Social Psychology

Why blaming the homeless makes people feel better

Homeless teenage boy and girl

Systemic Justice Project friend, Jay Willis, has recently been writing with insight and wit about the problem of homelessness.  This week, he published the following op-ed in Crosscut


In Seattle, the recent explosion in homelessness has transformed the issue into a public emergency, demanding immediate, large-scale intervention. But as the estimated price tags of policy proposals grow, the angry backlash against the city’s homeless residents has intensified. Today, it’s rare to see an opinion on how to address the ongoing crisis that doesn’t make extensive use of the CAPS LOCK key.

Why do people sometimes respond so negatively to those living in crippling poverty? There are a few simple, well-studied psychological strategies that people use to alleviate their inherent unease when confronted with severe inequality. Learning to better understand these unconscious thought processes can foster greater empathy, encourage realistic thinking about the issue, and spur progress toward meaningful solutions.

To illustrate, let’s use reactions to an op-ed I wrote in the Seattle Times last month. In it, I argued that when the city conducts a “sweep” to clear homeless encampments, it’s prohibited from unreasonably seizing and destroying residents’ personal possessions. Although Seattle can regulate its streets, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t apply only to people who can afford rent.

I know that the first rule of writing on the Internet is to never read the comments. But the responses were interesting, as they so neatly showcase one way homelessness is explained away as an unfortunate yet acceptable fact of city life. Consider, as some commenters did, the idea that it’s okay to not help homeless people, because they like being homeless.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 9.52.44 PMThe psychologist Melvin Lerner calls this thought process the “Just World Theory”: people prefer to think that they live in a fair, equitable society, and will find ways to view the world as such—even when it requires logical gymnastics to do so.

Do so many of us really think that Seattle’s thousands of homeless residents prefer it that way? When I’ve been able to speak with those who live in The Jungle, not one person expressed any fondness toward spending their nights in five decades worth of blackened highway runoff. But it’s deeply distressing to accept the alternative: that our society freely tolerates human suffering, and that the benefits of the most prosperous period in the region’s history so cleanly elude its most vulnerable residents.

So we do as all self-respecting Seattleites do after each promising Mariners spring that flames out by September: we rationalize, constructing a narrative that explains inequality as the consequence of choices made by free-willed individuals, rather than as a sign of serious societal problems that we are obligated to fix. Reasoning that unsheltered people like living under a freeway — no matter how absurd this is once you stop to think about it — makes this state of affairs much easier to accept.

Others choose to view Seattle’s homeless residents through the “Blame Frame,” a term coined by Jon and Kathleen Hanson. The idea goes like this: when talking about members of our own social group, we tend to attribute good outcomes to having good character. People “like us” succeed because they work hard, put in effort, and happily see it all pay off.

However, when something bad befalls people we consider similar to us, we are quick to explain and exonerate. Something beyond their control—a smart investment gone bad, an employer that went under, the market tanking at just the wrong time—is to blame. “He’s a good guy,” we might say. “Just had some bad luck is all.” After all, we know what kind of person they really are: a good one! Through hard work, they’ll be back on their feet in no time.

We do not afford this same benefit of the doubt to the disadvantaged. Instead, when confronted with bad outcomes experienced by members of other social groups, we blame those people’s inherent character flaws. Just as good people deserve good outcomes, bad people deserve their lot in life, too. “Homeless people do not deserve help because they are lazy drug addicts. They don’t want to work. They have no one to blame but themselves.” Or as two creatively-named commenters put it:

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 9.53.10 PMSeattleites complain all the time about rising housing costs and the region’s ever-shifting job market. But even as people bemoan the role of these phenomena in their own lives, when it comes to the rise in homelessness, they often won’t connect these issues to it. This is an insidious double standard. By relieving the inclination to develop a nuanced understanding of the plight of Seattle’s homeless residents, the Blame Frame allows us to feel little responsibility to help those who need it.

If all this seems intensely depressing, I present to you a case for hope.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 9.53.23 PM

This is a valiant attempt to resolve difficult, conflicting emotions. (Is it you? If so, email me, and I’ll buy you a drink.) The author first tacks to the concepts outlined above, asserting that homeless people who “like their way of living” do not “deserve” help. But just a few lines later, they acknowledge an important tension: they do want to help those who are homeless due to “bad luck.”

This person recognizes that so much more probably goes into homelessness than any one individual’s decisions. And like many of us, he or she is trying to work these dissonant feelings out.

To be clear: the psychological concepts presented here are natural and unconscious. This means that no one — including you or me — is a malevolent person for sometimes wondering if homelessness is a lifestyle choice, or for wanting to blame the homeless for their own misfortune. But acknowledging how our reactions to complex social problems fail to capture all sides of the story is a critical missing step in Seattle’s discourse on homelessness.

By better understanding what goes on in our own heads, we can help foster more critical thinking about what causes homelessness, and, just maybe, how best to solve it.


See related articles:


The Illusion of Color-Blindness


From Harvard Gazette:

According to Yale Professor John Dovidio, “Whites spend a lot of time pretending they don’t see race.” But, he said, unconscious bias is pervasive, and unconscious biases by whites impact nearly every aspect of black lives, including vital areas such as health care and employment.

