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!