Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

I read an article the other day about the just-world hypothesis (or rather fallacy), Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person by Oliver Burkeman. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.

The main point of the author is how the victimization of injustice leads to victim-blaming. That victim-blaming in turn rationalizes and encourages further victimization and injustice. It relates to the victimization cycle as well, where victims too often become victimizers, a topic I’ve written about endlessly.

It makes one want to throw one’s hands up in despair.

Another side of my personality kicks in, however. I wonder what are the exceptions to the rule (or better yet, the exceptions to who rules, to how they rule, to what ways we are ruled, which is to say the exceptions to the rules of the status quo). The author doesn’t explore that.

It is like the rat studies I recently discussed. There was a study done in the late 70s and published in 1980 that had quite an impact because it fit American beliefs about depraved humanity. The rats were put into horrific conditions of immense distress and then given the opportunity to consume drugs until they died, which unsurprisingly is what they did.

Around the same time, there were other researchers with other views on the issue. One researcher considered that, if he “were kept isolated in cramped metal cages, tethered to a self-injection apparatus”, he too might give into drug addiction until sweet death delivered him from the inescapable torment. He thought that maybe these were far from optimal conditions for rats or for humans. He designed research that, instead, would create the most optimal conditions. This was the rat park.

Mainstream science and academia were resistant to his questioning of the status quo. He couldn’t get published and lost funding. Americans didn’t want to know the truth… or rather the American ruling elite didn’t want Americans to know the truth. The truth was that if conditions change so do the responses, even with something so compelling as physical addiction.

The just-world hypothesis research shows that in an a society based on injustice people act according to and rationalize that injustice. That is unsurprising, as it fits our preconceptions, which maybe ought to make us suspicious for what if the research was designed and the conclusions developed to fit our preconceptions. If we look a bit deeper, we can see this research also implies that in a society based on justice people would act according to and rationalize justice (consider intolerance, which research shows does decrease when children are raised in diverse communities, neighborhoods, and schools). The author missed that implication because it didn’t fit into the cynical and fatalist American mainstream view of social reality.

This brings me to thoughts I’ve had about the morality-punishment link. Conservatism is utterly dependent on tis link. But I doubt this link is as inevitable as it seems. It can be broken and often is broken, every time a problem is solved, a sickness cured, etc.

It isn’t hard to imagine a world where justice prevails. Some of the best science fiction is about that very possibility (e.g., Star Trek: The Next Generation). We create what we imagine. This might give us pause in our collective obsession with imagining dystopian futures, but it also offers hope as we are free to imagine the future in any way we so choose. Our visions of the future can justify the status quo or they can challenge it. It is time we enter a new era of the radical imagination.


* * * *

Here are two videos and then some writings about the just-world hypothesis:

Shailene’s Hair, Unfair Monopoly, and the Just World Fallacy
by vlogbrothers

Social Psychology: Stereotype, Prejudice, Discrimination, and Just World Hypothesis/Belief
by Chris Dula (East Tennessee State University)

Vulnerability, Victim Blaming, and The Just World Fallacy
by Daniel Fincke

That Shouldn’t Happen: The Just World Fallacy and Autism
By Kim Wombles

White Privilege, Republicans, and the ‘Just World’ Fallacy
by Chauncey DeVega

Fatal Hypothesis: How Belief In A Just World Is Killing Us
by Katherine Cross

Poverty and the “Just World hypothesis”
by Nathan Pensky

The Just-World Fallacy
by David McRaney

The UNjust world
by Every Topic In The Universe(s?)

Modern American Libertarianism and the Just-World Fallacy
by Nolen

* * * *

Here are some of my previous posts on the issues of empathy, imagination, realism, and society:

Imagination, a Force to Be Reckoned With

Alternative Visions, Radical Imagination

Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions

Vision and Transformation

Culture of Paranoia, Culture of Trust

Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism

Social Order and Symbolic Conflation

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

27 thoughts on “Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

  1. The article that initiated this piece is important in two ways. The author brings up some disturbing info. But as often is the case, what is left out interests me as much or even more.