Dovidio, the Carl Iver Hovland Professor of Psychology at Yale University, was the guest speaker at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ second Diversity Dialogue of the year. “But I Don’t See Color! Consequences of Racial Color-Blindness” was held Dec. 2 at Harvard Hillel.

Biases are built into our society and it’s normal to absorb them, said Dovidio to the audience of more than 150. “Subtle bias by well-intentioned people is one of the hardest things to overcome.”

Prejudice is embedded in the way people think, which makes it insidious, he said. “If I see a person of color and I claim to be color-blind, what color do I see? White. And that’s racist.”

Dovidio cited several studies that showed disparities in interactions between physicians and patients. He said a 2003 study found, “Race-discordant visits are shorter, involve less positive affect, and are less participatory.” Another study, he noted, reported that 57 percent of blacks say they experience discrimination “often” or “very often” in interactions with white physicians.

Implicit bias by white physicians, he said, results in fewer verbalizations, shorter visits, and faster speech. They are less patient-centered. In response, the patient is less involved and there is less clinician respect. Further, the patient does not like or trust the clinician, and lacks confidence in him or her, according to the studies cited by Dovidio.

In the workplace, Dovidio said he does not buy managers’ arguments that “We tried to have a diverse [field] of candidates, but couldn’t find any” when filling job positions. He said senior leaders should not care about good intentions, but only about results.

“If you value something, it’s the outcome that matters,” he said. “If you want diversity in the workplace, you have to fight for it.”

Dovidio said unconscious bias in the workplace frequently prevents blacks from getting jobs. He cited research that showed that in a pool of black and white candidates who may be slightly deficient in qualifications for the same job, the white candidates are more likely to be chosen. White deficiencies are more likely to be overlooked or forgiven. Hiring managers often cite the deficiencies in the black candidates to justify not hiring them. In other words, he said, “White candidates get the benefit of the doubt. If there is some ambiguity, the black person suffers.”

* * *

Returning to his extensive research regarding race and white bias against blacks, Dovidio cited what he called “aversive racists” who “sympathize with victims of past injustice, support principles of racial equality, and genuinely regard themselves as non-prejudiced, but at the same time possess conflicting, often non-conscious, negative feelings and beliefs about blacks.”

These negative feelings, Dovidio said, “are rooted in basic psychological processes [e.g., social categorization] that promote racial bias. In addition, the negative feelings that aversive racists have toward blacks do not reflect open hostility or hatred. Instead, aversive racists’ reactions typically involve discomfort, anxiety, or fear.”

Dovidio concluded that contemporary bias is subtle and unconscious. But he said there are ways to confront it. He suggests that organizations create strong diversity committees, involve people of color, and make diversity part of employee performance reviews.

* * *

Read entire article here.

Why Rely on the Nudged to Nudge the Nudgers to Prevent Evil Nudging?


Richard Thaler writes in the New York Times about the problem that nudges can be used for good or bad. He specifies three principles for nudging, and then writes:

As far as I know, the government teams in Britain and the United States that have focused on nudging have followed these guidelines scrupulously. But the private sector is another matter. In this domain, I see much more troubling behavior.

Later, Thaler warns against the lazy use of the presumption that markets are good and regulation is bad:

Some argue that phishing — or evil nudging — is more dangerous in government than in the private sector. The argument is that government is a monopoly with coercive power, while we have more choice in the private sector over which newspapers we read and which airlines we fly.

I think this distinction is overstated. In a democracy, if a government creates bad policies, it can be voted out of office. Competition in the private sector, however, can easily work to encourage phishing rather than stifle it.

Thaler’s identification of the problem seems correct, and further research would turn up many more examples of private sector nudging than a subscription to The Times of London and trip insurance on a United flight. The first couple articles in a series on arbitration clauses that the New York Times started on the same day Thaler’s article was published gives some sense of the relationship many companies have with their consumers and their sense of their corporate responsibilities. However, the fact that Thaler understands the problem makes his proposed solution particularly disappointing:

As customers, we can help one another by resisting these come-ons. The more we turn down questionable offers like trip insurance and scrutinize “one month” trials, the less incentive companies will have to use such schemes. Conversely, if customers reward firms that act in our best interests, more such outfits will survive and flourish, and the options available to us will improve.

Turning down questionable offers and scrutinizing one-month trials is good advice, but the whole concept of nudging is premised on the insight that consumers are not very good at following that sort of advice. If, like Thaler, we reject the premise that the government is more dangerous than the private sector, the implications of the social psychology studies that influenced Thaler and his co-author Cass Sunstein to develop libertarian paternalism might justify a more robust role for regulating companies that dominate so much of our lives. This is surely more urgent than applying some of the same strategies that the private sector has long been using for good nudging.

Thaler’s example of “evil nudging” that the market encourages rather than stifles is “the mortgage industry in the early 2000s”:

Borrowers were encouraged to take out loans that they could not repay when real estate prices fell. Competition did not eliminate this practice, because it was hard for anyone to make money selling the advice “Don’t take that loan.”

