Thursday, July 30, 2009

Unlucky bastards

First, a shout-out to my homie Esther Pun. She and I were chatting the other day, and the topic of genocide came up (yep, just your usual inane banter). She inspired me to do some writing. Genocide is still too big a topic for me to tackle just yet, so I'll try to place another piece of the puzzle.

Today's topic falls under the heading of system justification. That's the tendency of people in a society to justify the status quo. It's a cognitive bias that manages to quell or circumvent emotions that might otherwise lead to beneficial change.

One statement that reflects this bias is the idea that bad things happen to bad people. Now, while it may be the case that "bad people" bring additional misery to themselves, the bias runs deeper than that. The fascinating discovery I want to share today is how pervasive and irrational the tendency can be.

As usual, I'll save myself some time and you some misery by pointing you to the original piece, this time on "the lucky effect."

For those of you too busy to read this fascinating article, the sum-up is this: when we associate even a few members of a particular group with unlucky outcomes, we tend to see the entire group as deserving of arbitrary misfortune. If I show you that a blue-shirted (!) individual has had is home broken into while a red-shirted one has won the lottery, along with one or two more polarizing examples, you're likely to prefer red-shirted people in general. And presumably what's going on inside your head is a justification that red-shirted people must be somehow deserving of the obviously-random fortunes that have befallen them.

It happens in adults, who should know better, and in children as young as 5, who are presumably too young to have been taught this directly. It's disquieting enough to realize that young children dislike victims of random misfortune, instead of being more compelled to help them. To see that they (and we) generalize this tendency to entire groups is even less inspiring.

What is inspiring, I think, is that we're beginning to investigate these issues scientifically. And as G.I. Joe taught (okay, told) us, knowing is half the battle :) The other half, I think, belongs to the field of contemplative science. Perhaps it's time to devote a post or two to that in the near future...


  1. That guy with the blue shirt should know better than having his house broken into. I would never do that.

  2. Hey, wait a minute... didn't I see you wearing a blue shirt the other day?!

  3. i read the article on 'lucky effect' and it doesnt surprise me much at all. in my view, one of the most primary functions of the brain (on which much else is based) is to associate stimuli with their consequences (ie “fire BAD!!” [in Frankenstein voice]). So assuming these children feel good when they see something good happen to the blue shirted cartoon (ie empathy), then they probably associate the blue shirt with feeling good. When asked “who do you like more?”, it translates to “who do you associate with positive emotion when looking at a picture of them (including the shirt color)?”. This really is no different than liking someone with good smelling cologne. Except there’s a twist, they dislike the green shirted person BECAUSE they’re sympathetic (and i mean it in is etymological root “to suffer with”). Irrationally sympathetic of course, but still interesting. So from my point of view, the part in the article where they suggest the lucky effect may be evolutionarily derived is total BS (or at least misleadingly stated).

    actually, i think if instead of asking 'who do you like more' it would be far more informative if they said "imagine you have 2 sandwiches but are only hungry enough to eat one and so you plan to give the other one away. which of these kids would you rather give your sandwich to?" then you can dissect if they go with the gut feeling of 'I like that person more so i want to make him happy' or if there's some correction in the brain to say 'he's down on his luck and it'd be nicer to give it to that guy'. if they decide to benefit the lucky one, then the positive feedback implications on our own society are pretty significant.