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Posts Tagged ‘John Jost’

Thanksgiving as “System Justification”

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 26, 2013

This post was first published on November 21, 2007.

The first Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Thanksgiving has many associations — struggling Pilgrims, crowded airports, autumn leaves, heaping plates, drunken uncles, blowout sales, and so on. At its best, though, Thanksgiving is associated with, well, thanks giving. The holiday provides a moment when many otherwise harried individuals leading hectic lives decelerate just long enough to muster some gratitude for their harvest. Giving thanks — acknowledging that we, as individuals, are not the sole determinants of our own fortunes seems an admirable, humble, and even situationist practice, worthy of its own holiday.

But I’m interested here in the potential downside to the particular way in which many people go about giving thanks.

Situationist contributor John Jost and his collaborators have studied a process that they call “system justification” — loosely the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests. Jost, together with Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and several other co-authors, recently summarized the basic tendency to justify the status quo this way (pdf):

Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people—regardless of their own social class or position—accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world” . . . . As Kinder and Sears (1985) put it, “the deepest puzzle here is not occasional protest but pervasive tranquility.” Knowing how easy it is for people to adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easer to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for 46 years, the institution of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian Caste system has been maintained for 3000 years and counting.

Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions. This post reflects my worry that the Thanksgiving holiday might also manifest that powerful implicit motive. No doubt, expressing gratitude is generally a healthy and appropriate practice. Indeed, my sense is that Americans too rarely acknowledge the debt they owe to other people and other influences. There ought to be more thanks giving.

Nonetheless, the norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed, when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.

Consider the message behind the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. In 1789, President George Washington wrote:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks—for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country . . . for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed . . . and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . . To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

Existing levels of prosperity, by this account, reflect the merciful and omniscient blessings of the “beneficent Author” of all that is good.

More recently, President George W. Bush offered a similar message about the meaning of the holiday:

“In the four centuries since the founders . . . first knelt on these grounds, our nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered, our nation has grown, our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved — after all, they didn’t have football back then. Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same: We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day.”

The faith that we are being “watched over” and that our blessings and prosperity are the product of a gift-giving force is extraordinarily affirming. All that “is,” is as that “great and glorious Being” intended.

Fom such a perspective, giving thanks begins to look like a means of assuring ourselves that our current situation was ordained by some higher, legitimating force. To doubt the legitimacy of existing arrangements is to be ungrateful.

A cursory search of the internet for the “meaning of Thanksgiving” reveals many similar recent messages. For instance, one blogger writes, in a post entitled “Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that:

your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life. Thankfulness means that we are aware of both our blessings and disappointments but that we focus on the blessings. . . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid?”

Another piece, entitled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” includes this lesson regarding the main source of the Pilgrim’s success: “It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.”

If we are supposed to be thankful for our jobs even when we are “overworked and underpaid,” should we also be thankful for unfairness or injustice? And if we are to be grateful for our sorrows, should we then be indifferent toward their earthly causes?

A third article, “The Productive Meaning of Thanksgiving” offers these “us”-affirming, guilt-reducing assurances: “The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.”

That advice seems to mollify any sense of injustice by giving something to everyone. Those with bountiful harvests get to enjoy their riches guiltlessly. Those with meager harvests can be grateful for the fact that they live in a country where they might someday enjoy richer returns from their individual efforts.

quotation-thanksgiving-3.pngYet another post, “The Meaning for Thanksgiving,” admonishes readers to be grateful, because they could, after all, be much worse off:

[M]aybe you are unsatisfied with your home or job? Would you be willing to trade either with someone who has no hope of getting a job or is homeless? Could you consider going to Africa or the Middle East and trade places with someone that would desperately love to have even a meager home and a low wage paying job where they could send their children to school without the worry of being bombed, raped, kidnapped or killed on a daily basis?

* * *

No matter how bad you think you have it, there are people who would love to trade places with you in an instant. You can choose to be miserable and pine for something better. You could choose to trade places with someone else for all the money they could give you. You could waste your gift of life, but that would be the worst mistake to make. Or you can rethink about what makes your life great and at least be happy for what you have then be patient about what you want to come to you in the future.

If your inclination on Thanksgiving is to give thanks, I do not mean to discourage you. My only suggestion is that you give thanks, not for the status quo, but for all of the ways in which your (our) own advantages and privileges are the consequence of situation, and not simply your individual (our national) disposition. Further, I’d encourage you to give thanks to all those who have gone before you who have doubted the status quo and who have identified injustice and impatiently fought against it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Altruism, History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Thanksgiving as “System Justification”

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 21, 2012

This post was first published on November 21, 2007.

The first Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Thanksgiving has many associations — struggling Pilgrims, crowded airports, autumn leaves, heaping plates, drunken uncles, blowout sales, and so on. At its best, though, Thanksgiving is associated with, well, thanks giving. The holiday provides a moment when many otherwise harried individuals leading hectic lives decelerate just long enough to muster some gratitude for their harvest. Giving thanks — acknowledging that we, as individuals, are not the sole determinants of our own fortunes seems an admirable, humble, and even situationist practice, worthy of its own holiday.

But I’m interested here in the potential downside to the particular way in which many people go about giving thanks.

Situationist contributor John Jost and his collaborators have studied a process that they call “system justification” — loosely the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests. Jost, together with Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and several other co-authors, recently summarized the basic tendency to justify the status quo this way (pdf):

Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people—regardless of their own social class or position—accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world” . . . . As Kinder and Sears (1985) put it, “the deepest puzzle here is not occasional protest but pervasive tranquility.” Knowing how easy it is for people to adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easer to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for 46 years, the institution of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian Caste system has been maintained for 3000 years and counting.

Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions. This post reflects my worry that the Thanksgiving holiday might also manifest that powerful implicit motive. No doubt, expressing gratitude is generally a healthy and appropriate practice. Indeed, my sense is that Americans too rarely acknowledge the debt they owe to other people and other influences. There ought to be more thanks giving.

Nonetheless, the norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed, when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.

Consider the message behind the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. In 1789, President George Washington wrote:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks—for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country . . . for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed . . . and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . . To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

Bush - Times OnlineExisting levels of prosperity, by this account, reflect the merciful and omniscient blessings of the “beneficent Author” of all that is good.

More recently, President George W. Bush offered a similar message about the meaning of the holiday:

“In the four centuries since the founders . . . first knelt on these grounds, our nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered, our nation has grown, our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved — after all, they didn’t have football back then. Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same: We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day.”

The faith that we are being “watched over” and that our blessings and prosperity are the product of a gift-giving force is extraordinarily affirming. All that “is,” is as that “great and glorious Being” intended.

Fom such a perspective, giving thanks begins to look like a means of assuring ourselves that our current situation was ordained by some higher, legitimating force. To doubt the legitimacy of existing arrangements is to be ungrateful.

A cursory search of the internet for the “meaning of Thanksgiving” reveals many similar recent messages. For instance, one blogger writes, in a post entitled “Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that:

your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life. Thankfulness means that we are aware of both our blessings and disappointments but that we focus on the blessings. . . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid?”

Another piece, entitled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” includes this lesson regarding the main source of the Pilgrim’s success: “It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.”

If we are supposed to be thankful for our jobs even when we are “overworked and underpaid,” should we also be thankful for unfairness or injustice? And if we are to be grateful for our sorrows, should we then be indifferent toward their earthly causes?

A third article, “The Productive Meaning of Thanksgiving” offers these “us”-affirming, guilt-reducing assurances: “The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.”

That advice seems to mollify any sense of injustice by giving something to everyone. Those with bountiful harvests get to enjoy their riches guiltlessly. Those with meager harvests can be grateful for the fact that they live in a country where they might someday enjoy richer returns from their individual efforts.

quotation-thanksgiving-3.pngYet another post, “The Meaning for Thanksgiving,” admonishes readers to be grateful, because they could, after all, be much worse off:

[M]aybe you are unsatisfied with your home or job? Would you be willing to trade either with someone who has no hope of getting a job or is homeless? Could you consider going to Africa or the Middle East and trade places with someone that would desperately love to have even a meager home and a low wage paying job where they could send their children to school without the worry of being bombed, raped, kidnapped or killed on a daily basis?

* * *

No matter how bad you think you have it, there are people who would love to trade places with you in an instant. You can choose to be miserable and pine for something better. You could choose to trade places with someone else for all the money they could give you. You could waste your gift of life, but that would be the worst mistake to make. Or you can rethink about what makes your life great and at least be happy for what you have then be patient about what you want to come to you in the future.

