Thursday, July 20, 2006

Push the Button

This summer, I'm conducting research for one of my Carleton Professors, Anna Moltchanova (Hi Professor!) on the topic of Whites in the pre-Brown v. Board American South. What we want to find out is how aware the average White person was of the moral critiques of racism and Jim Crow. Were they reported in newspapers? How did they respond to them? Were they critically engaged, or ignored? What type of justifications were constructed for their oppressive regime?

Today I've been working my way through a very interesting article that touches on a lot of these subjects: Jon and Kathleen Hanson's "The Blame Frame: Justifying (Racial) Injustice in America" [41 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 413 (2006)]. One of the themes they hit is what's known as the "just world" mindset. People want to believe that the world is just. As a result, "people crave justice and, consistent with that craving, actively work to eliminate injustice" (419). That's the good news. The bad news is that instead of actually eliminating the injustice itself, we simply redefine the questionable event so that it seems "just." Hanson and Hanson continue "[W]e often satisfy the craving [for justice] through troubling means: when alleviating innocent suffering is at all difficult or complex, people reconceive the victim as deserving the suffering by assigning negative characteristics to her" (id.).

A study by Melvin J. Lerner & Carolyn H. Simmons elucidates how this happens. Test subjects were asked to observe a "learner" who appeared to be subjected to painful shocks when he got an answer wrong. One group of subjects was given the option to move the learner to a different study where she'd receive positive reinforcement for right answer instead of being shocked for wrong ones. Most took the offer. The second group of subjects was given no such option, and could only watch as the learner was shocked again and again [Melvin J. Lerner & Carolyn H. Simmons, The Observer's Reaction to the "Innocent Victim": Compassion or Rejection?, 4 J. Personality & Soc. Psychol. 203 (1966)].

The subjects were then queried as to their views of the learner. The first group, which was presented with an easy option to rectify the injustice, tended to describe the learners as "likeable, innocent victims of shocks who deserved to be reassigned to a positive reinforcement environment" (Hanson & Hanson, at 419). Those who had no easy option to end the suffering, by contrast, tended to describe the victim in negative terms, as blameworthy and deserving of what happened to them.

The conclusion of the study was that people don't like injustice, but will only proactively act to end it when they feel like they can have some control of the outcome. When they do not have that route, instead of admitting that injustice is occurring, they will simply rationalize "unjust" into "just", maintaining the psychological stability of the "just world" viewpoint. In other words, "it is not justice that we crave so much as the perception of justice. And that craving can often be satisfied far more easily by changing our perception of the victims than by acknowledging and addressing the underlying unfairness" (id. at 420).

Of course, even the second group of subjects in the Lerner experiment did have some options to try and stop the suffering of the learners. They could have "object[ed] to the experiment, refus[ed] to participate, complain[ed] to the social scientist or the university, call[ed] the police, or even interven[ed] physically to end the shocking" (id. at 420-21). But such actions would be considered extreme and abhorrent, not a socially sanctioned route like that given to the first group.

So the first lesson we draw from this is that hard-to-solve injustice is likely to be seen as just, or at least not unjust. That's bad in of itself. It makes it less likely that we will press big, institutional actors (e.g., businesses or governments) to intervene where we cannot. But it's not fatal. We can still resolve to not commit injustices individually, even where we are unwilling to stand up them when committed by more powerful social actors. For example, someone watching the Lerner experiment could say to themselves "if I become a teacher, I'm never going to shock my students with a cattle prod" (bold ambition!).

The problem here, though, is that many injustices are not as facially obvious as sending painful jolts of electricity through a student. Often times, it requires some effort to seek out and learn the effects of a given action to discover that it is unjust. But Hanson & Hanson cite to another study which shows that we are unwilling to do this, even when the costs of doing so are negligible.

The study here had a case where a test subject could pick one of two outcomes of a game, one which distributed a reward equally between them and their partner, and another which gave the subject a slightly higher reward while significantly reducing the partner's share. When these choices were presented in full, most participants chose to act fairly, that is, they picked the option which gave equal shares to both persons. But in another group, the effect on the partner was hidden so that the participant could only see how much they would get. Finding out the impact of each choice on the partner was not difficult; in fact, all one had to do was press a button which would reveal the impact on both parties. But half of the study participants chose not to press the button at all. They maintained their ignorance so as to more easily justify taking the larger cut (id. at 423).

This would be a great example of what Fernando Teson might call Rational Ignorance. Finding out information is either harder than staying ignorant, or makes life more difficult than staying ignorant, so people deliberately avoid becoming more informed and thus perpetuate unjust social outcomes.

I titled this post "Push the Button" as an exhortation to all my readers to resist this trend. It is unnerving, to be sure, to find out that we don't live in a fair world, or a just world, or a righteous world. But one cannot let that fear be paralyzing. It is critically important that one take every opportunity available to see where injustice is happening, and to determine what ways one can combat it; whether it be by personal change or by governmental reform. The easy way out is the tyrant's way in.

1 comment:

Disenchanted Dave said...

These sorts of studies are fascinating, and fairly discouraging sometimes.

I'm in the process of writing a long post about authority and obedience, which is very closely related to some of what you're dealing with. You said that people "will only proactively act to end [injustice] when they feel like they can have some control of the outcome." Stanley Milgram's experiment on obedience was probably the inspiration for the schock studies you cited, and shows just how little people perceive to be inside their control. Well over half of ordinary people will shock someone to death just because a guy in a white lab coat tells them to (The victims were actually actors, so nobody actually died. Still, Milgram's experiment is one of the main reasons we have review boards for psychological studies today).

I'm looking forward to hearing more from you about all this.