Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Today's Social Psychology Lecture

A story I read in a social psychology text long ago has been going through my head for a couple of weeks now. I finally had to track it down:
[A]fter four students at Kent State University were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard, several rumors quickly spread: (1) both of the women who were slain were pregnant (and therefore, by implication, were oversexed and wanton); (2) the bodies of all four students were crawling with lice; and (3) the victims were so ridden with syphilis that they would have been dead in 2 weeks anyway. As I mentioned in Chapter 1, these rumors were totally untrue. The slain students were all clean, decent, bright people. Indeed, two of them were not even involved in the
demonstrations that resulted in the tragedy but were peacefully walking across campus when they were gunned down. Why were the townspeople so eager to believe and spread these rumors? It is impossible to know for sure, but my guess is that it was [...] because the rumors were comforting. Picture the situation: Kent is a conservative small town in Ohio. Many of the townspeople were infuriated at the radical behavior of some of the students. Some were probably hoping the students would get their comeuppance, but death was more than they deserved. In such circumstances, any information putting the victims in a bad light helped to reduce dissonance by implying that it was, in fact, a good thing that they died.
Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable collision of two or more contradictory beliefs. It usually results in (unconscious) efforts to reduce the discomfort by modifying one's appraisal of the situation. The classic example is a smoker resolving the dissonance between "I want to live" and "I smoke cigarettes" by downplaying the health risks of smoking or deciding that old age isn't worth living through anyway.

Cognitive dissonance gets particularly ugly when reality collides with the just world hypothesis, the belief that "the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve." Faced with tragedy, victimization, or injustice, just world believers have four options to reduce the cognitive dissonance: they can act quickly to help relieve the victim's suffering (restoring the justice of the situation), minimize the harm done (making the tragedy a less severe blow to their beliefs), justify the suffering as somehow deserved (redefining the situation as just), or focus on a larger, more encompassing just outcome of the "poor people will receive their rewards in heaven" variety. The first response - the only actually helpful one - isn't always possible. Unfortunately, the latter three pretty much always are.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina confronted Americans with a constant parade of images of suffering. Terrible suffering, to extremes hardly imaginable in a wealthy and highly developed society. American citizens dying of thirst, dead bodies lying uncollected on the streets of a major city, elderly people and children penned into the Convention Center and the Superdome in unimaginable squalor, denied even the most basic of aid from their government. There was no immediate way for private citizens to help them. Faced with those horrific images, most of us had powerful reactions of grief, rage, shame, fear, pity. In others, however, the images of Katrina caused cognitive dissonance too great for them to tolerate. Where is the "just world," when wheelchair-bound grandmothers die of thirst? How to maintain, watching the abandonment of New Orleans victims to day after day of imprisonment without relief, the conviction that this is the "greatest country in the world"?

So rumors about the depraved criminal nature of stranded New Orleans citizens spread like wildfire. People managed to convince themselves that the suffering and dying victms of Katrina were too bad to be let out of their flooded prison. People argued that they chose to be there, that they were freeloaders in it for the relief money, that ther losses meant less to them than we would feel in their situation. In short, many people were desperate to restore their faith in a just world by clambering over the bodies of innocent hurricane victims, by convincing themselves that the starving, dehydrated, ailing people in the Superdome had somehow gotten what they deserved.

And who were those people, exactly?
people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to "feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims."

Ironically, then, the belief in a just world may take the place of a genuine commitment to justice. For some people, it is simply easier to assume that forces beyond their control mete out justice.
Most people subscribe at least somewhat to the just world hypothesis, on an unconscious level - if you didn't, you'd have little reason to try to do anything. But conservative media commentators have surely taken it to a higher art, and - to the detriment of their essential humanity - their listeners have become experts themselves.

Update: In the comments, Siobhan links to a particularly nasty version of the genre. Now I want to go take a shower.