If your inclination on Thanksgiving is to give thanks, I do not mean to discourage you. My only suggestion is that you give thanks, not for the status quo, but for all of the ways in which your (our) own advantages and privileges are the consequence of situation, and not simply your individual (our national) disposition. Further, I’d encourage you to give thanks to all those who have gone before you who have doubted the status quo and who have identified injustice and impatiently fought against it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

 

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Political Ideology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 5, 2012

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Distribution, Ideology, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Social Justice

Posted by John Jost on February 17, 2012

This book review appeared earlier this week in the American Scientist:

THE FAIR SOCIETY: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice. Peter Corning. xiv + 237 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2011. $27.50.

After decades of exclusion from meaningful social and political discourse, themes of social justice are making a serious comeback. One can point to several recent examples from the disciplines of political science, economics and philosophy, including, respectively, Larry M. Bartels’s Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton University Press, 2008), Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice (Harvard University Press, 2009) and Derek Parfit’s massive two-volume tome On What Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011). These books have arrived to coincide with the apparent awakening of the sense of injustice in popular movements from Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street.

Peter Corning, who was trained as a biologist and is now the director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems, joins the conversation at just the right time. His most recent book, The Fair Society, was published in early 2011, and—like Joseph Stiglitz’s Vanity Fair article “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”—it has turned out to be remarkably prescient. Several chapters read like an annotated list of complaints made by the most well-informed campers in Zuccotti Park last fall. Corning notes, for example, that in the United States, “since the 1980s, some 94 percent of the total increase in personal income has gone to the top 1 percent of the population”; at least 25 million Americans (17.2 percent of the workforce) are presently struggling with unemployment or drastic underemployment; “close to 50 million Americans experienced ‘food deprivation’ (hunger) at various times in 2009”; and as many as 75 million Americans (25 percent of the population) live in poverty. Adding insult to injury, the top 10 percent of income earners in the United States live 4.5 years longer on average than the bottom 10 percent.

In a nutshell, Corning’s thesis is that human nature has evolved in such a way as to create a natural revulsion to states of affairs like these. In the opening chapters, he recounts various evolutionary arguments for the notion that our hunter-gatherer ancestors possessed a deep sense of fairness and developed “a pattern of egalitarian sharing” in which “dominance behaviors were actively resisted by coalitions of other group members.” He draws eclectically on studies of baboons, descriptive anthropological accounts of hunter-gatherer societies and, in a few cases, the fossil record. With this biological framework in place, Corning endeavors to show that the capitalist system as currently practiced in the United States and elsewhere is manifestly unfair. His beef is not solely with laissez-faire capitalism, however; he claims that socialism is just as unfair, although in different ways, and that efforts to develop a “third way” that avoids the excesses of capitalism and socialism have been “anemic” and “unable to confront the status quo” of class-based inequality. In place of these failed institutions, he proposes a new type of society founded on a biosocial contract, which he describes as a “truly voluntary bargain among various (empowered) stakeholders over how the benefits and obligations in a society are to be apportioned among the members” that is “grounded in our growing understanding of human nature and the basic purpose of a human society.” Such a contract, he writes, must be focused on fairness and the obligation to address the “shared survival and reproductive needs” of our species.

Corning draws most heavily on evolutionary biology, behavioral economics and anthropology, but experimental social psychology would also back him up—and quite a bit more directly. Indeed, some of his ideas seem to have been inspired by the work of Morton Deutsch, who suggested, in a well-known 1975 article in the Journal of Social Issues, that human beings are finely attuned to three major principles of justice: equity, equality and need. Corning offers a slightly modified list. He defines fairness in terms of equality (in the satisfaction of basic needs, not necessarily in outcomes), equity (or merit) and reciprocity. The core thesis of The Fair Society was also anticipated by Melvin Lerner, who argued in 1977 that a universal “justice motive” compels individuals to pursue fairness goals to rectify unfairness and—only if these routes are blocked—to engage in victim-blaming and other defensive strategies to maintain the desired belief that we live in a just world (even if we do not). Although Lerner was perhaps more sensitive than Corning to the perverse consequences of caring passionately about the appearance of justice (for instance, blaming victims of rape, poverty or illness for their misfortune so as not to give up cherished illusions about personal deservingness), the two writers share the assumption that justice concerns are an essential part of human nature.

Anyone who is capable of critical perspicacity with regard to capitalist economic systems and practices is obliged to agree with Corning’s observation that the massive upswing in economic inequality over the past 30 years is at odds with nearly every conception of justice since Plato and, in that sense, is difficult (if not impossible) to justify on normative philosophical grounds (although some conservative libertarians have tried). Let us also grant that humans are prepared to experience moral outrage in the face of unjustified inequality (or gross inequity). Even capuchin monkeys show “inequity aversion,” refusing to participate in games in which other monkeys are given greater rewards for equal effort, as Sarah F. Brosnan and Frans de Waal showed in a 2003 article in Nature. Corning connects such observations to the present socioeconomic situation, writing, “Defection is the likely response to an exploitative, asymmetrical interaction,” and “No wonder there were protests and even riots at WTO [World Trade Organization] meetings.”

There is only one problem, and it is one that has given social scientists fits: What took so long? Why have U.S. citizens, for instance, put up with starkly increasing inequality and the kind of economic policies that only a dyslexic Robin Hood could embrace? There is a joke, often attributed to economist Paul A. Samuelson, which goes, “Economists have correctly predicted nine of the last five recessions.” I would say that sociologists, political scientists and others who study protest movements suffer from a similar problem, to wit: “Social scientists have correctly predicted nine of the last five revolutions.” The great political theorist Ted Robert Gurr, for instance, wrote in 1970 that “Men are quick to aspire beyond their social means and quick to anger when those means prove inadequate, but slow to accept their limitations.” If this were true in a deep psychological sense, rebellion would be far more common than acquiescence, but this is simply not the case.

My own, admittedly incomplete answer to the social scientists’ conundrum has emphasized a human motivation that is frequently on a collision course with Lerner’s justice motive and Corning’s biosocial contract, namely, system-justification motivation: the (typically nonconscious) desire to defend, justify and rationalize existing systems, institutions and widespread practices, even if (from a more objective point of view) they violate standards of justice, including equity, equality and need. Corning grants that our sense of fairness can be “easily subverted,” quotes Dr. Pangloss’s rosy rationalizations in Voltaire’s satire Candide, and touches—but only lightly—on beliefs and ideologies that blunt the sense of injustice. To my mind, the problem of system justification in U.S. public opinion about economic inequality (especially among political conservatives) is addressed far more satisfactorily in chapter 5 of Bartels’s Unequal Democracy.

Despite this conspicuous omission, much of what Corning has written is both important and accurate. The Fair Society is wide ranging and covers many areas of scholarship in a useful, integrative, insightful manner. It is an edifying book—not least because it offers a tremendous collection of memorable quotations from justice scholars over the centuries—more than a groundbreaking one. One could reasonably wonder whether his proposed biosocial model, which draws heavily on aspects of stakeholder capitalism and closely resembles that of Swedish society, is really enough of an improvement over the socialist and capitalist systems he so effectively lambastes in earlier chapters of the book. Even if one accepts Corning’s goal, there are huge obstacles standing in the way of its implementation. He recognizes, quite correctly, that “conservatives with vested interests in the status quo will no doubt dismiss the idea of a Fair Society as just another utopian scheme,” but it is far from clear how proponents of social and economic justice will ever overcome conservative skepticism. “There must be a broad political consensus that social justice is a core social value,” he writes, but this is precisely the problem; such a consensus does not exist. “How do the roughly 70 percent of us who support the principle of fairness and social justice overcome the formidable power of the 30 percent who largely control our politics and our wealth and who will fiercely defend the existing system, and their self-interest?” he asks. How, indeed? The difficulty, in my view, is that no one, including Corning himself, offers a convincing answer to this question.

At this moment in history, when our problems are so much clearer than their solutions, it is a genuine contribution to offer clearheaded analysis and moral encouragement to take much-needed steps in the direction of social and economic justice. I admire Corning’s attempt to develop a normative theory of justice that is “built on an empirical foundation”—that is, knowledge gleaned from the social and behavioral sciences, including aggregate sociological data from research on social indicators. Along very similar lines, psychologist Aaron Kay and I have advocated “naturalizing” the study of social justice, thereby integrating descriptive and normative insights gleaned from psychology, social science, philosophy, law and other disciplines.

Given the thick walls that separate academic scholarship from popular concern and policy outcomes, it is probably too much to expect rapid implementation of the specific recommendations made in The Fair Society, such as these, which address taxation: “Eliminate property tax deductions for second (vacation) homes, tax capital gains at the same graduated rate as earned income, and eliminate the expanded home equity line of credit loan provisions.” Nevertheless, one hopes that those who wish to occupy places of power on behalf of the 99 percent will heed Corning’s sage advice about what to do and—just as important—what not to do in planning for a better, more just society.

More.

Related Situationist posts:

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Altruism, Book, Distribution, Evolutionary Psychology, Ideology, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Thanksgiving as “System Justification”

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 23, 2011

This post was first published on November 21, 2007.

