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September 09, 2015

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Study uses fictional planet to try to probe people’s real views on society

Sept. 9, 2015
Courtesy of the University of Illinois 
at Urbana-Champaign
and World Science staff

What if you heard that on plan­et Teeku, the Blarks were much richer than the Orps, and you had to guess why?

In a new stu­dy, par­ti­ci­pants were asked to choose from sev­er­al po­ten­tial ex­plana­t­ions for this fic­tion­al dis­par­ity. A ma­jor­ity fo­cused on in­her­ent traits of the Blarks and Orp­s—maybe the Blarks were smarter, or bet­ter work­er­s—rath­er than on ex­ter­nal fac­tors.

The stu­dy, re­ported in the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy, al­so found that those who at­trib­ut­ed the wealth gap to per­son­al at­tributes were more likely to see the dis­par­i­ties on Teeku—and in their own so­ci­ety—as fair. 

The find­ing held up for adults and for chil­dren ages 8, 5 and 4.

“Peo­ple of course real­ize that there are dis­par­i­ties in so­ci­e­ty, but deep down there is a lot of en­dorse­ment of how things are,” said Un­ivers­ity of Il­li­nois psy­chol­o­gist An­drei Cimpian, who led the study with grad­u­ate stu­dent La­ri­sa Hus­sak. “Even though there is con­si­der­able bi­as in how so­ci­e­ty is struc­tured, many peo­ple seem to think that so­ci­e­ty is fair. We wanted to know why.”

“A re­cent study from Mi­chael Kraus re­veals that peo­ple vastly over­es­ti­mate dis­ad­van­taged peo­ple’s chances of mov­ing up the so­cial lad­der,” Hus­sak said. “In an­oth­er study from an­oth­er team, peo­ple se­verely un­der­es­ti­mated the de­gree of eco­nom­ic in­e­qual­ity pre­s­ent in the U.S., guess­ing that the top 20 per­cent had less than 60 per­cent of the coun­try’s wealth,” she said. “In real­ity, they con­trol about 84 per­cent.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, she said, peo­ple es­ti­mat­ed that the poor­est 20 per­cent of Amer­i­cans pos­sessed roughly 5 per­cent of the wealth. The ac­tu­al pro­por­tion, ac­cord­ing to the stu­dy, is about 0.1 per­cent, she said.

One hy­poth­e­sis for why peo­ple tend to over­look dis­par­i­ties and de­fend the sta­tus quo is that find­ing seem­ingly le­git­i­mate rea­sons for why things are the way they are re­lieves feel­ings of un­cer­tain­ty, anx­i­e­ty and dis­con­tent that arise when one con­tem­plates an un­just sys­tem, Cimpian said.

“One way of al­le­vi­at­ing those feel­ings is to re­frame how you think about so­ci­e­ty and come to the con­clu­sion that so­ci­e­ty is ac­tu­ally fair and you are where you be­long, and so there is noth­ing to be anx­ious or un­cer­tain about,” he said. “We don’t dis­a­gree with that hy­poth­e­sis. We just think it’s not the whole sto­ry.”

The re­search­ers wanted to test wheth­er an­oth­er hu­man ten­den­cy—our pen­chant for sim­ple ex­plana­t­ions—al­so plays a role in how peo­ple re­act to dis­par­i­ties.

“When you have to make sense of some­thing in the mo­ment, that forc­es you to rely on things that come to mind eas­i­ly,” Cimpian said. “And re­search on mem­o­ry tells us that what comes to mind easily is facts about a thing it­self. We have a mem­o­ry re­triev­al bi­as that fa­vors in­her­ent fact­s—facts about the peo­ple or the things that we’re try­ing to ex­plain.”

By us­ing a fic­tion­al plan­et, the re­search­ers tried to cir­cum­vent some of the emo­tion­al bag­gage that might ac­com­pa­ny any de­scrip­tion of real-world events—par­tic­ularly for the adults, the au­thors said. If there is no emo­tion­al need to al­le­vi­ate one’s anx­i­e­ty about a par­tic­u­lar dis­par­ity, one is less likely to try to jus­ti­fy the situa­t­ion by blam­ing the Orps or giv­ing the Blarks cred­it for their sta­tus.