For Joseph Singer, the lesson of the subprime crisis is “No Freedom Without Regulation.” Singer’s book talk contains a brief summary, in which he emphasizes the dependence of the market upon regulation and the consequent incoherence of the claim to favor “free markets” while disliking market regulation. Once we abandon the “markets good/regulation bad” presumption (see p23 of Chen and Hanson’s “The Illusion of Law”), there is little reason for Thaler to insist on blending  paternalism with libertarianism, which leaves him relying on consumers to change the incentives for companies to manipulate them (the nudged nudging the nudgers), an implausibly small solution to a major problem.

A foundational premise of the Systemic Justice Project is that large commercial interests are advantaged in shaping our situations and manipulating consumers and citizens as well capturing institutions and systems.  For a sample of underlying theory and evidence for those problems of “market manipulation” and “deep capture,” see “Taking Behavioralism Seriously: Some Evidence of Market Manipulation,” “The Situation: An Introduction to the Situational Character, Critical Realism, Power Economics, and Deep Capture,” and “The Situational Character: A Critical Realist Perspective on the Human Animal.

Conservatives on Implicit Bias

I’m not a huge fan of David Cameron, even though he was once very kind to my grandmother, who lives in his constituency, but it’s nice to see him taking steps on the issue of implicit bias. As he writes in the guardian:

We have managed to get some of the biggest graduate employers to pledge to anonymise their job applications – in other words, make them name-blind. That means those assessing applications will not be able to see the person’s name, so the ethnic or religious background it might imply cannot influence their prospects.

The civil service, BBC, NHS, local government, HSBC, Deloitte, KPMG, Virgin Money, learndirect – all these and more will now recruit people solely on merit. The Conservative party HQ will do it too. Taken together, these organisations employ 1.8 million people.

And we’ll go further. Some research has shown that top universities make offers to 55% of white applicants, but only to 23% of black ones. The reasons are complex, but unconscious bias is clearly a risk. So we have agreed with UCAS that it will make its applications name-blind, too, from 2017.

If you want to learn more about unconscious (or implicit) bias, the Kirwan Institute’s State of the Science Review is available here. You can learn more and take an implicit bias test at Project Implicit.

Morality and Politics: A System Justification Perspective

capital buildingAn Interview with John Jost by Paul Rosenberg

Note: This interview was originally published on with an outrageously incendiary title that entirely misrepresented its content.

Introduction by Paul Rosenberg:

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, a wide range of thinkers, both secular and religious, struggled to make sense of the profound evil of war, particularly Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. One such effort, “The Authoritarian Personality” by Theodore Adorno and three co-authors, opened up a whole new field of political psychology—initially a small niche within the broader field of social psychology—which developed fitfully over the years, but became an increasingly robust subject area in 1980s and 90s, fleshing out a number of distinct areas of cognitive processing in which liberals and conservatives differed from one another. Liberal/conservative differences were not the sole concern of this field, but they did appear repeatedly across a growing range of different sorts of measures, including the inclination to justify the existing social order, whatever it might be, an insight developed by John Jost, starting in the 1990s, under the rubric of “system justification theory.”

The field of political psychology gained increased visibility in the 2000s as conservative Republicans controlled the White House and Congress simultaneously for the first time since the Great Depression, and took the nation in an increasingly divisive direction. Most notably, John Dean’s 2006 bestseller, “Conservatives Without Conscience,” popularized two of the more striking developments of the 1980s and 90s, the constructs of rightwing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. A few years before that, a purely academic paper, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” by Jost and three other prominent researchers in the field, caused a brief spasm of political reaction which led some in Congress to talk of defunding the entire field.

But as the Bush era ended, and Barack Obama’s rhetoric of transcending right/left differences captured the national imagination, an echo of sentiment appeared in the field of political psychology as well. Known as “moral foundations theory,” and most closely associated with psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and popularized in his book “The Righteous Mind,” it argued that a too-narrow focus on concerns of fairness and care/harm avoidance had diminished researchers’ appreciation for the full range of moral concerns, especially a particular subset of distinct concerns which conservatives appear to value more than liberals do. In order to restore balance to the field, researchers must broaden their horizons—and even, Haidt argued, engage in affirmative action to recruit conservatives into the field of political psychology. This was, in effect, an argument invoking liberal values—fairness, inclusion, openness to new ideas, etc.—and using them to criticize or even attack what was characterized as a liberal orthodoxy, or even a church-like, close-minded tribal moral community.

Yet, to some, these arguments seemed to gloss over, or even just outright dismiss a wide body of data, not dogma, from decades of previous research. While people were willing to consider new information, and new perspectives, there was a reluctance to throw out the baby with the bathwater, as it were. In the most nitty-gritty sense, the question came down to this: Was the rhetorical framing of the moral foundations argument actually congruent with the detailed empirical findings in the field? Or did it serve more to blur important distinctions that were solidly grounded in rigorous observation?