The first Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Thanksgiving has many associations — struggling Pilgrims, crowded airports, autumn leaves, heaping plates, drunken uncles, blowout sales, and so on. At its best, though, Thanksgiving is associated with, well, thanks giving. The holiday provides a moment when many otherwise harried individuals leading hectic lives decelerate just long enough to muster some gratitude for their harvest. Giving thanks — acknowledging that we, as individuals, are not the sole determinants of our own fortunes seems an admirable, humble, and even situationist practice, worthy of its own holiday.

But I’m interested here in the potential downside to the particular way in which many people go about giving thanks.

Situationist contributor John Jost and his collaborators have studied a process that they call “system justification” — loosely the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests. Jost, together with Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and several other co-authors, recently summarized the basic tendency to justify the status quo this way (pdf):

Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people—regardless of their own social class or position—accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world” . . . . As Kinder and Sears (1985) put it, “the deepest puzzle here is not occasional protest but pervasive tranquility.” Knowing how easy it is for people to adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easer to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for 46 years, the institution of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian Caste system has been maintained for 3000 years and counting.

Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions. This post reflects my worry that the Thanksgiving holiday might also manifest that powerful implicit motive. No doubt, expressing gratitude is generally a healthy and appropriate practice. Indeed, my sense is that Americans too rarely acknowledge the debt they owe to other people and other influences. There ought to be more thanks giving.

Nonetheless, the norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed, when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.

Consider the message behind the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. In 1789, President George Washington wrote:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks—for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country . . . for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed . . . and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . . To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

Bush - Times OnlineExisting levels of prosperity, by this account, reflect the merciful and omniscient blessings of the “beneficent Author” of all that is good.

More recently, President George W. Bush offered a similar message about the meaning of the holiday:

“In the four centuries since the founders . . . first knelt on these grounds, our nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered, our nation has grown, our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved — after all, they didn’t have football back then. Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same: We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day.”

The faith that we are being “watched over” and that our blessings and prosperity are the product of a gift-giving force is extraordinarily affirming. All that “is,” is as that “great and glorious Being” intended.

Fom such a perspective, giving thanks begins to look like a means of assuring ourselves that our current situation was ordained by some higher, legitimating force. To doubt the legitimacy of existing arrangements is to be ungrateful.

A cursory search of the internet for the “meaning of Thanksgiving” reveals many similar recent messages. For instance, one blogger writes, in a post entitled “Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that:

your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life. Thankfulness means that we are aware of both our blessings and disappointments but that we focus on the blessings. . . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid?”

Another piece, entitled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” includes this lesson regarding the main source of the Pilgrim’s success: “It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.”

If we are supposed to be thankful for our jobs even when we are “overworked and underpaid,” should we also be thankful for unfairness or injustice? And if we are to be grateful for our sorrows, should we then be indifferent toward their earthly causes?

A third article, “The Productive Meaning of Thanksgiving” offers these “us”-affirming, guilt-reducing assurances: “The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.”

That advice seems to mollify any sense of injustice by giving something to everyone. Those with bountiful harvests get to enjoy their riches guiltlessly. Those with meager harvests can be grateful for the fact that they live in a country where they might someday enjoy richer returns from their individual efforts.

quotation-thanksgiving-3.pngYet another post, “The Meaning for Thanksgiving,” admonishes readers to be grateful, because they could, after all, be much worse off:

[M]aybe you are unsatisfied with your home or job? Would you be willing to trade either with someone who has no hope of getting a job or is homeless? Could you consider going to Africa or the Middle East and trade places with someone that would desperately love to have even a meager home and a low wage paying job where they could send their children to school without the worry of being bombed, raped, kidnapped or killed on a daily basis?

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No matter how bad you think you have it, there are people who would love to trade places with you in an instant. You can choose to be miserable and pine for something better. You could choose to trade places with someone else for all the money they could give you. You could waste your gift of life, but that would be the worst mistake to make. Or you can rethink about what makes your life great and at least be happy for what you have then be patient about what you want to come to you in the future.

If your inclination on Thanksgiving is to give thanks, I do not mean to discourage you. My only suggestion is that you give thanks, not for the status quo, but for all of the ways in which your (our) own advantages and privileges are the consequence of situation, and not simply your individual (our national) disposition. Further, I’d encourage you to give thanks to all those who have gone before you who have doubted the status quo and who have identified injustice and impatiently fought against it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Related Situationist posts:

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Allegations of Ideological Bias are Anti-Scientific

Posted by John Jost on September 22, 2011

Author’s prologue: In science, it doesn’t matter whether you are Jewish or not; whether you are Black or White, a man or a woman; whether you are a religious person or an atheist; whether you are liberal or conservative, a socialist or a libertarian. The scientific community agrees to consider your truth claims on the merits, according to conventional standards of reason and evidence. Scientists do not—or at least they should not—simply engage in reflexive ideological critique. But increasingly, I encounter students and, more disturbingly, professors, journalists and others suspending their critical faculties and doubting or rejecting scientific findings on the basis of something they think they know about the ideological leanings of the researchers (either as individuals or as a community).

What follows is a lightly edited excerpt from a book review I wrote for Science magazine (click here to access the review in its entirety). This excerpt specifically addresses Michael Shermer’s chapter on “Politics of Belief” from his latest book, The Believing Brain, but I think that it applies much more widely to the rudderless post-postmodern predicament in which we find ourselves. The time has come for advocates of the social and behavioral sciences to stand by their methods and renounce allegations of ideological bias—whether they are sincerely offered or cynically proffered—as anti-scientific.

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Michael Shermer’s chapter on “Politics of Belief” opens with an attack on a paper that I co-authored (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003), so the author will not be surprised to learn that I found it to be the worst chapter in his book by far. He could have rolled up his sleeves and immersed himself in the now abundant scientific literature documenting significant differences between adherents of leftist (or liberal) and rightist (or conservative) belief systems in terms of personality and cognitive and motivational styles (e.g., Gerber Huber, Doherty, Dowling, & Ha, 2010; Jost, Federico, & Napier, 2009) as well as neurocognitive and other physiological structures and functions (Amodio, Jost, Master, & Yee, 2007; Kanai, Feilden, Firth, & Rees, 2011; Oxley et al., 2008). Instead, he besmirches the entire enterprise of political psychology, perpetuating canards from the right-wing blogosphere and lazy, empirically unsubstantiated accusations of “liberal bias.” For example, Shermer writes:

Why are people conservative? Why do people vote Republican? The questions are typically posed without even a whiff of awareness of the inherent bias in asking it in this manner—that because Democrats are so indisputably right and Republicans so unquestionably wrong, conservatism must be a mental disease, a flaw in the brain, a personality disorder that leads to cognitive malfunctioning. Much as medical scientists study cancer in order to cure the disease, liberal political scientists study political attitudes and voting behavior in order to cure people of the cancer of conservatism.

In passages such as this, Shermer is not merely hyperbolic, inflammatory, and wrong about the specifics of the scientific articles he purports to critique. (Given the above characterization, one doubts he even read them.) By resorting to ideological deconstruction and essentially ad hominem forms of attack, Shermer violates his own intellectual standards—succumbing to the tendency, which he scorns in others, to reject out of hand scientific findings that might be experienced as disagreeable.

Shermer ought to know better, but he is enabled (and led considerably astray) by Jonathan Haidt, whose non-peer-reviewed internet provocation entitled “What Makes People Vote Republican?” provides the only data Shermer considers and, at the same time, a title to which he can object. What happened to the relentless thirst for empirical evidence and the evaluation of such evidence according to rigorous, established scientific criteria? When push comes to shove—as it often does with politics—Shermer sets the evidence aside and trades in stereotypical assumptions about the ideologies and personal backgrounds of the investigators. Consequently, the origins and dynamics of political beliefs will forever remain an unsolved mystery to readers of The Believing Brain.

The broader point, which I think is crucial to the future success of the social and behavioral sciences, is not that scientists themselves are somehow immune to cognitive or other sources of bias. It is that the scientific community is and should be ruthlessly committed to evaluating claims and settling disputes through the inspection and analysis of empirical data and through meaningful discussion and debate about how to properly interpret those data, using agreed upon methodological standards—and not through ideological deconstruction or all too convenient allegations  of bias. Resorting to such means is not only unscientific; it is profoundly anti-scientific.

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Read full review here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Book, Ideology, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Colorblind? Really?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 12, 2011

From Sister Blog, Law and Mind (by HLS student, Rachel Funk):

Aunt Vivian: Gee, when Janice described him she didn’t mention that he was…tall. Not that I have a problem with people who are…tall.
Uncle Lester: My cousin used to date a girl who was…tall.
Uncle Phil: Heck, the boy go to a predominantly…tall school.
Will: Now, am I alone on this or didn’t y’all notice he was white?

~ Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (Episode #2.6, Guess Who’s Coming to Marry)

In a short article in the February/March 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind, Siri Carpenter discusses two studies done by psychologists at Tufts and Harvard indicating that people who avoid mentioning race may actually appear more prejudiced. In the experiment, one white participant was paired up with one black participant, and they were each given the same set of photographs of random people. The black participant would choose a photograph, and the white participant had to figure out as quickly as possible which photograph his/her partner had chosen by asking him/her questions about each one in succession. The study was designed so that the matching process would go much faster if the white participant asked about the race of the person in the photograph. Significantly, the study found that the “intrepid few” who asked about race were deemed less prejudiced by black observers than the vast majority of white participants who didn’t mention race at all.

If that finding is accurate and generally applicable, then we as a society have totally f***ed up in making it a taboo to mention someone’s race. We have conflated defining someone by their race with simply acknowledging their race.

In her fantastic book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race, Dr. Beverly Tatum confronts this issue head-on. In reading about the above experiment, I was reminded of the following anecdote from her book:

“A father reported that his eight-year-old daughter had been talking very enthusiastically about a friend she had made at school. One day when he picked his daughter up from school, he asked her to point out her new friend. Trying to point her out of a large group of children on the playground, his daughter elaborately described what the child was wearing. She never said she was the only Black girl in the group.”

Despite the white father’s being thrilled that his daughter was colorblind, Dr. Tatum suggests — and I think that this is probably right — that the girl’s avoidance of mentioning her friend’s race was not so much a sign that she was colorblind as it was that she had been trained not to make explicit reference to someone’s race. (Interestingly, in the two studies mentioned earlier, one was done with adults, but the other one was done with children as young as 10 — the results were consistent across the two studies.) As further evidence of this phenomenon, Dr. Tatum notes that “[m]y White college students sometimes refer to someone as Black in hushed tones, sometimes whispering the word as though it were a secret or a potentially scandalous identification.”

When I was taking the Trial Advocacy Workshop at Harvard Law School, I had to do a closing statement for a mock police brutality case, in which a white policeman in a predominately white, upper-class neighborhood had allegedly assaulted the plaintiff, a black man who had been waiting to pick his daughter up from her white friend’s house. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I began, “what do we know? We know that Robin Boyd was a black man in a white neighborhood.” As soon as I said “black”, the temperature in the room dropped by several degrees, I think because everyone stopped breathing.

For anyone who doesn’t know me, I am extremely white. Pasty, even. And as a member of the oppressor group (or, to dress it up in fancy psychspeak, the socially dominant ingroup), it is my responsibility to avoid drawing attention to this fact. But why? Why is it that we feel the need to go out of our way to avoid mentioning someone’s race, and often feel uncomfortable if someone else brings it up? Is it part of some elaborate construction of a fiction that we’re colorblind? Or does it stem from a fear that we might unintentionally offend somebody, so it’s safest to take the path of least resistance and avoid mentioning race altogether?

Dr. Tatum points out that many, if not most, white people simply never think about their race: “There is a lot of silence about race in White communities, and as a consequence, Whites tend to think of racial identity as something that other people have, not something that is salient for them.”

This insight reminded of a time when I was riding the Metro in southeast D.C., an area of D.C. that is predominantly black. I spent the entire time being acutely aware of the fact that I was the only white person on the train, wondering whether this was all everyone else was noticing too, and trying to act like I hadn’t noticed. In an uncomfortable moment of revelation, I wondered whether this is what the handful of black students at most higher ed institutions feel like all the time.

Most of the time, the default race position is white. For instance, in a novel, unless the author indicates otherwise (either by explicitly describing the character’s race, or by laying out a context in which most of the characters will be of a specific minority, like the burgeoning class of novels geared specifically towards African Americans), we generally assume any characters that pop up are white. In fact, I remember being struck by, while reading one of Robert Parker‘s Spenser novels, the fact that the (white) narrator mentioned that another character was white. While Mr. Parker delights in bringing racial issues up in oblique, peripheral ways — I should note that the Spenser books are easy-read mystery/crime novels, not the kind of deep, soul-searching, trying-to-make-a-statement books you’d expect to confront issues about race — it still caught me off-guard. It surprised me that it surprised me, so to speak.

Time for a politically incorrect anecdote: One day, when my friends and I were walking back to Harvard from the Square, a couple stopped and asked us for directions to a building on the undergraduate campus. As highly superior law students, we of course had no idea. As they walked away, my Chinese friend commented, “They should know better than to stop and ask a little Asian girl for directions.” To which my white friend joked, “Yeah, but at least you’re good at math.” (Followed by my Chinese friend yelling, “RACIST!” and chasing my white friend through Harvard Yard.)

There’s no point to that story, I just thought it was time for a little levity in the post. (Although John Jost does offer some fascinating insights into complementary stereotypes via system justification theory…)

Since this is a blog about mind sciences and the law, what implications does how we think about race have for law? The following is a series of anecdotes meant to offer some food for thought on the various ways that law and race intersect:

1) A white public defender that I met during the Trial Advocacy Workshop told us that she always made it a point to put her hands on her client’s shoulders (her client usually being a young black man) at some point during her opening statement, to communicate to the jury that she, as a white woman, trusted her client, and therefore they should too.

She also told us that she had to warn her clients that she was going to do that so that they wouldn’t flinch when she did it.

2) A scholar at Harvard was attempting to research whether the verdict in jury trials where the defendant was black had any statistical correlation to whether and how many African-Americans were on the jury. However, there weren’t enough black jury members in Massachusetts jury trials to provide a reliable sample.

3) The Vera Institute of Justice‘s Prosecution and Racial Justice project works with prosecutor’s offices across the country to study how prosecutorial discretion is exercised in relation to race, focusing on four key areas where prosecutors have the most discretion: initial case screening, charging, plea offers, and final disposition. Not surprisingly, the project found that prosecutors as a group often exercise their discretion in a way that has a disproportionate impact on minorities. However, as part of the demonstration project, many of these offices have implemented policies that have significantly reduced this disparity, even when these policies did not explicitly focus on race. You can find out more about Vera’s approach and findings here.

The popular image of Justice as blind seems to me to be exactly wrong. Justice is not blind because we are not blind, and it is through us that our justice system operates. Maybe if we saw Justice as mindful instead, we would have a better idea of how to go about achieving it.

Related Situationist posts:

 

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations, Life, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Ideological Bias in Social Psychology?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 2, 2011

On January 27th, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt gave a provocative talk at the annual convention of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.  His presentation has since received a lot of press (including John Tierney’s New York Times article on the talk). Edge has posted a version of Haidt’s talk as well as a variety of responses (here).  Below, we’ve posted the response by Situationist Contributor, John Jost.

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Social psychology is not a “tribal-moral community” governed by “sacred values.” It is wide open to anyone who believes that we can use the scientific method to explain social behavior, regardless of their political beliefs. Nor is our “corner” of social science “broken” when it comes “race, gender, and class,” as Jonathan Haidt claimed in response to Paul Krugman. Rather, social psychologists have made cutting edge advances in understanding the subtle, implicit, nonconscious biases that perpetuate inequalities concerning race, gender, and class.

Haidt’s essay sows confusion; he misrepresents what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. By focusing on scientists’ personal beliefs rather than the quality of their work, Haidt perpetuates the myth that social scientific research simply exemplifies the ideological biases of the researchers. No doubt this energizes those who are eager to dismiss our findings. But polling firms are paid by clients, including political campaigns, and this fact neither determines nor invalidates the poll’s findings. Similarly, the personal beliefs of social scientists may (or may not) be one of many factors that affect the decision of what to study, but those beliefs are, at the end of the day, scientifically irrelevant.

This is because we, as a research community, take seriously the institutionalization of methodological safeguards against experimenter effects and other forms of bias. Any research program that is driven more by ideological axe-grinding than valid insight is doomed to obscurity, because it will not stand up to empirical replication and its flaws will be obvious to scientific peers — all of whom have been exposed to conservative perspectives even if they do not hold them.

If we do concern ourselves with the results of Haidt’s armchair demography, we should ask honestly whether social scientists are too liberal or society is too conservative. After all, when experts and laypersons disagree, we do not usually rush to the conclusion that the experts are biased. Haidt fails to grapple meaningfully with the question of why nearly all of the best minds in science find liberal ideas to be closer to the mark with respect to evolution, human nature, mental health, close relationships, intergroup relations, ethics, social justice, conflict resolution, environmental sustainability, and so on. He does not even consider the possibility that research in social psychology (including research on implicit bias) bothers conservatives for the right reasons, namely that some of our conclusions are empirically demonstrable and yet at odds with certain conservative assumptions (e.g., that racial prejudice is a thing of the past). Surely in some cases raising cognitive dissonance is part of our professional mission.

