The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘just world hypothesis’

The Situation of Donations

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 29, 2011

From BBC:

We give more to a drought victim than a war victim because we suspect the latter may be partly to blame for their plight, the authors say.

It could explain why the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami sparked a huge response but the Darfur appeal received less.

The study was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

“These conclusions are borne out by our experience,” said Brendan Paddy of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), a UK body that co-ordinates aid appeals.

“Appeals for a humanitarian disaster arising from conflict tend to get significantly less response than natural events.”

* * *

In the study, the psychologists invented a fictitious famine.

They then told test groups the famine was caused either by a “drought” or “armed conflict” and invited them to contribute to an appeal for funds.

People routinely gave more to the victims of the “drought” because when they saw victims of a man-made disaster they tended to think they must have something to do with their plight, the authors concluded.

This response was due to a “blame game” based on what was known as the “just world belief”, said lead author Hanna Zagefka of the Royal Holloway, University of London.

Under this belief, she said, we all wanted to think the world was fair and just, “because the alternative could mean that all sorts of random and horrible things could happen to us”.

“In this fair and just world that we want, the innocent do not suffer,” Ms Zagefka said.

“So if we see someone suffering, we assume they can’t be completely innocent – this is the way we defend our belief in a just world.”

In the case of famine caused by conflict, we might subconsciously think that the victims were somehow complicit, the researchers said.

But in a natural disaster, they added, our instinct told us the story was simple – the earthquake struck, or the huge wave arrived, and it could not be the fault of the victims.

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Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Altruism, Ideology, Marketing, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Warming World or Just World?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 27, 2010

From UCBerkeley News:

Dire or emotionally charged warnings about the consequences of global warming can backfire if presented too negatively, making people less amenable to reducing their carbon footprint, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley.

“Our study indicates that the potentially devastating consequences of global warming threaten people’s fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair. As a result, people may respond by discounting evidence for global warming,” said Robb Willer, UC Berkeley social psychologist and coauthor of a study to be published in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science.

“The scarier the message, the more people who are committed to viewing the world as fundamentally stable and fair are motivated to deny it,” agreed Matthew Feinberg, a doctoral student in psychology and coauthor of the study.

But if scientists and advocates can communicate their findings in less apocalyptic ways, and present solutions to global warming, Willer said, most people can get past their skepticism.

Recent decades have seen a growing scientific consensus on the existence of a warming of global land and ocean temperatures. A significant part of the warming trend has been attributed to human activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the mounting evidence, a Gallup poll conducted earlier this year found that 48 percent of Americans believe that global warming concerns are exaggerated, and 19 percent think global warming will never happen. In 1997, 31 percent of those who were asked the same question in a Gallup poll felt the claims were overstated.

In light of this contradictory trend, Feinberg and Willer sought to investigate the psychology behind attitudes about climate change.

In the first of two experiments, 97 UC Berkeley undergraduates were gauged for their political attitudes, skepticism about global warming and level of belief in whether the world is just or unjust. Rated on a “just world scale,” which measures people’s belief in a just world for themselves and others, participants were asked how much they agree with such statements as “I believe that, by and large, people get what they deserve,” and “I am confident that justice always prevails over injustice.”

Next, participants read a news article about global warming. The article started out with factual data provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. But while half the participants received articles that ended with warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of global warming, the other half read ones that concluded with positive messages focused on potential solutions to global warming, such as technological innovations that could reduce carbon emissions.

Results showed that those who read the positive messages were more open to believing in the existence of global warming and had more faith in science’s ability to solve the problem. Moreover, those who scored high on the just world scale were less skeptical about global warming when exposed to the positive message. By contrast, those exposed to doomsday messages became more skeptical about global warming, particularly those who scored high on the just world scale.

In the second experiment, involving 45 volunteers recruited from 30 U.S. cities via Craigslist, researchers looked specifically at whether increasing one’s belief in a just world would increase his or her skepticism about global warming.

They had half the volunteers unscramble sentences such as “prevails justice always” so they would be more likely to take a just world view when doing the research exercises. They then showed them a video featuring innocent children being put in harm’s way to illustrate the threat of global warming to future generations.

Those who had been primed for a just world view responded to the video with heightened skepticism towards global warming and less willingness to change their lifestyles to reduce their carbon footprint, according to the results.

Overall, the study concludes, “Fear-based appeals, especially when not coupled with a clear solution, can backfire and undermine the intended effects of messages.”

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Value-Affirmation, and the Situation of Climate Change Beliefs,” Global Climate Change and The Situation of Denial,” “Al Gore – The Situationist,” The Situation of Climate Change,” “Getting a Grip on Climate Change,” “Juliet Schor, ‘Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies’,” “Denial,” Thanksgiving as ‘System Justification,’” “The Heat is On,” and “Captured Science.”