    There is a cynical and fatalistic tinge to our apathetic resignation. We Americans often assume the world is just a particular way. There just isn’t much to be done about it, we tell ourselves.

    Yet if we broadened our scope, we’d discover that isn’t the case. There are countries with less inequality and poverty, with better healthcare and education, with lower rates of violence and drug addiction, etc. Even our own country used to rate better on many of these issues.

    Obviously, humans are fully capable of creating and sustaining societies far more just than that seen in the present United States.

  2. A very wise person once told me that civilization is going to end up in either two ways. Either it becomes something like Gene Roddenberry’d Star Trek or it ends up like an Orwellian 1984, in which case, we will destroy ourselves.

    As for the rat race for getting the most material possessions, the sad part is that this does not seem to lead to happiness.

    I think and fear that humanity might not learn from the past.

    • I remember the letter Huxley wrote Orwell:


      Huxley was probably right. Orwell’s vision was too cruel to be sustainable. Any brutally authoritarian government like that wouldn’t last, as history has shown. More subtle methods are more effective and, sadly, more acceptible.

      Between 1984 and Star Trek, I don’t know which is more likely in the long run. As I see it, 1984 is more likely in the short term, but it is only likely to last for a short time. Authoritarian regimes like that tend to come and go, occupying transitional periods of uncertainty. Star Trek, like Brave New World, is more about how to create a stable and hence sustainable society. The Federation is (or rather will be) built to last for centuries, like any great multicultural empire. Building to last is far different than temporary social control.

      A weak and inferior government is forced to fall back on simplistic brutality, which is somewhat of a positive sign for that eventually will bring on its own doom. One should fear the most the evil empire that holds paternalistic concern in one hand while in the other it holds something hidden behind the back. The greater the subtlety means the greater the potential power and oppression.

      You might find this interesting. It is about an episode of The Next Generation. It relates the torture of Picard to that of 1984.


      By the way, 1984 was the year that Star Trek III: The Search For Spock came out.

  3. from the end of O. Burkeman’s “Believing that Life is Fair”: “Facing the truth – that the world visits violence and poverty and discrimination upon people capriciously, with little regard for what they’ve done to deserve it – is much scarier. Because, if there’s no good explanation for why any specific person is suffering, it’s far harder to escape the frightening conclusion that it could easily be you next.” Yeah… if we live in a culture that manipulates fear & desire for control, forvarious private, misguided agendas.

    Reminds me of a book _STACKED DECK: a Story of Selfishness in America_,c.1998 & 2010, by Lawr. E. MITCHELL. He addresses vulnerability; and how we would do ourselves a favor by dealing w/ society overall–making everythingmore fair–because in fact we ARE each of us interdependent and vulnerable, and more to the point, so are everyone’s CHILDREN. I find Howie Schwartz’s _Beyond Liberty Alone_ in key ways an echo of Mitchell’s effort to reach the general public w/ these important ideas. Look for reviews online and the preview at Books.Google.com

    From: Marmalade To: douglasn@rocketmail.com Sent: Tuesday, February 10, 2015 8:53 AM Subject: [New post] Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park #yiv3999864927 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv3999864927 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv3999864927 a.yiv3999864927primaryactionlink:link, #yiv3999864927 a.yiv3999864927primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv3999864927 a.yiv3999864927primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv3999864927 a.yiv3999864927primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv3999864927 WordPress.com | Benjamin David Steele posted: “I read an article the other day about the just-world hypothesis (or rather fallacy), Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person by Oliver Burkeman. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.The main point of the author is how th” | |

    • “Yeah… if we live in a culture that manipulates fear & desire for control, forvarious private, misguided agendas.”

      But why do so many Americans assume this is normal and inevitable? Not all societies are like this. Cultures of trust in places like Scandinavia and Japan seem like utopian fantasylands to Americans.