We need science, now more than ever, to help us overcome ideological disputes rather than getting bogged down in them. We do not need conservatives to become conservative social psychologists any more than we need liberals to become liberal social psychologists. Our “community” still holds that policy preferences should follow from the data, not the other way around. Sadly, Haidt puts the ideological cart before the scientific horse. I simply cannot agree that — especially in this political era — it would be good for our science to reproduce the ideological stalemate and finger-pointing that has crippled our government and debased our journalism.

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Read the other responses here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Education, Ideology, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

System Justification Theory and Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 5, 2011

Over at the new Law & Mind Blog, several Harvard Law students have been blogging about about system justification theory.  In the first post on the topic (copied below), third-year student Rachel Funk summarizes a chapter by Gary Blasi and Situationist Contributor John Jost (forthcoming in Ideology, Psychology, and Law, edited by Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson).

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In System Justification Theory and Research: Implications for Law, Legal Advocacy, and Social Justice, Gary Blasi and John Jost outline a model of social psychology they call system justification theory (SJT). According to Blasi and Jost, in addition to the well-established theories of ego justification (that is, our psychological need to think well of ourselves) and group justification (our psychological need to think well of the groups that we identify and associate with), there is a third related phenomenon: namely, system justification. While ego justification accounts for our tendency to privilege ourselves above others and to think and behave in ways that are self-serving, and group justification accounts for our tendency to give preference to members of our group over outsiders, Blasi and Jost argue that system justification is needed to fill out the picture, because we need to account for why marginalized members of society tend to support the current social order, even though it disadvantages them, thus defying the rational actor model inherent in our social institutions, particularly the legal system.

According to the rational actor model, members of disadvantaged groups should be trying to undermine the current regime, since, by definition, it disadvantages them. Instead, as demonstrated by various empirical studies, they seem to be zealous advocates (so to speak) of the status quo. Blasi and Jost argue that SJT can account for this seeming contradiction because, unlike the rational actor model, it posits that people will generally support the status quo, regardless of whether it advantages or disadvantages them.

In fact, our defense of the status quo becomes even more ardent when we perceive the current system to be threatened. For instance, Blasi and Jost cite one study in which people were asked to assign punishments to hypothetical defendants. For crimes that the researchers represented as being common but rarely punished — and thus an implicit threat to the existing social order — people assigned much more severe punishments to defendants accused of that crime than to defendants accused of crimes represented as being more frequently successfully prosecuted (129-30). However, we have the opposite reaction to the status quo when we view the regime change as “inevitable” (134-35), which may explain the phenomenon we are now seeing with regard to Americans’ changing attitudes to same-sex marriage, although it is unclear what is needed for a regime change to be considered “inevitable.”

So what happens when we endorse the status quo and adopt system-justifying ideologies? Studies show that in the short term, the acceptance of the status quo by disadvantaged members of society results in greater satisfaction at work and at home, indicating that system justification serves a “palliative function” (132). However, in the long run, their support of the status quo leads to cognitive dissonance, because their need to think well of themselves and their social groups necessarily conflicts with their low status in society. In other words, for disadvantaged members of society, ego justification and group justification will inevitably conflict with system justification because members of these groups will not be able to reconcile their positive perception of themselves and their social groups with their simultaneous support of a system that marginalizes them.

One of the reasons that society may be resistant to this model, as Blasi and Jost suggest, is that it necessitates accepting that our biases can be implicit (that is, unconscious) as well as explicit. The rational actor model is more comforting, because it assures us that we are in full control of our beliefs and behavior. If we have control over them, we can change them. And if we don’t change them, that must be because they are fine the way they are (and of course they are fine, because why else would we have them?).

Overall, SJT provides a persuasive account of the phenomena that Blasi and Jost seek to explain in the chapter. In the same vein as theories like “belief in a just world”, SJT offers a further insight into how we conjure up rationalizations for our situation in life because we do not want to believe — or cannot believe — that it is random or out of our control. Blasi and Jost also suggest a variety of ways in which SJT could be incorporated into the legal system, something that is desperately needed if the law’s foundational view of human behavior — which is to say, the rational actor model — is so far off the mark.

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Read the students’ discussion of the chapter here.

Related Situationist posts:

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Law, Legal Theory, Situationist Contributors, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Thanksgiving as “System Justification”

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 24, 2010

This post was first published on November 21, 2007.

The first Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Thanksgiving has many associations — struggling Pilgrims, crowded airports, autumn leaves, heaping plates, drunken uncles, blowout sales, and so on. At its best, though, Thanksgiving is associated with, well, thanks giving. The holiday provides a moment when many otherwise harried individuals leading hectic lives decelerate just long enough to muster some gratitude for their harvest. Giving thanks — acknowledging that we, as individuals, are not the sole determinants of our own fortunes seems an admirable, humble, and even situationist practice, worthy of its own holiday.

But I’m interested here in the potential downside to the particular way in which many people go about giving thanks.

Situationist contributor John Jost and his collaborators have studied a process that they call “system justification” — loosely the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests. Jost, together with Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and several other co-authors, recently summarized the basic tendency to justify the status quo this way (pdf):

Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people—regardless of their own social class or position—accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world” . . . . As Kinder and Sears (1985) put it, “the deepest puzzle here is not occasional protest but pervasive tranquility.” Knowing how easy it is for people to adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easer to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for 46 years, the institution of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian Caste system has been maintained for 3000 years and counting.

Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions. This post reflects my worry that the Thanksgiving holiday might also manifest that powerful implicit motive. No doubt, expressing gratitude is generally a healthy and appropriate practice. Indeed, my sense is that Americans too rarely acknowledge the debt they owe to other people and other influences. There ought to be more thanks giving.

Nonetheless, the norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed, when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.

Consider the message behind the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. In 1789, President George Washington wrote:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks—for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country . . . for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed . . . and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . . To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

Bush - Times OnlineExisting levels of prosperity, by this account, reflect the merciful and omniscient blessings of the “beneficent Author” of all that is good.

More recently, President George W. Bush offered a similar message about the meaning of the holiday:

“In the four centuries since the founders . . . first knelt on these grounds, our nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered, our nation has grown, our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved — after all, they didn’t have football back then. Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same: We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day.”

The faith that we are being “watched over” and that our blessings and prosperity are the product of a gift-giving force is extraordinarily affirming. All that “is,” is as that “great and glorious Being” intended.

Fom such a perspective, giving thanks begins to look like a means of assuring ourselves that our current situation was ordained by some higher, legitimating force. To doubt the legitimacy of existing arrangements is to be ungrateful.

A cursory search of the internet for the “meaning of Thanksgiving” reveals many similar recent messages. For instance, one blogger writes, in a post entitled “Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that:

your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life. Thankfulness means that we are aware of both our blessings and disappointments but that we focus on the blessings. . . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid?”

Another piece, entitled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” includes this lesson regarding the main source of the Pilgrim’s success: “It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.”

If we are supposed to be thankful for our jobs even when we are “overworked and underpaid,” should we also be thankful for unfairness or injustice? And if we are to be grateful for our sorrows, should we then be indifferent toward their earthly causes?

A third article, “The Productive Meaning of Thanksgiving” offers these “us”-affirming, guilt-reducing assurances: “The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.”

That advice seems to mollify any sense of injustice by giving something to everyone. Those with bountiful harvests get to enjoy their riches guiltlessly. Those with meager harvests can be grateful for the fact that they live in a country where they might someday enjoy richer returns from their individual efforts.

quotation-thanksgiving-3.pngYet another post, “The Meaning for Thanksgiving,” admonishes readers to be grateful, because they could, after all, be much worse off:

[M]aybe you are unsatisfied with your home or job? Would you be willing to trade either with someone who has no hope of getting a job or is homeless? Could you consider going to Africa or the Middle East and trade places with someone that would desperately love to have even a meager home and a low wage paying job where they could send their children to school without the worry of being bombed, raped, kidnapped or killed on a daily basis?

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No matter how bad you think you have it, there are people who would love to trade places with you in an instant. You can choose to be miserable and pine for something better. You could choose to trade places with someone else for all the money they could give you. You could waste your gift of life, but that would be the worst mistake to make. Or you can rethink about what makes your life great and at least be happy for what you have then be patient about what you want to come to you in the future.

If your inclination on Thanksgiving is to give thanks, I do not mean to discourage you. My only suggestion is that you give thanks, not for the status quo, but for all of the ways in which your (our) own advantages and privileges are the consequence of situation, and not simply your individual (our national) disposition. Further, I’d encourage you to give thanks to all those who have gone before you who have doubted the status quo and who have identified injustice and impatiently fought against it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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To review a related set of Situationist posts, see “A System-Justification Primer,” “Barbara Ehrenreich on the Sources of and Problems with Dispositionism,” The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” John Jost on System Justification Theory,” John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,” “Independence Day: Celebrating Courage to Challenge the Situation,” Cheering for the Underdog,” and “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!“  To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Person-Situation Debate in Philosophy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 23, 2010

Situationist Contributor John Jost recently co-authored a brief comment, titled “Virtue ethics and the social psychology of character: Philosophical lessons from the person–situation debate,” which will be of interest to many of our readers.  Here are the opening paragraphs.

