A Theory About Why the Powerful Don’t Care For the Powerless

Humans are skilled at perceiving the world in a way that makes life more enjoyable. One thing that helps with this goal is the tendency to view the world as a fair and orderly place, a bias often termed the “Just-world fallacy.”

There are benefits to believing injustice is rare. It makes you feel nice and warm on the inside. Research also suggests it increases your focus on larger long-term rewards rather than smaller short-term rewards. After all, if the world is a chaotic place where nobody gets what they deserve, there’s less reason to work hard or stick to long-term plans.

But it can be hard to believe in a just world because injustice is everywhere. There are repressive governments and natural disasters. Bad things surely happen to good people. And thinking about these innocent victims comes into direct conflict with the desire to believe the world is just. In lab experiments participants often resolve this conflict by derogating the victim, perhaps by coming up with some explanation for why the victim deserved their fate. In the real world you can see traces of this in people who believe food stamp recipients are wholly responsible for their own plight. If people are to blame for their misfortune, the world remains just.

A group of researchers led by Mitchell Callan of the University of Essex reasoned that if derogating victims increases the belief in a just world, and the belief in a just world helps people focus on long-term rewards, then it stands to reason that derogating victims could help people focus on long-term rewards.

To test their hypothesis Callan and his team conducted an initial experiment in which participants read about somebody who was mugged. Some participants learned that the mugger was apprehended (the world is just!) while others learned that the mugger was never caught (the world is unfair!) Afterward participants answered questions about how much they liked the victim and the degree to which they felt the victim was careless or responsible.

To measure commitment to long-term rewards, the researchers gave participants a “delay-discounting” task in which they revealed their preferences for accepting different amounts of money at different future times. Participants who were willing to wait longer for larger sums (i.e. those who didn’t “discount” a delayed payment) were measured as expressing a stronger commitment to the long-term.

The results were as expected. Among participants who had their perception of a just world threatened (because the mugger was not apprehended), those who rated the victim favorably, and thus perceived a more unjust world, were more likely to prefer quick payments. On the other hand, those who derogated the victim by rating him as unlikable and irresponsible were more likely to say they would hold out for larger long-term rewards. It appeared as though derogating the victim increased commitment to the long-term by helping to restore faith in a just world.

A follow-up experiment followed a similar procedure, but prior to the experiment researchers measured each participants’ “baseline” tendency to delay-discount. In addition, the level of injustice was manipulated by telling some participants the victim was a drug dealer. The results were the same as in the initial experiment. When participants saw victims as more deserving of their fate, participants were less likely to weaken their commitment to future rewards.

Here’s what’s so troubling about the study: The ability to put off small short-term rewards for larger long-term rewards is important if you want to attain a position of power. Very few people who are unable to turn down cocaine at a frat party the night before a chemistry exam are going to end up as a Congressman. Becoming powerful generally requires hard work, persistence, and a focus on large rewards that will arrive in a distant future.

Callan’s experiment shows that people can develop the ability to focus on long-term rewards by derogating victims. The implication is that our politicians and CEOs are more likely to come from a population that, on average, is less empathetic toward victims. Being able to view victims as undeserving of assistance may have helped them get where they are.

On a slightly less somber note, the study is a good reminder that it’s impossible to attain psychological perfection. As the internet fills with research-based tips on things like cognitive biases and habit formation, it can feel like there’s a solution for everything. But many times two laudable goals are incompatible. If you want to feel a sufficient amount of empathy for victims, the lost faith in a just-world could make it harder to stick to future plans. If you want to stick to future plans, it may be helpful to convince yourself that certain victims weren’t so innocent. So don’t be discouraged if it feels like it’s impossible to reach a psychological state with no drawbacks. Because it is.

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)

Callan, M.J., Harvey, A.J., & Sutton, R.M. (2013). Rejecting Victims of Misfortune Reduces Delay Discounting Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.11.002

2 Responses to A Theory About Why the Powerful Don’t Care For the Powerless

  1. bernie1815 says:

    These types of psychological experiments drive me nuts. First, what does the experiment really tell us about the universe of individuals who are willing to delay rewards? I would argue, very little. Second, what does the experiment really tell us about those who seek power? Again, I would argue that it tells us very little. Third, what does it tell us about those individuals who see the injustice in an unfair act itself regardless of the nature the victim or whether the unfairness is in some sense compensated for? Again, it tells us little.

    In short, this type of experiment tells us very little largely because, among other things, the subjects of such experiments are seldom asked what they thought about as they responded to the experiment. For example, what is really interesting about the famous Milgram type experiment is the thinking and perceptions of those who used and those who resisted the use of coercion and force.

  2. In the first experiment – where the mugger does not get caught and participants chose the short term reward – there might be a different cause. Hearing that the mugger was not caught might cause more uncertainty about the future. Because the state creates stability and predictability by enforcing laws, when the state does not enforce the laws, individuals feel more uncertain about the future, and tend to choose short term rewards.

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