      “Reminds me of a book _STACKED DECK: a Story of Selfishness in America_,c.1998 & 2010, by Lawr. E. MITCHELL.”

      I haven’t read that book. Does the IC public library have a copy of it?

      “He addresses vulnerability; and how we would do ourselves a favor by dealing w/ society overall–making everythingmore fair–because in fact we ARE each of us interdependent and vulnerable, and more to the point, so are everyone’s CHILDREN.”

      Yeah, that should be an obvious fact to anyone not disconnected from reality.

      “I find Howie Schwartz’s _Beyond Liberty Alone_ in key ways an echo of Mitchell’s effort to reach the general public w/ these important ideas.”

      Thanks for mentioning that book. Books like that too often don’t get the attention they deserve, especially from the mainstream.

  4. I’m thinking that in the immediate future, the US is looking like a more and more grim place to live in.

    I just read a report on the economy. Even the upper middle class is not doing well. Real income may have declined by more than 10-15% since the 1970s for the 90-95th percentile. The 95-99% have either barely broken even or lost 5%. These are estimates with what I think is a more realistic estimate of inflation (particularly with short term costs like fuel taken to account).

    I think that apathy is driven partly by stupidity, partly by a lack of natural curiosity that many Americans seem to have.

    • That is a potentially positive situation.

      The richest of the rich are going to be accumulating most of the wealth and along with it most of the power. They will inevitably abuse their position and their lifestyle of luxury will grow out of control. This will cause division within the upper classes. Even many of the formerly comfortbale will start to feel the pinch and will accordingly start to identify more with those below them instead of those above them. That will create the leverage for change.

      The great thing about concentrated wealth and power is that it is unsustainable and always brings on its own demise. But in the short term there will be much struggle and suffering, just as there was before all the progressive reforms of the early 20th century. We’ll have to hit rock bottom as happened earlier. The poverty, inequality, violence, and other social problems right now don’t even come close to what was going on earlier last century.

      I suspect we are in a cycle. It’s good to keep historical perspective. Everyone always thinks it is worse now than it ever has been, but that is far from true (except in terms of the environment, which could be a game-changer). This kind of growing inequality is nothing new. It goes up and down. These kinds of cycles are longer than a single lifetime and so it is hard to see them. One such increasing inequality led to the American Revolution, and another almost led to a second revolution during the early 20th century when the American social order was truly teetering.

      The super wealthy never seem to learn, at least in the US. They push inequality to the extreme and then there is always a backlash. When that happens, either reform or revolution follows, but collapse is always a possibility. I don’t think this cycle is necessary and inevitable in the larger sense. I doubt all countries have this kind of problem. Older, more stable societies (in particular, cultures of trust) are probably better at maintaining a balance without all the back and forth between extremes.

  5. It may simply be that there is no wealth left to transfer from the poor and less and less from the middle class, so upper middle is all that is left.

    A large proportion of revolting in history has been upper middle class driven, so it should be interesting to see.

    • Both the American Revolution and the Progressive Era wouldn’t have happened if enough from the upper classes hadn’t joined in.

      This included even aristocracy during the American Revolution, although probably more lower aristocracy (the artistocracy back in England often looked down on the aristocracy out in the colonies, for inequality existed within the aristocracy itself, which is what forced certain aristocratic families to the colonies in the first place). People like the Roosevelts were the closest to what remained as an aristocracy in America.

      The Roosevelts were able to redirect the public outrage toward progressive reforms, and use that public outrage as an implied threat to force those changes to happen. It’s similar to how a middle class black like MLK could use pacfism as a tool of reform when a mob of angry young black men were gathering at his back. Of course, the same kind of people could incite further public outrage toward revolt or even revolution, as Jefferson did. Osama bin Laden grew up in wealth and, in fact, was part of the Saudi royal family. When some of the elites join the fight against the elites, trouble is on the horizon.

