The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘System Legitimacy’

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by Jon Hanson on January 18, 2014

mlk1.jpgThis post was originally published on January 22, 2007.

* * *

Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.

To be sure, King is most revered in some circles for quotations that are easily construed as dispositionist, such as: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Taken alone, as it often is, that sentence seems to set a low bar. Indeed, some Americans contend that we’ve arrived at that promised land; after all, most of us (mostly incorrectly) imagine ourselves to be judging people based solely on their dispositions, choices, personalities, or, in short, their characters.

Putting King’s quotation in context, however, it becomes clear that his was largely a situationist message. He was encouraging us all to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle situational forces that caused inequalities and to question (what John Jost calls) system-justifying ideologies that helped maintain those inequalities.

mlk2.jpgKing’s amazing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is illustrative. While being held for nine days, King penned a letter in response to the public statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen who denounced the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations. The prominent clergymen called King an “extremist” and an “outsider,” and “appeal[ed] to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Regarding his “outsider” status, King insisted that the us-and-them categories were flawed, and that any meaningful distinction that might exist among groups was that between persons who perpetrated or countenanced injustice, on one hand, and those who resisted it, on the other:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . .”

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

mlk3.jpgIn describing the injustice itself, King sought to remove the focus from individual behavor and choice to the situational forces and absence of meaningful choice that helped to shape that behavior:

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

In terms of his methods, too, Dr. King was a situationist. He understood that negotiating outcomes reflected the circumstances much more than the the disposition, of negotiators. The aim of demonstrations was to create a situation in which questions otherwise unasked were brought to the fore, in which injustice otherwise unnoticed was made salient, and in which the weak bargaining positions of the otherwise powerless were collectivized and strengthened:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused tocivil-rights-protest.jpg negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

In the letter, King expressed his frustation, not just with the egregious racists, but also — no, moreso — with the moderates who were willing to sacrifice real justice for the sake of maintaining the illusion of justice. King put it this way:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ . . . .”

mlk4.jpgAnd King recognized the role that laws could play in maintaining an unjust status quo. Of course, he criticized the laws that literally enforced segregation, but he didn’t stop there. He criticized, too, the seemingly neutral laws, and the purportedly principled methods of interpreting and applying those laws, that could serve as legitimating cover for existing disparities:

“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

King explained that many churches, too, were implicated in this web of justification — caught up as they were in making sense of, or lessening the sting of, existing arrangements:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”

mlk5.jpg

So, yes, Reverend King urged us all to help create a world in which people were “not . . . judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King said much more. He recognized and tried to teach those who would listen that getting to that world would mean examining and challenging the situation — including our beliefs, our laws, our ideologies, our religious beliefs, our institutions, and existing allocations of opportunity, wealth, and power.

Judging those who are disadvantaged by the content of their character is not, taken alone, much of a solution. It may, in fact, be part of the problem. As Kathleen Hanson (my wife) and I recently argued, the problem “is, not in neglecting character, but in attributing to ‘character’ what should be attributed to [a person's] situation and, in turn, to our system and ourselves.” Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, far more effectively: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

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

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 »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by Jon Hanson on January 21, 2013

mlk1.jpgThis post was originally published on January 22, 2007.

* * *

Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.

To be sure, King is most revered in some circles for quotations that are easily construed as dispositionist, such as: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Taken alone, as it often is, that sentence seems to set a low bar. Indeed, some Americans contend that we’ve arrived at that promised land; after all, most of us (mostly incorrectly) imagine ourselves to be judging people based solely on their dispositions, choices, personalities, or, in short, their characters.

Putting King’s quotation in context, however, it becomes clear that his was largely a situationist message. He was encouraging us all to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle situational forces that caused inequalities and to question (what John Jost calls) system-justifying ideologies that helped maintain those inequalities.

mlk2.jpgKing’s amazing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is illustrative. While being held for nine days, King penned a letter in response to the public statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen who denounced the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations. The prominent clergymen called King an “extremist” and an “outsider,” and “appeal[ed] to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Regarding his “outsider” status, King insisted that the us-and-them categories were flawed, and that any meaningful distinction that might exist among groups was that between persons who perpetrated or countenanced injustice, on one hand, and those who resisted it, on the other:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . .”