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A venerable tradition of ethical theory drawing on Aristotle’s Ethics still flourishes alongside consequentialist (utilitarian) and deontological (Kantian) alternatives. The Aristotelian notion is that if humans develop in themselves and inculcate in others certain settled dispositions to reason and act in characteristic ways—bravely, honestly, generously—they will behave in ways that secure and preserve eudaimonia (happiness or well-being) for themselves and others (Burnyeat, 1980; Hursthouse, 1999; Sherman, 1997). Virtue theorists are therefore committed to the existence of significant moral personality traits that not only summarize good (vs. bad) behavior but also explain the actions of the virtuous (and vicious) agents.

A powerful empirical challenge to virtue theories developed out of Mischel’s (1968) critique of personality traits and social psychological research emphasizing the ‘‘power of the situation” (Ross & Nisbett, 1991). These lessons were applied, perhaps overzealously, to moral philosophy by Flanagan (1991), Harman (1999), Doris (2002), and Appiah (2008). Harman (1999) claimed: ‘‘We need to convince people to look at situational factors and to stop trying to explain things in terms of character traits. . . [and] to abandon all talk of virtue and character, not to find a way to save it by reinterpreting it” (p. 1). This position, which might be termed eliminative situationalism, stimulated useful philosophical debate, but it is too dismissive of the role of personality (or character) in producing ethically responsible behavior.

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You can download a pdf of the entire essay here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see Your Brain and Morality,”Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate – Part II,” Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II,” andThe Need for a Situationist Morality.”

Posted in Abstracts, Philosophy, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Global Climate Change and The Situation of Denial

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 11, 2010

Situationist Contributor John T. Jost together with Irina Feygina and Rachel E. Goldsmith have recently completed a fascinating article examining the motivations behind some people’s unwillingness to take climate change seriously.  The article, titled “System Justification, the Denial of Global Warming, and the Possibility of ‘System-Sanctioned Change’” will be published later this year in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Here’s the abstract.

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Despite extensive evidence of climate change and environmental destruction, polls continue to reveal widespread denial and resistance to helping the environment. It is posited here that these responses are linked to the motivational tendency to defend and justify the societal status quo in the face of the threat posed by environmental problems. The present research finds that system justification tendencies are associated with greater denial of environmental realities and less commitment to pro-environmental action. Moreover, the effects of political conservatism, national identification, and gender on denial of environmental problems are explained by variability in system justification tendencies. However, this research finds that it is possible to eliminate the negative effect of system justification on environmentalism by encouraging people to regard pro-environmental change as patriotic and consistent with protecting the status quo (i.e., as a case of “system-sanctioned change”). Theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed.

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For the NYU Alumni Magazine,  Sharon Tregaskis and Jason Hollander recently wrote a piece, titled “Why We Put Environmental Time Bomb on the Backburner,” in which she discusses that article.  Here are some excerpts.

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Imagine a mammoth meteor blazing toward Earth. When it will arrive and whether it will hit directly is debatable, but scientists are unanimous on one thing—it’s coming. And they’re trying desperately to motivate everyone to take action before it’s too late.

While this scenario is science fiction, a similar danger—just as daunting and apocalyptic—is on the horizon. Researchers now almost universally believe that catastrophic climate change, caused primarily by carbon dioxide emissions, is more a matter of “when,” rather than “if.” NASA climate scientist James Hansen predicts that we have perhaps a decade to halt our runaway greenhouse gases, otherwise we will guarantee for our children a fundamentally different planet—one where sea ice no longer blankets the Arctic, where storms relentlessly buffet coastal communities, and conflicts over scarce fresh water and shifting climactic zones rock international relations. And yet global carbon emissions are rising at unprecedented rates, and Americans are expected to produce ever-greater volumes of carbon dioxide in coming years.

Our inaction, in part, boils down to how we think. As with the meteor hurtling in our direction from millions of miles away, the science for measuring climate change and its future effects is complicated, and so far most evidence comes from distant, barely habited places. We, and our leaders, are easily distracted by closer issues—war, terrorism, disease, race relations, economic distress. “People get motivated with near-term dangers, but this is different,” says Tyler Volk (GSAS ’82, ’84), a biologist and core faculty member in NYU’s new environmental studies program. “It’s not like the Hudson River is suddenly full of mercury and everyone is threatened.”

As individuals, we may not deny the mounting evidence of global climate change, but we do harbor an inherent desire to keep our minds on other things. In his 1974 Pulitzer prize-winning book The Denial of Death, social scientist Ernest Becker argued that “the essence of normality is the refusal of reality,” echoing Freud who believed repression to be our natural self-protection. In order to tolerate all sorts of inequities, we will often support or rationalize the status quo even when it contradicts our own self-interest, says NYU social psychologist John Jost, who calls this phenomenon “system justification theory.”

Last spring, Jost collaborated with graduate student Irina Feygina (GSAS ’10) and Mount Sinai Hospital psychologist Rachel Goldsmith to investigate how system justification theory interacts with environmental attitudes. Among their findings: Most people who believe that society is generally fair are also skeptical about the forecasted climate crisis. “There are psychological obstacles to creating real, lasting change,” Jost says, “in addition to all of the scientific, technical, economic, and political obstacles.” Because of this, he notes, denial is far easier and more convenient than supporting a carbon tax, paying more for high-efficiency technology, or giving up cheap goods shipped through elaborate, fuel-guzzling supply chains.

Even so, denial is getting harder, as scientists gain an increasingly nuanced understanding of the mechanics—and the consequences—of climate change. . . .

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This public conversation is slowly trickling up to policy makers. In April, a cadre of retired U.S. generals and admirals offered the chilling statement that climate change was a “a threat multiplier” for global security and the fight against terrorism, as it will further destabilize desperate regions in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Even George W. Bush, who rejected the Kyoto climate accord in 2001, for the first time acknowledged global climate change in last winter’s State of the Union address. “The problem is, among other things, ideological,” Jost says, “and it needs to be addressed at that level, as well as at other, more technological levels.”

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[T]he momentum seems to be growing, says philosopher and director of environmental studies Dale Jamieson, who sees a parallel between the climate campaign and the Civil Rights Movement or widespread efforts to enact smoking bans, where over time, a moral and personal imperative emerged. “There’s no way of addressing this unless people come to see it as an ethical issue that changes what they see as right and wrong, how they live, and what kind of world they’re going to leave to their children,” says Jamieson, adding, “The question [remains] whether we’re going to act, and whether it will be meaningful.”

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To read the entire essay, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “John Jost Speaks about His Own Research,” “The Situation of Climate Change,” “Getting a Grip on Climate Change,” “Juliet Schor, ‘Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies’,” “Denial,” The Need for a Situationist Morality,” “The Heat is On,” “Captured Science,” and Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and, particularly, Part V.”

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

John Jost Speaks about His Own Research

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 14, 2009

This is Part III and the conclusion of an interview of Situationist Contributor John Jost by the Association for Psychological Science Student Caucus.    Part I is here and Part II is here.  This segment focuses on John’s own remarkable and pathbreaking research.

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APSSC: Much of your research has focused on psychological characteristics of liberals and conservatives. What have you learned that could be applied in the increasingly partisan world of politics?

Jost: Well, that is an interview in itself, and I have given several on this topic (including one that is archived at The Situationist). The bottom line is that major differences of opinion (such as the debate over health care reform) are not easy to resolve because they are rooted in fundamental differences not only in personalities and values, but also in lifestyles, social networks, and even physiological responses, as our work has shown.

In general, liberals are more drawn to flexibility, tolerance, progress, complexity, ambiguity, creativity, curiosity, diversity, equality, and open-mindedness, whereas conservatives are more drawn to order, stability, structure, closure, discipline, tradition, familiarity, and conscientiousness. Presumably, society needs at least a little of both types of characteristics.

Democracy is an ingenious system when it works well, because it seeks to establish a set of rules and procedures that are fair and efficient by which individuals and groups are compelled to rise above relatively narrow needs and interests. My colleague, Tom Tyler, and I have written about this. How else can we resolve disputes except to require opposing sides to make the best possible case for policies that their adversaries are inclined to resist for their own social and psychological (as well as ideological) reasons? But when democratic norms are flouted or otherwise fail to protect us, we are lost. We find ourselves in very deep trouble.