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

Why Torture? Because It Feels Good (at least to “Us”)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 16, 2008

Torture’s Attraction Is Not Information — It’s Retribution,”

How did the United States go from a champion of human rights to a state that condones and practices torture on detainees?  The present administration’s first line of defense is one of semantics: The United States has a policy against torture, ergo, actions taken in its name cannot be “torture.”  Its second line of defense invokes the utilitarian argument of expediency: It was necessary to obtain mission-critical information from combatants who would only divulge secrets under extreme duress.  . . .

And yet, interrogation experts make clear that torture is a terrible way to obtain information.  Not merely from a moral perspective, but from a utilitarian perspective as well. Torture victims will always talk, regardless of whether they actually have any information.  That is, the obtained information is generally useless, and when it does have value, it is mixed in with so much false information that there is no reliable way to separate the true from the false.  We are left, then, with a puzzle:  Given the near unanimity that torture is immoral, and the expert agreement that it serves no intelligence function, how do we explain the broad support for enhanced interrogation techniques within the administration and within large segments of the population?

To understand this puzzle, one must first understand something about the psychology of punishment.  There are many justifications for punishment. One can punish a perpetrator to administer his “just deserts,” or punish to deter him and others from behaving similarly in the future.  Punishment can rehabilitate a person, coerce him into providing information, or simply change the cost-benefit analysis so that he will be inhibited from certain behaviors.  People are generally aware of these different justifications, and they like them all.  Indeed, numerous surveys reveal that people endorse all of the reasons, and if forced to choose, they generally split evenly between punishing someone because they “deserve” it and because it will serve some utilitarian purpose.

Psychologists have shown that there is a sharp divide between the reasons people express for punishment and the reasons that actually determine punishment.  That is, there is a discrepancy between what people say and what people do. It turns out that people are highly attuned to the factors that determine whether a person is deserving of punishment.  These are things like having the intent to harm, knowing right from wrong, and the severity of the harm.  At the same time, people largely ignore factors that would affect the utility of the punishment.  So people don’t increase recommended prison sentences when they learn that the perpetrator is likely to commit future crimes, or that the sentence is likely to deter other potential perpetrators.  When you examine behaviorally the reasons that people punish, it is all about trying to give someone what they deserve.

Torture operates along a very similar set of principles.  People treat the decision to torture in the same way that they treat the decision to punish.  They approve increasingly harsh techniques as their perception of the target’s moral culpability increases.  Put simply, if they perceive the target to be a “bad guy” who deserves to be punished, then they will approve of torture.  But if they perceive him to be a good guy (or, at least, innocent of wrong doing) then they generally won’t approve of torture.  It is only at the margins that people pay attention to the potential utility of the torture.  That is, the likelihood that a given target will divulge useful information under torture has far less impact on the decision to torture than does the perception of whether or not that target “deserves” to be tortured.

How do we know this?  The basics are laid out in any introductory text on social psychology.  The specifics, however, come from a series of experiments I conducted with my colleague Avani Sood (a fellow social psychologist who is also an attorney), some of which will be published shortly in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology [available on SSRN, here].

* * *

[To read about the study, go to the commentary here or the underlying paper here.]

* * *

What we learned was that people did not distinguish sharply between torture and punishment.  Indeed, the response to the punishment question and torture question . . . were largely interchangeable.  Moreover, the decision to torture was closely related to [the recipient’s] prior bad acts and largely independent of the likelihood that he possessed any useful information.

So, what does all of this mean? First, it reveals that people use the same psychological process to form judgments about torture as they do for punishment.  Second, those processes revolve largely around retribution – the desire to give someone what they deserve – rather than the potential utility of the action.  Third, people are not aware of this process and have quite limited insight into the principles that guide their decision making.  Hence, they will often claim to be operating on the basis of utility, when utility in fact has little to do with it.

For those who are opposed to torture and to the practices the U.S. engages in, it is common to wonder how the practitioners and supporters can sleep at night.  After all, torture of another person is an ugly business, both practically and morally.  This analysis, though, can help us to understand why such practices seemingly yield so little dissonance.  For those who endorse torture, they are doing so because they believe the recipient is morally culpable and thus deserving of the mistreatment.  Their ostensible justification is utility, and this goal is in no way threatened by deontological concerns because only the deserving get tortured.

The greatest perversion of all comes from the “end-game” of this process.  Psychologists have identified a powerful and pervasive defense mechanism called the “just world” phenomenon . . . . [which contributes to] a human proclivity to “blame the victim.”  If something bad happened to this person, then surely they did something to deserve it.

Now apply this concept to torture.  When we hear of a person being tortured, it is common (if wrong) to assume that the person has probably done something to merit the torture.  The alternative, that the target was truly innocent in all ways, is too upsetting to contemplate.  The belief that the person is deserving solves the tension, and thus is much more readily accepted.

In summary then, we find that people support torture on the basis that it gives bad people what they deserve.  When confronted with information that seemingly defies that belief – such as torturing the wrong person who merely shared a common name with an actual bad guy – they are unconsciously motivated to believe that the innocent is in fact not-so-innocent, and thus able to maintain their erroneous belief that only the guilty are tortured.

Posted in Choice Myth, Conflict, Emotions, Law, Morality, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

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