We’re All Just Looking For a Patsy

If often seems as though policy-making has devolved into nothing more than a contest where the goal is to blame as many people as possible (but not yourself) for the country’s problems. Fossil fuel companies blame environmental regulations for economic stagnation and high energy prices. Neocons blame civil libertarians for national security weaknesses. And of course, Westboro Baptist blames homosexuality for everything. Much of the blame appears to be farfetched (the exception is homosexuality, which since the days of Newton has been scientifically proven to cause hurricanes), and though the political motivations behind the blame game seem easy to understand, a new study led by Zachary Rothschild of the University of Kansas helps break down exactly when and why people latch on to a scapegoat.

Rothschild and his team were interested in examining how the potential culpability of one’s own group influenced moral outrage and blame for a third-party. They began their experiment by giving participants a survey that led participants to categorize themselves as middle class rather than working class or upper class. Participants then read an article about the struggles of working-class Americans, but in the in-group condition the article blamed the middle class for the struggles, in the out-group condition the article blamed the upper class, and in the unknown condition the article stated that economists don’t know the cause of working-class struggles. Participants then read another article about the status of illegal immigrants. In the viable scapegoat condition the article described the rising fortunes of illegal immigrants, while in the non-viable scapegoat condition the articles describe how illegal immigrants were also struggling to find work.

As expected, when illegal immigrants were viable scapegoats, participants were more likely to blame them for the struggles of the working-class when the cause of those struggles was unknown or attributed to their own group, the middle-class. Participants in the in-group condition also reported more moral outrage at illegal immigrants and a stronger desire for retributive action than participants in the out-group or unknown conditions. When illegal immigrants were not portrayed as a viable scapegoat (i.e. they were shown to also be struggling), participant perceptions about the cause of working class struggles had no effect on how they viewed illegal immigrants. In general, when a third-party was presented as a viable scapegoat, people were more likely to blame the third-party for a negative outcome when their own group was at risk of being viewed as responsible for that outcome.

The findings are intuitive, but nonetheless important. When it comes to the specific issue of immigration, the study highlights how simple political motivations can lead to bad policy. Though most economists agree that increasing immigration will boost the economy, as long as the economy is weak people from both political parties may be motivated to scapegoat immigrants in order to deflect blame and alleviate collective guilt about struggling families. This makes immigration reform more likely to occur once the economy is strong, but in the mean time families miss out on the economic benefits of immigration when they need them most.

More broadly, the politics of scapegoating can prevent problems from actually getting solved.

The irony of the present findings is that moral outrage in the present study arguably ensures the maintenance of the status quo of disadvantaged group’s suffering, while providing advantaged group members with an air of self-righteousness. That is, outraged advantaged group members may punish a supposed third-party culprit in the name of restoring justice for a disadvantaged group while simultaneously continuing to perpetrate harm against the disadvantaged without repair. Stated differently, there is the appearance of justice being served only to ensure that injustice is preserved.

You could alleviate your guilt and protect your group’s moral standing by working to help the disadvantaged, but it’s often easier to accomplish those things by blaming a third-party. In the end the disadvantaged group never gets help. So if you happen to see somebody throwing a lot of blame around, particularly toward groups that don’t seem to have the power ascribed to them, you should probably view that person with extreme skepticism.
Rothschild, Z., Landau, M., Molina, L., Branscombe, N., & Sullivan, D. (2013). Displacing Blame over the Ingroup’s Harming of a Disadvantaged Group can Fuel Moral Outrage at a Third-Party Scapegoat Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.05.005

One Response to We’re All Just Looking For a Patsy

  1. Pingback: The Psychology of Scapegoating

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