Poverty and the "Just World hypothesis"

By Nathan Pensky , written on February 13, 2014

From The News Desk

There's an idea that gets thrown around in tech circles -- notably in the high-profile rants of Peter Shih and Greg Gopman -- that "poor people" or "homeless people" are "lazy" or they "deserve to be poor."

Sometimes this isn't stated outright but rather strongly suggested or implied. I've heard it most recently in connection to the San Francisco housing debate, but it's by no means unique to any one issue. It tends to crop up anywhere welfare or government intervention to the conditions surrounding poverty are discussed. The concept of "socio-economic status as just deserts" has become a favorite talking point of Libertarians and "free market" enthusiasts, though if we're keeping score this is actually a corruption of Libertarian ideology.

Like a lot of wrong-headed ideas -- wrong at center, as opposed to poorly reasoned or wrong in facts -- it merits articulation more than rebuttal.

I mean to draw attention to the concept not through observation about any people in particular or by trotting out statistics but by discussing the perception of poverty and the conditions surrounding it being intrinsic to certain bad behavior, as compared to something psychologists have called the Just World hypothesis.

The psychological study of social justice gained steam in the 1930s and 1940s, when researchers and psychologists, notably Kurt Lewin, tried to produce "a scientific means of fostering democratic and egalitarian norms and preventing tyranny and oppression from gaining the upper hand in society," as well as to come to terms with the atrocities inflicted during World War II.

By the 1960s, social psychologists, notably Melvin J. Lerner, had conducted studies which found the concept of justice to be a strong motivator in human behavior. According to Lerner's findings, the question of "who is entitled to what and why?" springs from some of the most basic structures in the development of human identity.

Lerner posited that a major developmental step in a child's understanding of its place in a society comes from identifying the self in terms of in-groups, and and then initiating something called "impersonal causation" according to these groupings. "Impersonal causation" entails that if a certain behavior is performed, a certain viable outcome can be expected.

As children begin to understand that if they avoid knee-jerk impulses and function according to more abstract reward systems, they can attain greater benefits. (An example of greater reward within a more abstract reward system would be, say, a child forgoing playing with his friends in the afternoon to do chores for an allowance, and then saving to buy a bicycle.)

Initial findings in this area of social psychology determined the "justice motive" similar to the more complex, abstract goals that function alongside "impersonal causation." Justice, as opposed to rational self-interest, was found to be a salient motivator of human behavior. Psychologists observed that people saw justice as a somewhat objective measure of reality and not just a way to further their own desires. Subjects were motivated by a sense of fairness, a "social contract" between themselves and others.

While more recent findings have tied the justice motive more strongly to rational self-interest, currently there is no consensus on the question of whether people can be motived by pro-social behavior or "altruism," or to what degree, or if the phenomena of helping behavior is motivated by rational self-interest. Social Psychologists C. Daniel Batson and Laura L. Shaw sum up the question thusly:

Advocates of universal egoism claim that everything we do, no matter how noble or beneficial to others, is really directed toward the ultimate goal of self-benefit. Advocates of altruism do not deny that the motivation for much of what we do, including much of what we do for others, is egoistic. But they claim that there is more. They claim that at least some of us, to some degree, under some circumstances, are capable of a qualitatively different form of motivation, motivation with an ultimate goal of benefiting someone else.
Psychologists John T. Jost and Aaron C. Kay in a chapter entitled "Social Justice: History, Theory, and Research" in the standard psychology reference book "The Handbook of Social Psychology" write:
From the standpoint of social justice, it may not matter greatly whether the motivation to help others (and to sustain sacrifices in doing so) stems from purely altruistic desires or from the so-called "moral emotions" or processes of social identification. The important point is that human beings do appear to be capable of setting aside narrow self-interest to make the world a "better" (i.e. putatively more "just") place.
Distinct against this question of motivation, however, are concepts of cosmic causality -- comeuppance, Karma, "you reap what you sow," and other ideas of justice in the abstract as a force at large in the universe distinct from the concrete actions of individual people or institutions -- as well as system justification theory, the tendency for people to maintain the status quo even though it may be disadvantageous to do so.

The Just World hypothesis is one type of system justification, a cognitive bias where a person's circumstances are incorrectly believed to always indicate his or her behavior. An example of this sort of justification is when victims of sexual assault are blamed for their own victimization. Because people can't explain the terrible things that happens in the world, and because humans need to imagine a sort of cosmic balance of justice, they incorrectly assign blame to those most local to misfortune.

The Just World hypothesis was first studied by Lerner, after he observed something that has since come to be referred to as "victim-blaming," victims of abuse being blamed for their circumstance, as well as the phenomena of people with low socio-economic status getting blamed without reference to the social structures underlying poverty.

In one telling study, Lerner made subjects watch two men perform tasks and then receive rewards. Participants reported that they felt more favorably toward the man who received a reward for the task, even though such rewards were given randomly, totally unrelated to the success of the task performed. Just World rationalizations occur especially after people witness terrible events that can't be explained.

The Just World hypothesis leads to many false conclusions, not least of which being that poor people don't deserve charity. People asking for change on the street get refused on the basis of an assumption that anyone needing a handout must be guilty of some wrongdoing. Maybe that person is a drug addict or other kind of criminal, and since doing drugs is "bad behavior" (a different assumption with its own problems), such a person doesn't "deserve charity" (never mind that "charity" can be defined as help extended regardless of whether someone deserves it or not).

People think, "I worked for my money; this person is poor and therefore lazy and hasn't worked for anything. Who am I to upset the cosmic balance of the universe? They're poor, because they're supposed to be poor."

The problem with this thinking is that it seems just, and so it comes with all the important behavioral motivations that justice enables. One could say that justice misplaced is actually more harmful than merely selfish action, because it suggests the social and ethical associations of the real thing but directed in the wrong way. Also it is conveniently inexhaustible. A person's own self-interest will eventually be sated, but a person's sense of justice renews itself on the behalf of others.

The decision to help someone is a personal one. It requires a practical and ethical interrogation of one's place in the world. But withholding aid based on some vague notion of blame on the part of those less fortunate is misguided and actually much worse than acting out of mere self-interest.

Hopefully in the future the tech community will consider the Just World hypothesis when participating in public discourse about poverty.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]