      The upper middle class are probably the most central for various reasons. They are the professionals and often in influential positions as community leaders, intellectual elites, etc. Plus, in countries like the US, the middle class has become symbolic of what our country is supposed to stand for and who the elite are supposed to represent. If the elites aren’t protecting the middle class from the dire fate the rest of the population is facing, then middle class loyalty to the elite’s class war becomes weak or entirely disappears.

  6. The rationale is simple enough.

    Capitalism has always claimed that the reason for its existence is that it can offer a higher standard of living than any competing ideology. The comparative high levels of living standards of social democracy nations with strong manufacturing sectors and egalitarian distributions of income disprove that.

    What is left is effectively a system that allows the elite to make rationalisations to extract economic rent.

    • But the defenders of capitalism want to take credit for everything positive that has happened in the modern world (and much that happened in the premodern world as well) while denying any responsibility for all failures and problems.

      In their demented minds, the social democracy nations would be doing even better if capitalism wasn’t beinng held back. As for the US, everything that is less than perfect must be blamed on some combination of a socialist government and lazy poor minorities. At the same time, all the advances, all the power and greatness of America and Western Civilization must be laid at the doorstep of capitalism (militarized imperialism, colonialism, slavery, genocide, and exploitation had nothing to do with it).

      The only reason those sneaky Chinese are getting ahead is because they are stealing our technological inventions. If they would only play fair like us Westerners and if we could only privatize all Western governments, then we could rule the world forever in a neoliberal utopia.

      Capitalism is perfect, like God. It is we humans who are fallen. We just need to repent and worship more devoutly at the altar of consumerism.

  7. Robert Reich once dubbed this “free market fundamentalist” ideology.

    It has in many ways become a religion, that unregulated capitalism will lead to the best outcome for humanity. Well this religious belief has repeatedly met it’s evolution in the form of economic crashes.

    I get the impression that it is a lie invented by the rich.

    • I love the ideal of a free market, as I love the ideal of freedom in general. Give people a choice to be free or not and most people would take the latter, even if they had no idea what such freedom meant. Freedom just sounds great.

      Yet as others have pointed out, freedom is never free. Capitalists, however, suggest that somehow the freedom of markets shouldn’t cost anything (or at least that the costs should not be charged to the capitalists, of course).

      They are never clear how a society goes from concentrated wealth and privilege, influence and power to a state of freedom for all. It is not even clear they want freedom for all. I suspect, as they want personhood for corporations, their ideal of freedom might only apply to corporations themselves and the capitalist class they represent.

      It doesn’t add up, when one gives it much thought. It is an ideal of freedom where most people would lack any practical application of and hence realistic hope for personal freedom, much less any grander notions of freedom.

      Will the rhetoric of capitalist freedom feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for the sick… or heck even give jobs to the unemployed? Apparently not. So, is the capitalism of freedom just the freedom of plutocrats to remain plutocrats? If so, that isn’t very inspiring.

      Over the years, I’ve increasingly come to the conclusion that capitalism doesn’t have anything to do with free markets. I don’t know that they have to be in absolute contradiction. A highly regulated capitalism might work and be compatible with free markets, if there was strong social democracy and social capital. But no one has ever demonstrated a working model of utopian unregulated capitalism that promotes and sustains a free society.

      I’m an open-minded guy. I’d love for capitalist to prove me wrong. All I want is a free society, in all respects, economics included. If capitalists can prove their system accomplishes that, I’ll join their defense. Until then, I’m forced to treat their ideology like any other utopican ideology or empty rhetoric.

      I know there are some free market capitalist true believers. The most principled of them are the anarcho-capitalists. They embrace their utopian ideal and they follow it to its inevitable conclusio. But in the end, I have my doubts that most defenders of capitalism actually mean what they say… or maybe even understand what they are saying and the implications of it.

      It would be useful to back to the earliest defenders of capitalism. How many of them were born into wealth and privilege? Did any of the earliest defenders of capitalism begin in dirt poverty among the desperate class of landless peasants? Or was capitalism always just the new rhetoric for an old class social order?