“No­body should have the mo­tiva­t­ion to make those sys­tems on a fic­tion­al plan­et be equal or be fair,” Hus­sak said. “And we al­so looked at this phe­nom­e­non in 4- and 5-year-old chil­dren, who don’t pos­sess the same un­der­stand­ing of their so­ci­e­ty and the com­plex ways in which so­cial groups and sta­tus in­ter­ac­t.”

When asked for pos­si­ble rea­sons for the dis­par­i­ties, the adults and chil­dren chose or came up with very si­m­i­lar ex­plana­t­ions, Hus­sak said.

“They over­whelm­ingly ex­plain the dis­par­i­ties us­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics or fea­tures of the peo­ple in­volved, rath­er than char­ac­ter­is­tics or fea­tures of the en­vi­ron­ment,” she said.

Not all adults or chil­dren opted for the “quick and easy an­swers,” Cimpian said. “There were huge in­di­vid­ual dif­fer­ences, but the over­all ten­den­cy was there.”

“In­her­ent ex­plana­t­ions are not nec­es­sarily bad or wrong,” Hus­sak said. “But we think that over­re­ly­ing on them could lead peo­ple to over­es­ti­mate the ex­tent to which so­ci­e­ty is fair.”


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What if you heard that on planet Teeku, the Blarks were much richer than the Orps, and you had to guess why? In a new study, participants were asked to choose from several potential explanations for this fictional disparity. A majority focused on inherent traits of the Blarks and Orps—maybe the Blarks were smarter, or better workers—rather than on external factors. The study, reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, also found that those who attributed the wealth gap to personal attributes were more likely to see the disparities on Teeku—and in their own society—as fair. The finding held up for adults and for children ages 8, 5 and 4. “People of course realize that there are disparities in society, but deep down there is a lot of endorsement of how things are,” said University of Illinois psychology professor Andrei Cimpian, who led the study with graduate student Larisa Hussak. “Even though there is considerable bias in how society is structured, many people seem to think that society is fair. We wanted to know why.” “A recent study from Michael Kraus reveals that people vastly overestimate disadvantaged people’s chances of moving up the social ladder,” Hussak said. “In another study from another team, people severely underestimated the degree of economic inequality present in the U.S., guessing that the top 20 percent had less than 60 percent of the country’s wealth,” she said. “In reality, they control about 84 percent.” Similarly, she said, people estimated that the poorest 20 percent of Americans possessed roughly 5 percent of the wealth. The actual proportion, according to the study, is about 0.1 percent, she said. One hypothesis for why people tend to overlook disparities and defend the status quo is that finding seemingly legitimate reasons for why things are the way they are relieves feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and discontent that arise when one contemplates an unjust system, Cimpian said. “One way of alleviating those feelings is to reframe how you think about society and come to the conclusion that society is actually fair and you are where you belong, and so there is nothing to be anxious or uncertain about,” he said. “We don’t disagree with that hypothesis. We just think it’s not the whole story.” The researchers wanted to test whether another human tendency—our penchant for simple explanations—also plays a role in how people react to disparities. “When you have to make sense of something in the moment, that forces you to rely on things that come to mind easily,” Cimpian said. “And research on memory tells us that what comes to mind easily is facts about a thing itself. We have a memory retrieval bias that favors inherent facts—facts about the people or the things that we’re trying to explain.” By using a fictional planet, the researchers tried to circumvent some of the emotional baggage that might accompany any description of real-world events—particularly for the adults, the authors said. If there is no emotional need to alleviate one’s anxiety about a particular disparity, one is less likely to try to justify the situation by blaming the Orps or giving the Blarks credit for their status. “Nobody should have the motivation to make those systems on a fictional planet be equal or be fair,” Hussak said. “And we also looked at this phenomenon in 4- and 5-year-old children, who don’t possess the same understanding of their society and the complex ways in which social groups and status interact.” When asked for possible reasons for the disparities, the adults and children chose or came up with very similar explanations, Hussak said. “They overwhelmingly explain the disparities using characteristics or features of the people involved, rather than characteristics or features of the environment,” she said. Not all adults or children opted for the “quick and easy answers,” Cimpian said. “There were huge individual differences, but the overall tendency was there.” “Inherent explanations are not necessarily bad or wrong,” Hussak said. “But we think that overrelying on them could lead people to overestimate the extent to which society is fair.”