Recently, a number of studies have raised questions about moral foundations theory in precisely these terms—are the moral foundations more congenial to conservatives actually reflective of non-moral or even immoral tendencies which have already been extensively studied? Late last year, a paper co-authored by Jost—“Another Look At Moral Foundations Theory”—built on these earlier studies to make the strongest case yet along these lines. To gain a better understanding of the field as a whole, moral foundations theory as a challenge within it, the problems that theory is now confronting, and what sort of resolution—and new frontiers—may lie ahead for the field, Paul Rosenberg spoke with John Jost. In the end, he suggested, moral foundations theory and system justification theory may end up looking surprisingly similar to one another, rather than being radically at odds.

PR: You’re most known for your work developing system justification theory, followed by your broader work on developing an integrated account of political ideology. You recently co-authored a paper “Another Look at Moral Foundations Theory,” which I want to focus on, but in order to do so coherently, I thought it best to begin by first asking you about your own work, and that of others you’ve helped integrate, before turning to moral foundations theory generally, and this critical paper in particular.

So, with that in mind as a game plan, could you briefly explain what system justification theory is all about, how it was that you became interested in the subject matter, and why others should be interested in it as well?

JJ: When I was a graduate student in social psychology at Yale back in the 1990’s I began to wonder about a set of seemingly unrelated phenomena that were all counterintuitive in some way and in need of explanation. So I asked: Why do people stay in abusive relationships, why do women feel that they are entitled to lower salaries than men, and why do African American children come to think that white dolls are more attractive and desirable? Why do people blame victims of injustice and why do victims of injustice sometimes blame themselves? Why is it so difficult for unions and other organizations to get people to stand up for themselves, and why do we find personal and social change to be so difficult, even painful? Of course, not everyone exhibits these patterns of behavior at all times, but many people do, and it seemed to me that these phenomena were not well explained by existing theories in social science.

And so it occurred to me that there might be a common denominator—at the level of social psychology—in these seemingly disparate situations. Perhaps human beings are in some fairly subtle way prone to accept, defend, justify, and rationalize existing social arrangements and to resist attempts to change the status quo, however well-meaning those attempts may be. In other words, we may be motivated, to varying degrees, to justify the social systems on which we depend, to see them as relatively good, fair, legitimate, desirable, and so on.

This did not strike me as implausible, given that social psychologists had already demonstrated that we are often motivated to defend and justify ourselves and the social groups to which we belong. Most of us believe that we are better drivers than the average person and more fair, too, and many of us believe that our schools or sports teams or companies are better than their rivals and competitors. Why should we not also want to believe that the social, economic, and political institutions that are familiar to us are, all things considered, better than the alternatives? To believe otherwise is at least somewhat painful, insofar it would force us to confront the possibility that our lives and those of others around us may be subject to capriciousness, exploitation, discrimination, injustice, and that things could be different, better—but they are not.

In 2003, a paper you co-authored, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition” caused quite a stir politically—there were even brief rumblings in Congress to cut off all research funding, not just for you, but for an entire broad field of research, though you managed to quell those rumblings in a subsequent Washington Post op-ed. That paper might well be called the tip of the iceberg of a whole body of work you’ve helped draw together, and continued to work on since then. So, first of all, what was that paper about?

We wanted to understand the relationship, if any, between psychological conservatism—the mental forces that contribute to resistance to change—and political conservatism as an ideology or a social movement. My colleagues and I conducted a quantitative, meta-analytic review of nearly fifty years of research conducted in 12 different countries and involving over 22,000 research participants or individual cases. We found 88 studies that had investigated correlations between personality characteristics and various psychological needs, motives, and tendencies, on one hand, and political attitudes and opinions, on the other.

And what did it show?

We found pretty clear and consistent correlations between psychological motives to reduce and manage uncertainty and threat—as measured with standard psychometric scales used to gauge personal needs for order, structure, and closure, intolerance of ambiguity, cognitive simplicity vs. complexity, death anxiety, perceptions of a dangerous world, etc.—and identification with and endorsement of politically conservative (vs. liberal) opinions, leaders, parties, and policies.

How did politicians misunderstand the paper, and how did you respond?

I suspect that there were some honest misunderstandings as well as some other kinds. One issue is that many people seem to assume that whatever psychologists are studying must be considered (by the researchers, at least) as abnormal or pathological. But that is simply untrue. Social, cognitive, developmental, personality, and political psychologists are all far more likely to study attitudes and behaviors that are normal, ordinary, and mundane. We are primarily interested in understanding the dynamics of everyday life. In any case, none of the variables that my colleagues and I investigated had anything to do with psychopathology; we were looking at variability in normal ranges within the population and whether specific psychological characteristics were correlated with political opinions. We tried to point some of these things out, encouraging people to read beyond the title, and emphasizing that there are advantages as well as disadvantages to being high vs. low on the need for cognitive closure, cognitive complexity, sensitivity to threat, and so on.

How has that paper been built on since?

I am gratified and amazed at how many research teams all over the world have taken our ideas and refined, extended, and otherwise built upon them over the last decade. To begin with, a number of studies have confirmed that political conservatism and right-wing orientation are associated with various measures of system justification. And public opinion research involving nationally representative samples from all over the world establishes that the two core value dimensions that we proposed to separate the right from the left—traditionalism (or resistance to change) and acceptance of inequality—are indeed correlated with one another, and they are generally (but not always) associated with system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation.