  8. I would hesitate to guess that despite their libertarian political views, the overwhelming majority of capitalists according to Robert Altemeyer’s authoritarian scale would have very high RWA values.

    I do not believe that the capitalists have any altruistic motives at heart. Rather, it is meant as a foil for human greed.

    “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

    John Kenneth Galbraith

    The issue they have is that their ideology has performed worst than social democracy for living standards and has created various problems (like financial meltdowns global warming) for which they have no solutions for.

    Another example:

    Capitalism in its neoliberal form is not even good for the much praised economic growth.

    • I read the comments. The author was responding to people. He clarified that what China has isn’t socialism, but mercantilism. I sort of know what mercantilism is, although I’ve never looked into it in detail.

      I’d like to better understand the relationship between socialism, capitalism, and mercantilism. Is there a reason why one couldn’t have a mercantilist socialism where the mercantilism was the engine for funding the socialism?

      If China is mercantilism, I wonder how the author would describe the economies of the strong social democracies. Also, I wonder if the author does or doesn’t make a distinction between socialism and communism. Strong social democracies just seem like soft socialism of the sewer socialist and Fabian varieties.

      Also, why does capitalism often just seem like soft fascism? I don’t think it is accidental that a capitalist society like America was formed from colonial imperialism, genocidal expansionism, racist slavery, and ethno-nationalist supremacism. What if those are defining features of capitalism as we know it, in one form or another?

  9. Well that’s easy:

    Mercantilism: Geared towards getting as much trade surplus as possible, even at the expense of domestic consumption

    Socialism: A system of economics where the state controls much (if not all of the economy)

    Capitalism: Free market economics Low regulation of corporations.

    Fingleton would describe Germany and the social democracies as mercantilist. Mercantilism and socialism are not mutually exclusive. Free market capitalism and mercantilism though are. Naturally, free market capitalism and socialist economics are mutually exclusive.

    • I understand the basic distinctions. But I’m not always sure reality has much to do with ideological abstractions.

      For example, the US doesn’t have low regulation of corporations. It has high regulation with regulatory capture where the regulations serve the interests of corporations. The only place where you could say that capitalism operates under genuine low regulation conditions are in severely underdeveloped post-colonial countries with long histories of foreign exploitation.

      Low regulation versus high regulation is a relative comparison and so a subjective judgment. This assumes a normal level of regulation. But who gets to claim what is the regulatory norm by which to judge all governments?

      There are no highly functioning governments in the world today that have low regulation. The US isn’t capitalism. It is something like corporatism, soft fascism, or inverted totalitarianism. The bank bailouts, corporate subsidies, and no-bid contracts are the very definition of big government interfering in markets.

      The countries that get called capitalist don’t even slightly match the ideological rhetoric of capitalism. Either capitalism doesn’t exist in the real world or it isn’t what capitalists claim it to be.

    • Pretty much capitalism has become a code word for “let’s give the corporations the wealth of society at the expense of everyone else”.

      It is not pretty, but that is what it is.

      On some things though, there is really low regulation in such a world, such as laws on food safety, which actually at times means for companies, anything goes.

  10. As far as why capitalism seems like soft fascism, because there does seem to be more than a few resemblance.

    If you think about it, capitalism and democracy are totally in conflict with each other.

    Capitalism = $1, 1 vote
    Democracy = 1 person, 1 vote

    Naturally, the more unequal a society, the more mutually exclusive they become.

    • But if capitalism and democracy are totally in conflict, that means that capitalism and free markets are totally in conflict. There can be no markets that are free without all of the people involved in and impacted by those markets also being free.

      So, what is this unfree capitalism? How does one tell the difference between actual existing unfree capitalism and soft fascism? Are there any differences at all? If so, what are they? If not, why don’t we just call it soft fascism instead? Is capitalism ideology anything more than empty rhetoric and corporatist propaganda?

  11. I get the impression that it has always been an attempt to sell people something that is against their own interest.

    “Free markets” and “free trade” have much more marketing appeal over the reality.

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