Where Is A Psychology of Heartlessness When You Need One?

How to Support Policies That Harm Others and Not Feel Badly About It

Posted Apr 02, 2017

While studying developing nations for a book I’m writing I was reminded that unregulated market economies with weak social safety nets are a recipe for human suffering and growing gaps between the haves and the have-nots. Even when jobs are created by an unfettered capitalism, they are usually insufficient to lift families out of poverty and for them to provide care for their young, sick, and elders. Yet this is where we’re headed if some policymakers get their way.

How can people support policies that will increase the hardship of vulnerable groups and still maintain their belief that they are good and moral people? There is no psychological theory of heartlessness to explain people’s comfort with, for example, a policy where 24 million people would lose healthcare (the expected result of a recently defeated US health care bill that was opposed by some lawmakers as not going far enough). Or that explain some people’s support of proposed cuts to mental health, senior services, programs for the poor, and education. There are, however, theories and concepts from social psychology that provide some insight.

Just-world thinking. Many Americans believe the world (or at least America) is just and fair, and people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. People engage in just-world thinking primarily because it protects their own sense of safety and security.  Believing that people are responsible for what happens to them provides an illusion of safety and control. It allows people to believe that as long as they work hard and behave themselves they will be protected from harm.

Just-world thinking helps people avoid the uncomfortable reality that bad things can happen to good people who don’t deserve them but it requires victim-blaming. Indeed, many people believe that poverty or a lack of retirement savings or health insurance, only happen to people that deserve them. This reduces their obligation to help or care. It also reduces any guilt about their better station in life, especially if they are from a privileged social group and want to believe that their group deserves their privileged status. One sad thing about just-world thinking is that it reduces empathy and care for others. It interferes with people doing what is needed to actually make our country and communities more just and fair.

Dissonance due to immorality. How can people consider themselves good and moral people while supporting politicians or policies that harm our most vulnerable? According to dissonance theory the answer is denial, rationalization, and justification. People often deny or minimize the harms of their actions to maintain their positive self-view. Some do this by insisting that benefitting the ultra-wealthy and corporations will ultimately benefit everyone (the old trickle-down theory). Blaming victims and casting them in unflattering ways also reduces dissonance due to immorality. For example, a person may see those affected by spending cuts as lazy freeloaders who will now have to work for a living.

The fundamental attribution error (FAE). The fundamental attribution error is basically the tendency for people to overemphasize dispositional factors (like ability and effort) as the causes of human behavior and to underestimate the role of situational factors. The American narrative emphasizing personal choice and individual responsibility contributes to the FAE but so does ignorance regarding the social and structural causes of poverty and disadvantage. In this case, many people overemphasize the role of individual effort in determining a person’s economic situation. However, attributing others’ misfortunes to their lack of ability or effort ignores that economic success is easier to achieve for some members of our society than others and a lifetime of hard work doesn’t always result in a secure retirement or the ability to pay for healthcare.

Scapegoating. Displaced aggression occurs when people cannot attack the true source of their frustration and so attack a safer target. Scapegoating is a version of this where people that are frustrated and angry due to economic setback direct their anger at another group. In this case, groups of Americans that at one time had good jobs have lost economic ground. They are understandably frustrated and angry. Politicians and pundits seeking support for their neo-liberal economic policies* capitalize on this. They acknowledge the group’s frustration and encourage the group to attribute their economic woes to immigrants, affirmative action, environmental protection, and government social spending. Underlying prejudices are cultivated to foster perceptions that other groups are unfairly benefiting from government handouts at their expense. The irony is that the frustrated group lost economic ground partly due to neo-liberal trade policies that shipped their jobs overseas.

Moral exclusion. The concept of moral exclusion refers to the fact that most people exclude some groups of people from their “scope of justice.” The more different a group of people is from our own, the more likely we are to accept their disadvantage, hardship, and victimization and the less likely we are to act. Moral exclusion means we can be indifferent to the suffering of people who are not like us and that we may engage in just-world thinking and insist there is no need for remedy. For example, in this case, the recipients of government social spending fall outside of the moral community of many Americans.

I recognize that there is sometimes fraud and waste in government social programs and services. I don’t doubt that some services or programs may enable rather than empower. I agree that the government’s “helping bureaucracies” are often infuriating and inefficient. But I don’t think this justifies drastic cuts in government social spending or outsourcing to private profit-driven corporations. Instead, it calls for reforming our bureaucracies and for thoughtful social program design and evaluation.

*Neo-liberal economic policies are about maximizing profits. They involve free trade agreements that allow the outsourcing of manufacturing and production from industrialized nations to developing nations, reduction in government social spending and the privatization of government services, and the relaxing of labor and environmental protections. 

Shawn Burn
Source: Shawn Burn

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