Since 2003, numerous studies have replicated the correlations we observed between epistemic motives, including personal needs for order, structure, and closure and resistance to change, acceptance of inequality, system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation. Several find that liberals score higher than conservatives on the need for cognition, which captures the individual’s chronic tendency to enjoy effortful forms of thinking. This finding is potentially important because individuals who score lower on the need for cognition favor quick, intuitive, heuristic processing of new information, whereas those who score higher are more likely to engage in more elaborate, systematic processing (what Daniel Kahneman refers to as System 1 and System 2 thinking, respectively). The relationship between epistemic motivation and political orientation has also been explored in research on nonverbal behavior and neurocognitive structure and functioning.

Various labs have also replicated the correlations we observed between existential motives, including attention and sensitivity to dangerous and threatening stimuli, and resistance to change, acceptance of inequality, and conservatism. Ingenious experiments have demonstrated that temporary activation of epistemic needs to reduce uncertainty or to attain a sense of control or closure increases the appeal of system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation. Experiments have demonstrated that temporary activation of existential needs to manage threat and anxiety likewise increases the appeal of system justification, conservatism, and right-wing orientation, all other things being equal. These experiments are especially valuable because they identify causal relationships between psychological motives and political orientation.

Progress has also been made in understanding connections between personality characteristics and political orientation. In terms of “Big Five” personality traits, studies involving students and nationally representative samples of adults tell exactly the same story: Openness to new experiences is positively associated with a liberal orientation, whereas Conscientiousness (especially the need for order) is positively associated with conservative orientation. In a few longitudinal studies, childhood measures of intolerance of ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity as well as sensitivity to fear, threat, and danger have been found to predict conservative orientation later in life. Finally, we have observed that throughout North America and Western Europe, conservatives report being happier and more satisfied than liberals, and this difference is partially (but not completely) explained by system justification and the acceptance of inequality as legitimate. As we suspected many years ago, there appears to be an emotional or hedonic cost to seeing the system as unjust and in need of significant change.

“Moral foundations theory” has gotten a lot of popular press, as well as serious attention in the research community, but for those not familiar with it, could you give us a brief description, and then say something about why it is problematic on its face (particularly in light of the research discussed above)?

The basic idea is that there are five or six innate (evolutionarily prepared) bases for human “moral” judgment and behavior, namely fairness (which moral foundations theorists understand largely in terms of reciprocity), avoidance of harm, ingroup loyalty, obedience to authority, and the enforcement of purity standards. My main problem is that sometimes moral foundations theorists write descriptively as if these are purely subjective considerations—that people think and act as if morality requires us to obey authority, be loyal to the group, and so on. I have no problem with that descriptive claim—although this is surely only a small subset of the things that people might think are morally relevant—as long as we acknowledge that people could be wrong when they think and act as if these are inherently moral considerations.

At other times, however, moral foundations theorists write prescriptively, as if these “foundations” should be given equal weight, objectively speaking, that all of them should be considered virtues, and that anyone who rejects any of them is ignoring an important part of what it means to be a moral human being. I and others have pointed out that many of the worst atrocities in human history have been committed not merely in the name of group loyalty, obedience to authority, and the enforcement of purity standards, but because of a faithful application of these principles. For 24 centuries, Western philosophers have concluded that treating people fairly and minimizing harm should, when it comes to morality, trump group loyalty, deference to authority, and purification. In many cases, behaving ethically requires impartiality and disobedience and the overcoming of gut-level reactions that may lead us toward nepotism, deference, and acting on the basis of disgust and other emotional intuitions. It may be difficult to overcome these things, but isn’t this what morality requires of us?

There have been a number of initial critical studies published, which you cite in this new paper. What have they shown?

Part of the problem is that moral foundations theorists framed their work, for rhetorical purposes, in strong contrast to other research in social and political psychology, including work that I’ve been associated with. But this was unnecessary from the start and, in retrospect, entirely misleading. They basically said: “Past work suggests that conservatism is motivated by psychological needs to reduce uncertainty and threat and that it is associated with authoritarianism and social dominance, but we say that it is motivated by genuinely moral—not immoral or amoral—concerns for group loyalty, obedience to authority, and purity.” This has turned out to be a false juxtaposition on many levels.

First researchers in England and the Netherlands demonstrated that threat sensitivity is in fact associated with group loyalty, obedience to authority, and purity. For instance, perceptions of a dangerous world predict the endorsement of these three values, but not the endorsement of fairness or harm avoidance. Second, a few research teams in the U.S. and New Zealand discovered that authoritarianism and social dominance orientation were positively associated with the moral valuation of ingroup, authority, and purity but not with the valuation of fairness and avoidance of harm. Psychologically speaking, the three so-called “binding foundations” look quite different from the two more humanistic ones.

What haven’t these earlier studies tackled that you wanted to address? And why was this important?

These other studies suggested that there was a reasonably close connection between authoritarianism and the endorsement of ingroup, authority, and purity concerns, but they did not investigate the possibility that individual differences in authoritarianism and social dominance orientation could explain, in a statistical sense, why conservatives value ingroup, authority, and purity significantly more than liberals do and—just as important, but often glossed over in the literature on moral foundations theory—why liberals value fairness and the avoidance of harm significantly more than conservatives do.

