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

Showing enough empathy could be incompatible with keeping your eye on the prize.

Posted Nov 15, 2013

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.


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About the Author

Eric Horowitz

Eric Horowitz is a social science writer and education researcher.

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