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

mlk3.jpgIn describing the injustice itself, King sought to remove the focus from individual behavor and choice to the situational forces and absence of meaningful choice that helped to shape that behavior:

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

In terms of his methods, too, Dr. King was a situationist. He understood that negotiating outcomes reflected the circumstances much more than the the disposition, of negotiators. The aim of demonstrations was to create a situation in which questions otherwise unasked were brought to the fore, in which injustice otherwise unnoticed was made salient, and in which the weak bargaining positions of the otherwise powerless were collectivized and strengthened:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused tocivil-rights-protest.jpg negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

In the letter, King expressed his frustation, not just with the egregious racists, but also — no, moreso — with the moderates who were willing to sacrifice real justice for the sake of maintaining the illusion of justice. King put it this way:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ . . . .”

mlk4.jpgAnd King recognized the role that laws could play in maintaining an unjust status quo. Of course, he criticized the laws that literally enforced segregation, but he didn’t stop there. He criticized, too, the seemingly neutral laws, and the purportedly principled methods of interpreting and applying those laws, that could serve as legitimating cover for existing disparities:

“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

King explained that many churches, too, were implicated in this web of justification — caught up as they were in making sense of, or lessening the sting of, existing arrangements:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”

mlk5.jpg

So, yes, Reverend King urged us all to help create a world in which people were “not . . . judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King said much more. He recognized and tried to teach those who would listen that getting to that world would mean examining and challenging the situation — including our beliefs, our laws, our ideologies, our religious beliefs, our institutions, and existing allocations of opportunity, wealth, and power.

Judging those who are disadvantaged by the content of their character is not, taken alone, much of a solution. It may, in fact, be part of the problem. As Kathleen Hanson (my wife) and I recently argued, the problem “is, not in neglecting character, but in attributing to ‘character’ what should be attributed to [a person's] situation and, in turn, to our system and ourselves.” Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, far more effectively: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in 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 »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by Jon Hanson on January 15, 2012

mlk1.jpgThis post was originally published on January 22, 2007.

* * *

Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.

To be sure, King is most revered in some circles for quotations that are easily construed as dispositionist, such as: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Taken alone, as it often is, that sentence seems to set a low bar. Indeed, some Americans contend that we’ve arrived at that promised land; after all, most of us (mostly incorrectly) imagine ourselves to be judging people based solely on their dispositions, choices, personalities, or, in short, their characters.

Putting King’s quotation in context, however, it becomes clear that his was largely a situationist message. He was encouraging us all to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle situational forces that caused inequalities and to question (what John Jost calls) system-justifying ideologies that helped maintain those inequalities.

mlk2.jpgKing’s amazing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is illustrative. While being held for nine days, King penned a letter in response to the public statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen who denounced the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations. The prominent clergymen called King an “extremist” and an “outsider,” and “appeal[ed] to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Regarding his “outsider” status, King insisted that the us-and-them categories were flawed, and that any meaningful distinction that might exist among groups was that between persons who perpetrated or countenanced injustice, on one hand, and those who resisted it, on the other:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . .”

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

mlk3.jpgIn describing the injustice itself, King sought to remove the focus from individual behavor and choice to the situational forces and absence of meaningful choice that helped to shape that behavior:

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

In terms of his methods, too, Dr. King was a situationist. He understood that negotiating outcomes reflected the circumstances much more than the the disposition, of negotiators. The aim of demonstrations was to create a situation in which questions otherwise unasked were brought to the fore, in which injustice otherwise unnoticed was made salient, and in which the weak bargaining positions of the otherwise powerless were collectivized and strengthened:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused tocivil-rights-protest.jpg negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

In the letter, King expressed his frustation, not just with the egregious racists, but also — no, moreso — with the moderates who were willing to sacrifice real justice for the sake of maintaining the illusion of justice. King put it this way:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ . . . .”

mlk4.jpgAnd King recognized the role that laws could play in maintaining an unjust status quo. Of course, he criticized the laws that literally enforced segregation, but he didn’t stop there. He criticized, too, the seemingly neutral laws, and the purportedly principled methods of interpreting and applying those laws, that could serve as legitimating cover for existing disparities:

“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

King explained that many churches, too, were implicated in this web of justification — caught up as they were in making sense of, or lessening the sting of, existing arrangements:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”

mlk5.jpg

So, yes, Reverend King urged us all to help create a world in which people were “not . . . judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King said much more. He recognized and tried to teach those who would listen that getting to that world would mean examining and challenging the situation — including our beliefs, our laws, our ideologies, our religious beliefs, our institutions, and existing allocations of opportunity, wealth, and power.