APSSC: You’ve also spent a lot of time studying and developing system justification theory, which describes how one works to maintain society’s status quo, even when it’s not in one’s best interest. Do you think that system justification can be found in the field of psychology?

Jost: I think you’re trying to get me in trouble now. But, yes, as long as the science and practice of psychology is undertaken by human beings, I expect that some degree of system justification is likely, at least on occasion. Do I think that it’s easier to publish an article in one of our top journals that is largely compatible or incompatible with the status quo (i.e., past precedent and existing theory, as institutionalized in textbooks and so forth), I would bet on compatible.

The same is true of our legal system, which is heavily reliant on past precedent (stare decisis) and therefore inherently conservative. I am not saying that there are never good reasons to privilege what comes first — often there are. But if there is a bias that is built into scientific and legal systems, it is probably in favor of what has already been established (the status quo) and against what appears to challenge it. I suspect that this is part of human nature, and such a bias characterizes our way of thinking and most, if not all, of our social and cultural institutions.

APSSC: How has what you’ve learned through your research influenced how you live your life?

Jost: I suppose that because of my research I am more skeptical of decision outcomes that preserve the status quo than I otherwise would be. So when I had the chance to move to NYU a few years ago, I knew that psychological inertia would work against the move, and I tried to adjust for that. I even spent a wonderful year in a “neutral” location at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. In retrospect, I’m very glad that I moved to NYU. Since coming here, I have had terrific colleagues and the kinds of PhD students that one dreams of working with! I feel very fortunate. Maybe the system does work after all!

APSSC: What do you see in the future for the field of psychology?

Jost: I have no idea, but I certainly agree with various APS luminaries who regard psychology as a “hub” science. I would like to see us do a better job of connecting to — and translating important insights from — the social and behavioral sciences, such as sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, and so on. And I’m sure that psychology will continue to be influenced by the biological sciences, and hopefully we can give something back to them, too.

APSSC: Is there a question that you wish I had asked? What would your answer have been?

Jost: Is it possible to care deeply about something, like the problem of global climate change, and still investigate it scientifically? Yes, because the rules of the scientific method, if you follow them scrupulously, actually work, and (in my opinion) the rules have nothing to do with being dispassionate or disinterested. Much as genuine engagement with and adherence to democratic norms and procedures serves to elevate discourse and action above particularized interests, so, too, does genuine engagement with and adherence to scientific norms and procedures. Following the scientific method matters far more, in my view, than the specific social or personal characteristics of any given scientist, which — at the end of the day — are irrelevant. The evidence and the quality of the argument are what matter. As Kurt Lewin noted at the outbreak of World War II, this is why science and democracy go hand in hand.

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You can listen here to a fascinating related lecture recently delivered by John Jost at NYU about some of the sources, correlates, and antecedents of ideology.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Social Tuning and Ideology – Part 1 and Part 2,” The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part II,” “Ideology is Back!,” A System-Justification Primer,” “Barbara Ehrenreich on the Sources of and Problems with Dispositionism,” The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” John Jost on System Justification Theory,” John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,” To review other Situationist posts about system justification or ideology, click here or here respectively.

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations, Politics, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

John Jost on Studying Psychology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 13, 2009

This is Part II of an interview of Situationist Contributor John Jost by the Association for Psychological Science Student Caucus.    Part I is here.  This portion of the interview focuses on John’s experience, and advice about, studying psychology.

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APSSC: What suggestions do you have for choosing an area of study within a field as large and diverse as psychology?

Jost: . . . Study something that you are passionate about. It can be something about human behavior that inspires you (like language or creativity or wisdom) or worries you (like our capacity for self-destruction) or simply fascinates you. It should be a fairly big issue or set of questions, but not so big as to be intractable. To sustain yourself over the years, it seems to me that you cannot be working on something just because it hasn’t quite been done yet, nor should it be something that you can imagine being bored by. It may not be part of the stereotype of a scientist, but I think that passion is crucial. My colleague, Yaacov Trope, calls it “fire in the belly.”

APSSC: How did you go about selecting a graduate program?

Jost: Well, that was fairly haphazard. I was an undergraduate student at Duke University at a time (the late 1980s) when there were very good clinical, cognitive, and developmental psychologists but virtually no social psychologists. So I had to rely on pretty indirect advice, and I was only 20 years old when I applied for graduate school. Given all of that, I was tremendously fortunate to have been accepted for admission at Princeton, Yale, Michigan, and Cornell.

Most faculty members I knew at the time advised me to go to Princeton or Michigan, and they had very good reasons for giving that advice. But I felt something especially exciting and worldly and hungry and, yes, passionate when I visited Yale, so I decided to go there, and I’m so glad that I did! In terms of senior faculty, I studied with Bill McGuire (who eventually became my dissertation advisor), Bob Abelson, Leonard Doob, and Bill Kessen, all of whom provided tremendous historical as well as scientific grounding for my thinking. They were brilliant teachers and very different from one another. And the junior faculty at the time included Mahzarin Banaji and Peter Salovey, both of whom were so inspiring, even as assistant professors!

APSSC: What were the most rewarding aspects of graduate school for you?

Jost: There were so many things. It turned out to be a fantastic time to be at Yale in social psychology, although it might not have seemed that way from the outside. The particular constellation of faculty was well-suited to my interests; for instance, there was an interdisciplinary group of political psychologists that met almost weekly for talks, discussions, and group projects.

I was told before going to graduate school that I would learn almost as much from my fellow graduate students as from my professors, and that turned out to be true. At Yale, I “overlapped” with Curtis Hardin, Alex Rothman, Irene Blair, Chris Hsee, Buju Dasgupta, and Jack Glaser, among many others who have gone on to have very successful careers. During the summers (when we were not playing softball), we organized our own reading groups to absorb and discuss 19th and 20th century classics in psychology and philosophy. I think that we were all trying to figure out how we could contribute something lasting.

APSSC: How does a graduate student work toward becoming a first-rate researcher?

Jost: I suppose that it’s some elusive, sublime combination of following the best and most heartfelt advice of one’s mentors; trusting one’s own abilities and insights, even when others do not (yet); asking for help when necessary; identifying interesting and worthwhile problems; persisting stubbornly in a prolonged attempt to solve those problems; and just plain luck.

APSSC: What are some of the common mistakes you see graduate students and young professionals making?

Jost: I would say chasing disciplinary fads instead of engaging a truly interesting and important problem, taking on too many projects before they are ready, discounting the advice of mentors because it differs from their own intuitions or from the advice of fellow students, and thinking they know it all already. I suffered from a few of those mistakes myself.

APSSC: What advice would you give to graduate students who want to have careers in academia?

Jost: Choose research topics that you think will be interesting to you in 5, 10, or 20 years, because it might take that long to obtain profoundly satisfying answers. And prepare yourself to withstand withering criticism until then. Above all, hang in there when you do receive criticism, and figure out what it is that you have to say to the world and how to say it so that people will listen.

APSSC: Writing and publishing are often anxiety provoking events for graduate students. You already have a lot of experience as a writer, editor, and reviewer; what do you know now about this process that you wish you would have known earlier in your career?

Jost: That the first draft is usually the hardest one, that you are not incompetent or necessarily even wrong just because a paper gets rejected, and that persistence and tenacity really pay off in the long run.

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Tomorrow we’ll post a third portion of the interview, including Jost’s discussion of his own pathbreaking research .  If you’d like to read the entire interview right away, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Smart People Thinking about People Thinking about People Thinking,” “Mahzarin Banaji’s Situation,” and “Can’t Get No Satisfaction!: The Law Student’s Job Hunt – Part I, Part II, and Part III,” andThe Bar Exam Situation.”

Posted in Education, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of John Jost

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 12, 2009

The Association for Psychological Science Student Caucus recently conducted fascinating interview of Situationist Contributor, John Jost.    Here are some excerpts.

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APSSC: What led you to choose psychology as a career?

Jost: . . . . I knew at age 13 or 14 that I wanted to be a psychologist, but, like many others, I expected that I would become a clinical psychologist. The reason for that was that as a child and adolescent, I was very close to someone (an extended family member) who had a serious mental illness. I thought — quite unrealistically, of course — that I could understand him better than other people and that I could somehow help him. It wasn’t until college that I decided that I would rather try to fix the “holes” in the social system than force individual “pegs” into them. So I gravitated toward social, personality, and political psychology.

APSSC: How did you go about developing your current research interests, and how have they influenced you as a person and a professional?

Jost: I suppose that they have a personal and familial basis as well. From an early age, I was aware of differences between people in terms of political and religious attitudes. The fact that the Nixon administration spied on my father for teaching university courses on the philosophy of Karl Marx probably forced the issue. I grew up in a relatively liberal enclave of a largely conservative community and was attuned to social class and other differences — especially ideological differences. Later, when I (and others) tried, mostly in vain, to organize a union of beleaguered graduate students, I became intrigued by the question of why so many people fail to support social change efforts that are designed specifically to help them and their fellow group members. This is really the focal issue addressed by system justification theory.