How did you go about tackling these unanswered questions? What did you find and how did it compare with what you might have expected?

There was a graduate student named Matthew Kugler (who was then studying at Princeton) who attended a friendly debate about moral foundations theory that I participated in and, after hearing my remarks, decided to see whether the differences between liberals and conservatives in terms of moral intuitions would disappear after statistically adjusting for authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. He conducted a few studies and found that it did, and then he contacted me, and we ended up collaborating on this research, collecting additional data using newer measures developed by moral foundations theorists as well as measures of outgroup hostility.

What does it mean for moral foundations theory?

To me, it means that scholars may need to clean up some of the conceptual confusion in this area of moral psychology, and researchers need to face up to the fact that some moral intuitions (things that people may think are morally relevant and may use as a basis for judging others) may lead people to behave in an unethical, discriminatory manner. But we need behavioral research, such as studies of actual discrimination, to see if this is actually the case. So far the evidence is mainly circumstantial.

And what future research is to come along these lines from you?

One of my students decided to investigate the relationship between system justification and its motivational antecedents, on one hand, and the endorsement of moral foundations, on the other. This work also suggests that the rhetorical contrast between moral foundations theory and other research in social psychology was exaggerated. We are finding that, of the variables we have included, empathy is the best psychological predictor of endorsing fairness and the avoidance of harm as moral concerns, whereas the endorsement of group loyalty, obedience to authority, and purity concerns is indeed linked to epistemic motives to reduce uncertainty (such as the need for cognitive closure) and existential motives to reduce threat (such as death anxiety) and to system justification in the economic domain. So, at a descriptive level, moral foundations theory is entirely consistent with system justification theory.

Finally, I’ve only asked some selective questions, and I’d like to conclude by asking what I always ask in interviews like this—What’s the most important question that I didn’t ask? And what’s the answer to it?

Do I think that social science can help to address some of the problems we face as a society? Yes, I am holding out hope that it can, at least in the long run, and hoping that our leaders will come to realize this eventually.

Our conversation leads me to want to add one more question. Haidt’s basic argument could be characterized as a combination of anthropology–look at all the “moral principles” different cultures have advanced—and the broad equation of morality with the restraint of individual self-interest and/or desire. Your paper, bringing to attention the roles of SDO and RWA, throws into sharp relief a key problem with such a formulation—one that Southern elites have understood for centuries: wholly legitimate individual self-interest (and even morality—adequately feeding & providing a decent future for one’s children, for example) can be easily over-ridden by appeals to heinous “moral concerns,” such as “racial purity,” or more broadly, upholding the “God-given racial order.”

Yet, Haidt does seem to have an important point that individualist moral concern leave something unsaid about the value of the social dimension of human experience, which earlier moral traditions have addressed. Do you see any way forward toward developing a more nuanced account of morality that benefits from the criticism that harm-avoidance and fairness may be too narrow a foundation without embracing the sorts of problematic alternatives put forward so far?

Yes, and there is long tradition of theory and research on social justice—going all the way back to Aristotle—that involves a rich, complex, nuanced analysis of ethical dilemmas that goes well beyond the assumption that fairness is simply about positive and negative reciprocity.

Without question, we are a social species with relational needs and dependencies, and how we treat other people is fundamental to human life, especially when it comes to our capacity for cooperation and social organization. When we are not engaging in some form of rationalization, there are clearly recognizable standards of procedural justice, distributive justice, interactional justice, and so on. Even within the domain of distributive justice—which has to do with the allocation of benefits and burdens in society—there are distinct principles of equity, equality, and need, and in some situations these principles may be in conflict or contradiction.

How to reconcile or integrate these various principles in theory and practice is no simple matter, and this, it seems to me, is what we should focus on working out. We should also focus on solving other dilemmas, such as how to integrate utilitarian, deontological, virtue-theoretical, and social contractualist forms of moral reasoning, because each of these—in my view—has some legitimate claim on our attention as moral agents.

Related Situationist posts:

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

The lessons of Vietnam War heroin addiction for policy interventions


A fascinating piece on heroin addiction in US troops in Vietnam, and the strength of evidence that our environment affects our behavior. The article reports on the incredibly low relapse rate among US soldiers who reported being addicted to heroin while in Vietnam – just 5% relapse in the first year among soldiers returning home compared to the standard relapse rate of 90% following drug treatment. The suggestion is that the radical change in environment explains the low relapse rate:

But one big theory about why the rates of heroin relapse were so low on return to the U.S. has to do with the fact that the soldiers, after being treated for their physical addiction in Vietnam, returned to a place radically different from the environment where their addiction took hold of them.

“I think that most people accept that the change in the environment, and the fact that the addiction occurred in this exotic environment, you know, makes it plausible that the addiction rate would be that much lower,” Jaffe said.

We think of ourselves as controlling our behavior, willing our actions into being, but it’s not that simple.

It’s as if over time, we leave parts of ourselves all around us, which in turn, come to shape who we are.