Judging those who are disadvantaged by the content of their character is not, taken alone, much of a solution. It may, in fact, be part of the problem. As Kathleen Hanson (my wife) and I recently argued, the problem “is, not in neglecting character, but in attributing to ‘character’ what should be attributed to [a person's] situation and, in turn, to our system and ourselves.” Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, far more effectively: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

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?

* * *

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 »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by Jon Hanson on January 15, 2011

mlk1.jpgThis post was originally published on January 22, 2007.

* * *

Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.

To be sure, King is most revered in some circles for quotations that are easily construed as dispositionist, such as: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Taken alone, as it often is, that sentence seems to set a low bar. Indeed, some Americans contend that we’ve arrived at that promised land; after all, most of us (mostly incorrectly) imagine ourselves to be judging people based solely on their dispositions, choices, personalities, or, in short, their characters.

Putting King’s quotation in context, however, it becomes clear that his was largely a situationist message. He was encouraging us all to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle situational forces that caused inequalities and to question (what John Jost calls) system-justifying ideologies that helped maintain those inequalities.

mlk2.jpgKing’s amazing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is illustrative. While being held for nine days, King penned a letter in response to the public statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen who denounced the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations. The prominent clergymen called King an “extremist” and an “outsider,” and “appeal[ed] to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Regarding his “outsider” status, King insisted that the us-and-them categories were flawed, and that any meaningful distinction that might exist among groups was that between persons who perpetrated or countenanced injustice, on one hand, and those who resisted it, on the other:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . .”

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

mlk3.jpgIn describing the injustice itself, King sought to remove the focus from individual behavor and choice to the situational forces and absence of meaningful choice that helped to shape that behavior:

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

In terms of his methods, too, Dr. King was a situationist. He understood that negotiating outcomes reflected the circumstances much more than the the disposition, of negotiators. The aim of demonstrations was to create a situation in which questions otherwise unasked were brought to the fore, in which injustice otherwise unnoticed was made salient, and in which the weak bargaining positions of the otherwise powerless were collectivized and strengthened:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused tocivil-rights-protest.jpg negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

In the letter, King expressed his frustation, not just with the egregious racists, but also — no, moreso — with the moderates who were willing to sacrifice real justice for the sake of maintaining the illusion of justice. King put it this way:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ . . . .”

mlk4.jpgAnd King recognized the role that laws could play in maintaining an unjust status quo. Of course, he criticized the laws that literally enforced segregation, but he didn’t stop there. He criticized, too, the seemingly neutral laws, and the purportedly principled methods of interpreting and applying those laws, that could serve as legitimating cover for existing disparities:

“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

King explained that many churches, too, were implicated in this web of justification — caught up as they were in making sense of, or lessening the sting of, existing arrangements:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”

mlk5.jpg

So, yes, Reverend King urged us all to help create a world in which people were “not . . . judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King said much more. He recognized and tried to teach those who would listen that getting to that world would mean examining and challenging the situation — including our beliefs, our laws, our ideologies, our religious beliefs, our institutions, and existing allocations of opportunity, wealth, and power.

Judging those who are disadvantaged by the content of their character is not, taken alone, much of a solution. It may, in fact, be part of the problem. As Kathleen Hanson (my wife) and I recently argued, the problem “is, not in neglecting character, but in attributing to ‘character’ what should be attributed to [a person's] situation and, in turn, to our system and ourselves.” Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, far more effectively: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 2 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?

* * *

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!

* * *

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 »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by Jon Hanson on January 18, 2010

mlk1.jpgThis post was originally published on January 22, 2007.

* * *

Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.

To be sure, King is most revered in some circles for quotations that are easily construed as dispositionist, such as: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Taken alone, as it often is, that sentence seems to set a low bar. Indeed, some Americans contend that we’ve arrived at that promised land; after all, most of us (mostly incorrectly) imagine ourselves to be judging people based solely on their dispositions, choices, personalities, or, in short, their characters.