How have these research interests influenced me personally? They have inspired me by setting ambitious goals that (I think) are meaningful and ultimately beneficial to society as a whole. They have also, at times, dispirited me, because I have come to see society as (under the best of circumstances) progressing by taking two steps forward and one step backward.

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We’ll post other portions of the interview, including Jost’s advice to young mind scientists, over the next several days.  If you’d like to read the entire interview right away, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see A System-Justification Primer,” John Jost on System Justification Theory,” John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,” Mahzarin Banaji’s Situation,” and “The Situation of a Situationist – Mahzarin Banaji.”

Posted in Ideology, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

A System-Justification Primer

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 14, 2009

Here is a worthwhile Blogging Heads clip in which Josh Knobe interviews Situationist Contributor John Jost regarding the success of George W. Bush.

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To review a related set of Situationist posts, see The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” John Jost on System Justification Theory,” John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,” “Independence Day: Celebrating Courage to Challenge the Situation,” Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?” and “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!“  To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Ideology, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

John Jost on System Justification Theory

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 19, 2009

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To read a selection of related Situationist posts, see “John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,” “Independence Day: Celebrating Courage to Challenge the Situation,” Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?” and “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!”  To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Distribution, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 5, 2009

plms-logo2

At the 2007 Project on Law and Mind Sciences Conference, John Jost’s presentation was titled “System Justification and the Law.” Here is the abstract for his talk.

Although there can be little doubt that individual and group self-interest motivate human behavior to a considerable degree, research in social psychology has revealed a quite different and often powerful motive: the motive to defend and justify the social status quo. This motive is present (at least to some degree) even among those who are seemingly most disadvantaged by the status quo; in some cases, in fact, this motive is strongest among those who are the most severely disadvantaged. System justification theory seeks to elucidate the nature of this motive and the situations in which it operates.

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Dr. Jost will summarize recent theory and research concerning the various  manifestations, antecedents and consequences of the system justification motive. He will also address its implications for the law, arguing that system justification motives sometimes result in behaviors that current legal thinking would not otherwise anticipate. For example, victims of discrimination or abuse complain less often than self interest would predict, and employees conceal evidence of corporate wrongdoing even at their own peril. The theory also speaks to the power of “framing” and suggests ways in which legal advocates can either amplify or dampen the system-justifying motives of those whom they would persuade. The existence of system justification poses significant psychological obstacles to social change in general and legal change in particular.

Below you can watch the videos of Jost’s fascinating presentation (roughly 30 minutes total).

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To watch similar videos, visit the video libraries on the Project on Law and Mind Sciences website (here) or visit PLMSTube.

For information on the Third PLMS conference (scheduled for March 7, 2009), click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Implicit Associations, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 24, 2008

This post was first published on November 21, 2007.

The first Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Thanksgiving has many associations — struggling Pilgrims, crowded airports, autumn leaves, heaping plates, drunken uncles, blowout sales, and so on. At its best, though, Thanksgiving is associated with, well, thanks giving. The holiday provides a moment when many otherwise harried individuals leading hectic lives decelerate just long enough to muster some gratitude for their harvest. Giving thanks — acknowledging that we, as individuals, are not the sole determinants of our own fortunes seems an admirable, humble, and even situationist practice, worthy of its own holiday.

But I’m interested here in the potential downside to the particular way in which many people go about giving thanks.

Situationist contributor John Jost and his collaborators have studied a process that they call “system justification” — loosely the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests. Jost, together with Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and several other co-authors, recently summarized the basic tendency to justify the status quo this way (pdf):

Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people—regardless of their own social class or position—accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world” . . . . As Kinder and Sears (1985) put it, “the deepest puzzle here is not occasional protest but pervasive tranquility.” Knowing how easy it is for people to adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easer to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for 46 years, the institution of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian Caste system has been maintained for 3000 years and counting.

Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions. This post reflects my worry that the Thanksgiving holiday might also manifest that powerful implicit motive. No doubt, expressing gratitude is generally a healthy and appropriate practice. Indeed, my sense is that Americans too rarely acknowledge the debt they owe to other people and other influences. There ought to be more thanks giving.

Nonetheless, the norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed, when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.

Consider the message behind the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. In 1789, President George Washington wrote:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks—for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country . . . for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed . . . and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . . To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

Bush - Times OnlineExisting levels of prosperity, by this account, reflect the merciful and omniscient blessings of the “beneficent Author” of all that is good.

More recently, President George W. Bush offered a similar message about the meaning of the holiday:

“In the four centuries since the founders . . . first knelt on these grounds, our nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered, our nation has grown, our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved — after all, they didn’t have football back then. Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same: We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day.”

The faith that we are being “watched over” and that our blessings and prosperity are the product of a gift-giving force is extraordinarily affirming. All that “is,” is as that “great and glorious Being” intended.

Fom such a perspective, giving thanks begins to look like a means of assuring ourselves that our current situation was ordained by some higher, legitimating force. To doubt the legitimacy of existing arrangements is to be ungrateful.

A cursory search of the internet for the “meaning of Thanksgiving” reveals many similar recent messages. For instance, one blogger writes, in a post entitled “Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that:

your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life. Thankfulness means that we are aware of both our blessings and disappointments but that we focus on the blessings. . . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid?”

Another piece, entitled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” includes this lesson regarding the main source of the Pilgrim’s success: “It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.”

If we are supposed to be thankful for our jobs even when we are “overworked and underpaid,” should we also be thankful for unfairness or injustice? And if we are to be grateful for our sorrows, should we then be indifferent toward their earthly causes?

A third article, “The Productive Meaning of Thanksgiving” offers these “us”-affirming, guilt-reducing assurances: “The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.”

That advice seems to mollify any sense of injustice by giving something to everyone. Those with bountiful harvests get to enjoy their riches guiltlessly. Those with meager harvests can be grateful for the fact that they live in a country where they might someday enjoy richer returns from their individual efforts.

quotation-thanksgiving-3.pngYet another post, “The Meaning for Thanksgiving,” admonishes readers to be grateful, because they could, after all, be much worse off:

[M]aybe you are unsatisfied with your home or job? Would you be willing to trade either with someone who has no hope of getting a job or is homeless? Could you consider going to Africa or the Middle East and trade places with someone that would desperately love to have even a meager home and a low wage paying job where they could send their children to school without the worry of being bombed, raped, kidnapped or killed on a daily basis?

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No matter how bad you think you have it, there are people who would love to trade places with you in an instant. You can choose to be miserable and pine for something better. You could choose to trade places with someone else for all the money they could give you. You could waste your gift of life, but that would be the worst mistake to make. Or you can rethink about what makes your life great and at least be happy for what you have then be patient about what you want to come to you in the future.

If your inclination on Thanksgiving is to give thanks, I do not mean to discourage you. My only suggestion is that you give thanks, not for the status quo, but for all of the ways in which your (our) own advantages and privileges are the consequence of situation, and not simply your individual (our national) disposition. Further, I’d encourage you to give thanks to all those who have gone before you who have doubted the status quo and who have identified injustice and impatiently fought against it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Genetic Situation of Ideology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 26, 2008

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Robert Lee Hotz summarizes some of the recent research showing how genes may shape people’s ideological and political attitudes: “The Biology of Ideology: Studies Suggest Many of Our Political Choices May Be Traced to Genetic Traits.”  Here are a few excerpts.

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In a wave of new research since the last presidential campaign, political scientists are using the tools of behavioral genetics to better understand how and why we vote. Certainly, no single gene can identify an entire electorate. But “in a broad sense, biology shapes all of human behavior,” says New York University social psychologist [and Situationist contributor] John Jost, “and that has to include political behavior.

By matching extensive electronic voter records to documented patterns of heredity among twins, researchers found tantalizing hints that up to half of the variation in our attitudes toward issues and our voting practices can be traced to a political psyche shaped by genetic traits.

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In a study published in May, political scientist James Fowler at the University of California, San Diego, analyzed voter turnout among 396 identical and fraternal twins for eight elections in Los Angeles. Identical twins share their entire DNA genome, while fraternal twins don’t, so a comparison can offer a glimpse of hereditary influences. After controlling for a variety of environmental factors, he found the decision to cast a ballot may be partly genetic.

Then, he went beyond California voters to analyze political behavior among 1,082 identical and fraternal twins in a national database called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. “Whether you have run for office, donated to a candidate, attended a rally or joined a political organization, we found that those activities were heritable,” says Dr. Fowler. “The environment is incredibly influential, but without genetics you are missing half the story.”

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To read the entire article, click here.   You can download a free copy of Fowler’s papers here. To review other Situationist posts about ideology, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Ideology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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