The following quotations within the article from David Neal go some way towards explaining this phenomenon:

“Once a behavior had been repeated a lot, especially if the person does it in the same setting, you can successfully change what people want to do. But if they’ve done it enough, their behavior doesn’t follow their intentions,”

…”People, when they perform a behavior a lot — especially in the same environment, same sort of physical setting — outsource the control of the behavior to the environment,”

…”For a smoker, the view of the entrance to their office building — which is a place that they go to smoke all the time — becomes a powerful mental cue to go and perform that behavior,”

The article argues for a focus on the environment, rather than on conscious intentions, if we want to change behavior :

To battle bad behaviors then, one answer is to disrupt the environment in some way. Even small changes can help — like eating the ice cream with your nondominant hand. What this does is disrupt the learned body sequence that’s driving the behavior, which allows your conscious mind to come back online and reassert control.

Eating ice cream with a nondominant hand is a nice trick. But this kind of thinking should also inform all kinds of policy interventions. The war on drugs is an obvious place to start – there must be less brutal ways than incarceration to change people’s environments. But the lessons go beyond addiction. If our environment is so powerful that a new location can overcome heroin addiction, then surely our first thought whenever we want to reduce or change any behavior should be to look to the environment rather than the choices or dispositions of individual actors.

2015 and “Community Justice”


Our colleagues Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and David J. Harris recently wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe.  As students trickle back to school and all of us consider how we want 2015 to be different from 2014, we thought some excerpts were worth posting from their important essay about how best to move forward to “produce real change.”

* * *

“[C]ommunity justice” . . . . is a call for the active participation of communities that have, for too long, been largely dismissed in policy discussions that directly affect their health and well-being. It demands eliminating and replacing incentives in our justice system that reward arrests and overzealous prosecutions. For example, federal funds have encouraged police departments to concentrate on things like marijuana possession; doing so has not only fueled our astronomical rates of incarceration, but also the racial disparities that characterize our prison population. These incentives create the conditions under which police view entire communities with distrust or worse, and community inhabitants feel like they are under the rule of an occupying army, together fueling a cycle of incarceration, isolation, and alienation.

This system is not only wasteful and deeply harmful, it is also woefully outdated. . . . Imagine a public safety . . . system [that relied upon] enlightened and evidence-based programs that help communities to flourish, such as drug treatment, workforce development, innovative education, and comprehensive health care; . . . different pieces of the formal justice system, including restorative justice, ankle bracelets, drug courts, probation and — as a final resort — prison. . . . [T]he two sets of [policies] cannot be separated. Prisoners need to be linked to educational opportunities or drug treatment while serving sentences so that they will be ready for reentry to the community upon release. “Corrections” needs to rehabilitate rather than isolate and punish exclusively.

So how do we get from where we are today to community justice? First, we have to acknowledge and confront our own biases, individually and collectively. Recent work by Harvard Professor Mahzarin Banaji suggests that our biases can operate as much to favor those like us or for whom we have positive associations as they may operate against the “other.” This would certainly seem to be the case in terms of our habitual exclusion of certain communities in policy debates. For example, several years ago, the Massachusetts Legislature debated “three strikes” legislation that would mandate life in prison the third time a person commits a felony. Despite almost unanimous opposition from legislators of color to a bill that would disproportionately affect their constituents, the bill passed. It was as if the rest of the Legislature literally could not hear those voices.

Second, as the elder generation, we need to look to history to guide us. Indeed, we can’t move forward without revisiting our past. More than 150 years ago, in the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Supreme Court declared that a black man had no rights that a white was obligated to observe. It was a denial of both black humanity and black citizenship. Today, that decision is regarded as a stain and an abomination. And yet, aren’t traces of the same sentiments present in the seeming speed with which police officers shoot at young black men, in the way they tend to view black boys as adults, or in the animal imagery used by Darren Wilson to describe his encounter with Michael Brown? Until we acknowledge these links, we will never be able to overcome them.

Almost 100 years after Dred Scott, Charles Hamilton Houston — probably the most influential and least well-known civil rights lawyers of the 20th century — devoted himself to using the law to end racial discrimination and segregation. Houston was advised by his law professors to be more cautious and to focus on smaller, incremental goals. Fortunately, he ignored that advice and crafted the litigation strategy that yielded the unanimous Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, even though he died before he could see that strategy argued successfully in court. As we all know, it took years of continued struggle before the promise of Brown was memorialized in the civil rights laws of the 1960s.

As a nation, we have this habit of denying our own past, and of lulling ourselves into believing that every corrective step is the final step. That’s not how progress happens. There are leaps forward, periods of relative stability, and retrenchment. But our leaps forward are often precipitated by crisis, setbacks, and even bloodshed. That’s where we stand today. Our task is to make sure that the tragedies of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and all of the other young men and women of color who have been unjustly killed and harmed by our current system become the impetus to push back hard against that system.