Putting King’s quotation in context, however, it becomes clear that his was largely a situationist message. He was encouraging us all to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle situational forces that caused inequalities and to question (what John Jost calls) system-justifying ideologies that helped maintain those inequalities.

mlk2.jpgKing’s amazing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is illustrative. While being held for nine days, King penned a letter in response to the public statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen who denounced the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations. The prominent clergymen called King an “extremist” and an “outsider,” and “appeal[ed] to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Regarding his “outsider” status, King insisted that the us-and-them categories were flawed, and that any meaningful distinction that might exist among groups was that between persons who perpetrated or countenanced injustice, on one hand, and those who resisted it, on the other:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . .”

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

mlk3.jpgIn describing the injustice itself, King sought to remove the focus from individual behavor and choice to the situational forces and absence of meaningful choice that helped to shape that behavior:

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

In terms of his methods, too, Dr. King was a situationist. He understood that negotiating outcomes reflected the circumstances much more than the the disposition, of negotiators. The aim of demonstrations was to create a situation in which questions otherwise unasked were brought to the fore, in which injustice otherwise unnoticed was made salient, and in which the weak bargaining positions of the otherwise powerless were collectivized and strengthened:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused tocivil-rights-protest.jpg negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

In the letter, King expressed his frustation, not just with the egregious racists, but also — no, moreso — with the moderates who were willing to sacrifice real justice for the sake of maintaining the illusion of justice. King put it this way:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ . . . .”

mlk4.jpgAnd King recognized the role that laws could play in maintaining an unjust status quo. Of course, he criticized the laws that literally enforced segregation, but he didn’t stop there. He criticized, too, the seemingly neutral laws, and the purportedly principled methods of interpreting and applying those laws, that could serve as legitimating cover for existing disparities:

“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

King explained that many churches, too, were implicated in this web of justification — caught up as they were in making sense of, or lessening the sting of, existing arrangements:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”

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So, yes, Reverend King urged us all to help create a world in which people were “not . . . judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King said much more. He recognized and tried to teach those who would listen that getting to that world would mean examining and challenging the situation — including our beliefs, our laws, our ideologies, our religious beliefs, our institutions, and existing allocations of opportunity, wealth, and power.

Judging those who are disadvantaged by the content of their character is not, taken alone, much of a solution. It may, in fact, be part of the problem. As Kathleen Hanson (my wife) and I recently argued, the problem “is, not in neglecting character, but in attributing to ‘character’ what should be attributed to [a person's] situation and, in turn, to our system and ourselves.” Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, far more effectively: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Larry Lessig’s Situationism,” Al Gore – The Situationist,”

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

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 »

Barbara Ehrenreich on the Sources of and Problems with Dispositionism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 10, 2009

From GRITtv: “Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book looks at the downside of looking on the bright side, which she says has undermined America.”

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Barbara Ehrenreich – a Situationist,” The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,” Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?,” “Cheering for the Underdog,” “Ayn Rand’s Dispositionism: The Situation of Ideas,” Deep Capture – Part X,” “Promoting Dispositionism through Entertainment – Part I, Part II, & Part III,”

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Ideology, Illusions, Life, Positive Psychology, 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

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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 Situation of Magical Thinking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 11, 2008

lennon.jpgMatthew Hutson has an excellent piece in the latest Pscyhology Today looking at the psychological origins of magical thinking. Among other topics, Hutson highlights some research by Situationist contributor Emily Pronin. Here are a few pieces of the article.

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Last year John Lennon went on tour. He visited, among other locations, Oklahoma City, Waco, New Orleans, and Virginia Tech, spreading a message of peace and love at the sites of tragic events. You may not have recognized him, though, covered in scars and cigarette burns. But to hear him, there would have been no mistaking his presence.

On this journey, Lennon assumed the form of a piano, specifically the one on which he composed Imagine. “It gives off his spirit, and what he believed in, and what he preached for many years,” says Caroline True, the tour director and a colleague of the Steinway’s current owner, singer George Michael. Free of velvet ropes, it could be touched or played by anyone. According to Libra LaGrone, whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, “It was like sleeping in your grandpa’s sweatshirt at night. Familiar, beautiful, and personal.”

