competence, similarity, familiarity, responsibility of the person for his/her situation, control of the person over their situation, intelligence, complex emotionality, self-awareness, ups-and-downs in life, and typical humanity.

Participants then went into the MRI scanner and simply looked at pictures of people.

The study found that the neural network involved in social interaction failed to respond to images of drug addicts, the homeless, immigrants and poor people, replicating earlier results.

“These results suggest multiple roots to dehumanization,” Harris said. “This suggests that dehumanization is a complex phenomenon, and future research is necessary to more accurately specify this complexity.”

The sample’s mean age was 20, with 62 female participants. The ethnic composition of the Princeton students who participated in the study was 68 white, 19 Asian, 12 of mixed descent, and 6 black, with the remainder not reporting.

The study, “Dehumanized Perception: A Psychological Means to Facilitate Atrocities, Torture, and Genocide?” appears in a recent issue of the Journal of Psychology.

Image from Flickr.

Related Situationist posts:

Susan Fiske’s New Book

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Evolutionary Psychology, Morality, Neuroeconomics, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »


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