In Massachusetts, the stars are favorably aligned to produce real change. We have new leadership in Boston, in the State House, and in the Legislature. We have a growing grassroots movement advocating to reduce our prison population, end counter-productive mandatory minimum sentences, and reconsider the entire “tough on crime” era. The Houston Institute stands ready to contribute to these statewide efforts to develop and implement a new model for social service delivery, and to breathe life into the notion of community justice. We also call upon our the leaders of the region’s universities to harness the tremendous amount of expertise within their midst to serve the needs of our communities. We need to lock arms with our students, as well as the thousands of people taking to the streets across the country, and demand not just an end to the status quo, but the beginning of something “more.”

Related posts from The Situationist:

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Situationism and individualism, rice and wheat


An interesting article linking individualism to wheat production and situationism to rice production.

For example, Americans are more likely to ignore the context, and Asians to attend to it. Show an image of a large fish swimming among other fish and seaweed fronds, and the Americans will remember the single central fish first. That’s what sticks in their minds. Japanese viewers will begin their recall with the background. They’ll also remember more about the seaweed and other objects in the scene.

…Rice is a finicky crop. Because rice paddies need standing water, they require complex irrigation systems that have to be built and drained each year. One farmer’s water use affects his neighbor’s yield. A community of rice farmers needs to work together in tightly integrated ways.

Not wheat farmers. Wheat needs only rainfall, not irrigation. To plant and harvest it takes half as much work as rice does, and substantially less coordination and cooperation. And historically, Europeans have been wheat farmers and Asians have grown rice.

This is a kind of meta-situationism, suggesting the idea that our situation determines how likely we are to see the situation.

Distributional Preferences

pie slice

An article of interest in the latest issue of Psychological Science:

Subjective Status Shapes Political Preferences, by Jazmin L. Brown-Iannuzzi, Kristjen B. Lundberg, Aaron C. Kay B. Keith Payne (November, 2014).


Economic inequality is at historically high levels and rising. The United States has the highest level of inequality of all industrialized countries, with the wealthiest 1% of Americans owning nearly 50% of the country’s wealth (Keister & Moller, 2000; Wolff, 2002). Greater economic inequality within a society is associated with a variety of problems, including lower subjective well-being, shorter life expectancy, and increased crime (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). Moreover, surveys show that a large majority of Americans would prefer a more equal distribution of wealth (Norton & Ariely, 2011). Curiously, though, the majority of Americans also tends to support tax cuts and reduced spending on social services aimed at reducing inequality (Bartels, 2005). What drives the public’s complex attitudes toward the distribution of wealth?

Two frequently cited factors are economic ideologies and economic self-interest. The ideology explanation assumes that attitudes toward redistribution are driven by a coherent system of principles governing how resources should be distributed. Individualist ideologies view an individual’s hard work and talent as the primary causes of economic outcomes, and generally oppose redistributive policies. Egalitarian ideologies assume that fairness entails treating everyone equally, and are generally supportive of redistribution. Although certain ideologies are consistently associated with attitudes toward redistribution, the evidence is almost exclusively correlational, leaving open the question of causal direction. We acknowledge that ideologies can cause people to support or oppose redistributive policies, but we suggest that the causal arrow can sometimes point in the other direction as well. That is, we suggest that the correlation between ideology and attitudes toward redistribution may in part reflect ideological justifications for policy preferences.

Consistent with this position is the fact that meritocracy and egalitarianism frequently coexist within the same culture and even within the same person. Kay and Eibach (2012) argued that people generally hold multiple, often contradictory, ideologies that become more or less accessible as a function of chronic and situational factors (Higgins, 1996). Growing evidence suggests that political ideology can be a reaction to psychological motivations (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003; Kay, Gaucher, Napier, Callan, & Laurin, 2008). Like beliefs of all kinds, ideologies are sometimes adopted because they satisfy particular needs. Even when motivational factors are at work, people tend to experience ideologies as principled beliefs about fairness and justice, rather than as arising from circumstance and self-interest (Ross & Ward, 1996).

Thus, we argue that policy preferences and the ideologies that legitimize them may also fluctuate on the basis of momentary motivations and self-serving preferences. Self-serving preferences, however, are not as straightforward as they seem. According to the self-interest explanation of attitudes toward redistribution, redistributive policies that take resources from the wealthy to provide benefits to the poor should be favored by the poor but opposed by the wealthy. Although some evidence supports this intuitive idea, the association between income and opposition to redistribution is small (Finseraas, 2009; Gilens, 2000; Kluegel & Smith, 1986). This may be, in part, because many citizens do not know what policies are in their self-interest. In one study, most Americans could not accurately identify whether the tax cuts of the George W. Bush administration would benefit them (Bartels, 2005), and about half of the beneficiaries of federal programs believe that they have never benefited from a government program (Mettler, 2010). Such inaccuracies suggest that subjective perceptions of status may be important in shaping attitudes toward redistribution and the ideologies they reflect.


. . . . We hypothesized that participants would support redistribution more when they felt low than when they felt high in subjective status, even when actual resources and self-interest were held constant. Moreover, we predicted that people would legitimize these shifts in policy attitudes by appealing selectively to ideological principles concerning fairness. In four studies, we found correlational (Study 1) and experimental (Studies 2–4) evidence that subjective status motivates shifts in support for redistributive policies along with the ideological principles that justify them.