“I never went anywhere saying this is a magic piano and it’s going to cure your ills,” True says. But she consistently saw even the most skeptical hearts warm to the experience—even in Virginia, where the piano landed just a month after the massacre. “I had no idea an inanimate object could give people so much.”Maybe you’re not a Beatles fan. Maybe you even hate peace and love. But you are wired to find meaning in the world, a predisposition that leaves you with less control over your beliefs than you may think. . . .

Lennon Piano on tour (AP)Magical thinking springs up everywhere. Some irrational beliefs (Santa Claus?) are passed on to us. But others we find on our own. Survival requires recognizing patterns—night follows day, berries that color will make you ill. And because missing the obvious often hurts more than seeing the imaginary, our skills at inferring connections are overtuned. No one told Wade Boggs that eating chicken before every single game would help his batting average; he decided that on his own, and no one can argue with his success. We look for patterns because we hate surprises and because we love being in control.

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“There are many layers of belief,” psychologist Carol Nemeroff says. “And the answer for many people, especially with regard to magic, is, ‘Most of me doesn’t believe but some of me does.’” People will often acknowledge their gut reaction and say it makes no sense to act on it—but do it anyway. Other times, they’ll incorporate superstition into their worldview alongside other explanations. “For example,” says Susan Gelman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, “God puts you in the path of an HIV-positive lover, but biology causes you to contract the virus from his semen.”

Often we don’t even register our wacky beliefs. Seeing causality in coincidence can happen even before we have a chance to think about it; the misfiring is sometimes perceptual rather than rational. “Consider what happens when you honk your horn, and just at that moment a streetlight goes out,” observes Brian Scholl, director of Yale’s Perception and Cognition Laboratory. “You may never for a moment believe that your honk caused the light to go out, but you will irresistibly perceive that causal relation. The fact remains that our visual systems refuse to believe in coincidences.” Our overeager eyes, in effect, lay the groundwork for more detailed superstitious ideation. And it turns out that no matter how rational people consider themselves, if they place a high value on hunches they are hard-pressed to hit a baby’s photo on a dartboard. On some level they’re equating image with reality. Even our aim falls prey to intuition.

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1. Anything can be sacred.

To some, John Lennon’s piano is sacred. Most married people consider their wedding rings sacred. Kids with no notion of sanctity will bust a lung wailing over their lost blanky. Personal investment in inanimate objects might delicately be called sentimentality, but what else is it if not magical thinking? There’s some invisible meaning attached to these things: an essence. A wedding ring or a childhood blanket could be replaced by identical or near-identical ones, but those impostors just wouldn’t be the same. What makes something sacred is not its material makeup but its unique history. . . .

In many cases the value of an object comes from who owned it or used it or touched it, an example of “magical contagion.” . . . Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania and Nemeroff contend that magical contagion may emerge from our evolved fear of germs, which, like essences, are invisible, easily transmissible, and have far-reaching consequences. Well before humans had any concept of germ theory, we quarantined the ill and avoided touching dead bodies. The deep intuition that moral or psychological qualities can pass between people, or that an object carries its history with it, could just be an extension of the adaptive tendency to pay close attention to the pathways of illness.But that doesn’t mean we’re good at evaluating sources of contagion. Nemeroff found that people draw the germs of their lovers as less scary-looking than those of enemies, and they say those germs would make them less ill. She also found that undergrads base condom usage on how emotionally safe they feel with a partner more than on objective risk factors for catching STDs.

2. Anything can be cursed.

Essences are not always good. In fact, people show stronger reactions to negative taint than to positive. Mother Teresa cannot fully neutralize the evil in a sweater worn by Hitler, a fact that fits the germ theory of moral contagion: A drop of sewage does more to a bucket of clean water than a drop of clean water does to a bucket of sewage. Traditional cleaning can’t erase bad vibes either. Studies by Rozin and colleagues show that people have a strong aversion to wearing laundered clothes that have been worn by a murderer or even by someone who’s lost a leg in an accident. Magical contagion can also flow in reverse. Many people wouldn’t want an AIDS patient taking over a hospital bed that they had just left, and about a third of undergrads would feel uncomfortable if an enemy possessed their used hairbrush. “This rests on the assumption that there is no separation of space and time,” Nemeroff says. “The hairbrush and I were in contact, we merged. At that mystical level where all is one, acting on it is acting on me.”

