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Mar 30 2011

Psychology beats “bootstraps”

Crommunist is back from vacation, at least physically. I will be returning to full blogging strength by next week. I appreciate your patience with my travel hangover.

Here’s a cool thing:

You don’t have to look far for instances of people lying to themselves. Whether it’s a drug-addled actor or an almost-toppled dictator, some people seem to have an endless capacity for rationalising what they did, no matter how questionable. We might imagine that these people really know that they’re deceiving themselves, and that their words are mere bravado. But Zoe Chance from Harvard Business School thinks otherwise.

Using experiments where people could cheat on a test, Chance has found that cheaters not only deceive themselves, but are largely oblivious to their own lies.

Psychology is a very interesting field. If I wasn’t chasing the get-rich-quick world of health services research, I would have probably gone into psychology. One of the basic axioms of psychology, particularly social psychology, is that self-report and self-analysis is a particularly terrible method of gaining insight into human behaviour. People cannot be relied upon to accurately gauge their motivations for engaging in a given activity – not because we are liars, but because we genuinely don’t know.

Our consciousness exists in a constant state of being in the present, but making evaluations of the past and attempting to predict the future. As a result, we search for explanations for things that we’ve done, and use those to chart what we’d do in the future. However, as careful study has indicated, the circumstances under which we find ourselves is far and away a more reliable predictor of how we react to given stimuli than is our own self-assessment. This isn’t merely a liberal culture of victimhood, or some kind of partisan way of blaming the rich for the problems of the poor – it is the logical interpretation of the best available evidence that we have.

Part of the seeming magic of this reality of human consciousness is the fact that when we cheat, we are instantaneously able to explain it away as due to our own skill. Not only can we explain it away, but we instantly believe it too. A more general way of referring to this phenomenon is internal and external attribution – if something good happens it is because of something we did; conversely, bad things that happen are due to misfortune, or a crummy roll of the dice. When seen in others, this kind of attitude is rank hypocrisy. When seen in ourselves, it is due to everyone else misunderstanding us. This is, of course, entirely normal – everyone would like to believe the best about themselves, and our minds will do what they can to preserve that belief.

The researchers in this study explored a specific type of self-deception – the phenomenon of cheating. They were able to show that even when there was monetary incentive to be honest about one’s performance and cheating, people preferred to believe their own lies than to be honest self-assessors. However, the final result tickled me in ways that I can only describe as indecent:

This final result could not be more important. Cheaters convince themselves that they succeed because of their own skill, and if other people agree, their capacity for conning themselves increases.

There is a pervasive lie in our political discourse that people who enjoy monetary and societal privilege do so because of their own hard work and superior virtue. This type of thinking is typified by the expression “pulled up by her/his bootstraps” – that rich people applied themselves and worked hard to get where they are. The implication is that anyone who isn’t rich, or who has the galling indecency to be poor, is where they are because of their own laziness and nothing more. It does not seem to me to be far-fetched at all that these people are operating under the same misapprehension that plagued the study’s participants – they succeed by means that are not necessarily due to their own hard work, and then back-fill an explanation that casts themselves in the best possible light.

Please do not interpret this as me suggesting that everyone who is rich got their by illegitimate means. If we ignore for a moment anyone who was born into wealth, there are a number of people who worked their asses off to achieve financial success – my own father is a mild example of that (although he is not rich by any reasonable measure). However, there are a number of others who did step on others, or use less-than-admirable means to accumulate their wealth. However, they are likely to provide the same “up by my bootstraps” narrative that people who genuinely did build their own wealth would, and they’ll believe it too! When surrounded by others who believe the same lie, it becomes a self-sustaining ‘truth’ that only occasionally resembles reality.

The problem with this form of thinking is that it does motivate not only attitudes but our behaviours as well. It becomes trivial to demonize poor people as leeches living off the state, and cut funding for social assistance programs as a result. People who live off social assistance programs often believe this lie too, considering themselves (in the words of John Steinbeck) to be “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” who will be rich soon because of their furious bootstrap tugging. While it is an attractive lie, it is still a lie that underlies most conservative philosophy – which isn’t to say that liberals aren’t susceptible to the same cognitive problems; we just behave in a way that is more consistent with reality, so it doesn’t show as much.

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2 comments

  1. 1
    paisley

    uggg totally agree with you. It has only recently come to my attention how pervasive this whole poor people as leeches trope is. I’ve also been shocked because (as a Michigander) this idea has been really taking root in MI and I have a hard time understanding why. I grew up working class and my family would sometimes fall into working poor (this was the case for many Big 3 assembly line families). MI’s economy is currently I believe the worst in the country and so many more people who were middle class or working class are now unemployed. Yet, so many those who are still middle class or upper-middle are now Tea-Party conservatives who are blaming “the poor” for so many ills. “If the poor were just better people we wouldn’t have this problem.

    My unfortunately Tea Party cousin-in-law is always clamoring about “responsibility” and “education” yet seems to be blind about how in his 20s his credit card debt was paid off my his upper-middle class parents. That when he got in a car accident in his 20s his parents bought him a new car and he could still get to work. But now he’s a successful 30 something and no one helped him get there, he just worked hard.

    btw, first time commenter and I’ve been enjoying your posts. looking forward to reading your stuff after you get over your “travel hangover”

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    Ooh, lurker love! :P Thanks for the comment. Yes, I am slowly building back my strength and news-item reserve – next week!

    There was a really interesting analysis about how the ultra-rich are working hard to turn the middle class against the poor. The idea being that if we are all crabs in a barrel, it benefits those at the top most if we’re all busy dragging each other down instead of looking upward. At any rate, scapegoating low-income families is an old tactic.

    I do sympathize a bit with your cousin, and others of the “bootstrap” ilk – it’s really tough to face up to the fact that you’re not special. However, my sympathy is short-lived when people who have had bailouts by their parents (as I have) and who were born with more advantages than 85% of the world’s population will ever achieve start shitting on people who didn’t have the good sense to be born rich.

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