3. Mind rules over matter.

Wishing is probably the most ubiquitous kind of magical spell around, the unreasonable expectation that your thoughts have force and energy to act on the world. Who has not resisted certain thoughts for fear of jinxing oneself? Made a wish while blowing out birthday candles? Tried to push a field goal fair mid-flight using nothing but hope and concentration? Emily Pronin and colleagues at Princeton and Harvard convinced undergrads in a study that they had put voodoo curses on fellow subjects. While targeting their thoughts on the other students, hexers pushed pins into voodoo dolls and the “victims” feigned headaches. Some victims had been instructed to behave like jackasses during the study (the “Stupid People Shouldn’t Breed” T-shirt was a nice touch), eliciting ill will from pin pushers. Those who dealt with the jerks felt much more responsible for the headaches than the control group did. If you think it, and it happens, then you did it, right? Pronin describes the results as a particular form of seeingMichael Hargrove causality in coincidence, where the “cause” is especially conspicuous because it’s hard to miss what’s going on in your own head.

4. Rituals bring good luck.

Whenever I fly, I place my hands on the fuselage as I step onto the plane. The habit began when I was a kid innocently in awe of flying machines, but over the years as I continued to touch the plane and continued to not die horribly, my brain decided I was keeping the apparatus aloft, and now I do it for peace of mind. To witness the mindless repetition of actions with no proven causal effect, there’s no better laboratory than the athletic field. The anthropologist George Gmelch of Union College in Schenectady has paid close attention to the elaborate dances players do during baseball games. Because performance while hitting and pitching is so unpredictable (compared to fielding), most behavioral tics occur on the mound or at the plate. Mike Hargrove was nicknamed “the human rain delay” because of his obsessive shenanigans while at bat. B.F. Skinner famously showed “superstition” in pigeons by locking them in a box, feeding them at regular intervals, and watching them associate random behaviors with food rewards, eventually building up intricate routines of behavior. When you combine kicking dirt and readjusting your helmet with strikes and home runs, you can see how the batter’s box would quickly become an open-air Skinner box.

We use ritual acts most often when there is little cost to them, when an outcome is uncertain or beyond our control, and when the stakes are high—hence my communion with the fuselage. People who truly trust in their rituals exhibit a phenomenon known as “illusion of control,” the belief that they have more influence over the world than they actually do. And it’s not a bad delusion to have—a sense of control encourages people to work harder than they might otherwise. In fact, a fully accurate assessment of your powers, a state known as “depressive realism,” haunts people with clinical depression, who in general show less magical thinking.

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6. Karma’s a bitch.

. . . . Belief in a just world puts our minds at ease: Even if things are beyond our control, they happen for a reason. The idea of arbitrary pain and suffering is just too much for many people to bear, and the need for moral order may help explain the popularity of religion; in fact, just-worlders are more religious than others. . . .

7. The world is alive.

To believe that the universe is sympathetic to our wishes is to believe that it has a mind or a soul, however rudimentary. . . . It’s not that we think all matter is fully alive—even babies are surprised when inanimate objects appear to move on their own—it’s that we feel all matter has that potential. . . . Lindeman Marjaana, a psychologist at the University of Helsinki, defines magical thinking as treating the world as if it has mental properties (animism) or expecting the mind to exhibit the properties of the physical world. She found that people who literally endorse phrases such as, “Old furniture knows things about the past,” or, “An evil thought is contaminated,” also believe in things like feng shui (the idea that the arrangement of furniture can channel life energy) and astrology. They are also more likely to be religious and to believe in paranormal agents. [Eugene] Subbotsky says there are benefits to thinking animistically. “It’s much more comfortable to think that your fate is written down in a constellation of stars than that you’re one of a certain group of intelligent animals who are lost in frozen space forever.”

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To read the all of the Hutson’s article (we cut out a lot of interesting sections, including “To name is to rule,” “Magical Thinking: Positive psychology or psychosis lite?” and ” Primed For The Future,” click here. For a sample of previous, related Situationist posts, go to “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!” and “The Magic of Jonathan Papelbon’s ‘Knuckle Knock,’” “Red Sox Magic,” and “Think You’ve Got Magical Powers?

Posted in Life, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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