Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Why we're entitled...

Or at least think we are.

Psychologists studying the remarkable lack of remorse among leaders who cheat, lie and steal (plenty of examples spring to mind) have been looking at how power does (as Lord Acton suggested) truly corrupt.

A culture of entitlement

Half of 105 participants were asked to write about a past experience in which they had legitimately been given a role of high or low power. The others were asked to write about an experience of high or low power where they did not feel their power (or lack of it) was legitimate. All of the volunteers were then asked to rate how immoral it would be for someone to take an abandoned bicycle rather than report the bicycle to the police. They were also asked, if they were in real need of a bicycle, how likely they would be to take it themselves and not report it.
The “powerful” who had been primed to believe they were entitled to their power readily engaged in acts of moral hypocrisy. They assigned a value of 5.1 to others engaging in the theft of the bicycle while rating the action at 6.9 if they were to do it themselves. Among participants in all of the low-power states, morally hypocritical behaviour inverted itself, as it had in the case of tax fraud. “Legitimate” low-power individuals assigned others a score of 5.1 if they stole a bicycle and gave themselves a 4.3. Those primed to feel that their lack of power was illegitimate behaved similarly, assigning values of 4.7 and 4.4 respectively.
However, an intriguing characteristic emerged among participants in high-power states who felt they did not deserve their elevated positions. These people showed a similar tendency to that found in low-power individuals—to be harsh on themselves and less harsh on others—but the effect was considerably more dramatic. They felt that others warranted a lenient 6.0 on the morality scale when stealing a bike but assigned a highly immoral 3.9 if they took it themselves. Dr Lammers and Dr Galinsky call this reversal “hypercrisy”.
They argue, therefore, that people with power that they think is justified break rules not only because they can get away with it, but also because they feel at some intuitive level that they are entitled to take what they want. This sense of entitlement is crucial to understanding why people misbehave in high office. In its absence, abuses will be less likely. The word “privilege” translates as “private law”. If Dr Lammers and Dr Galinsky are right, the sense which some powerful people seem to have that different rules apply to them is not just a convenient smoke screen. They genuinely believe it. [More worth reading]

The stubborn insistence by farmers for special treatment - taxes, subsidies, un-regulation, etc. - may be the result of priming that switches our mind to the "powerful" mode. Farm magazines, organizations, suppliers, vendors, and colleagues constantly recirculate the language of our importance compared to others.  Without farmers, we'd starve...yadda,yadda.

So when this group is crossed with a generation also primed for self-importance, we have an industry led by voices perpetually dissatisfied with the insufficient obeisance and privilege given them by others. It is also a major problem for solving our national challenges.

As is often the case, actual Republican members of congress have a less edifying perspective than Brooks’ but perhaps a better sense of hardball politics. Thus when you look at Jeb Hensarling’s proposal for drastic cuts in Social Security benefits or Paul Ryan’s plan to pair drastic Social Security cuts with drastic Medicare cuts you’ll see that there’s a trick—none of it applies to anyone who’s 55 or older today. The basic idea is to take the GOP old white people base and insulate them from cuts. The under 55 crowd will still have to pay the taxes to finance their benefits, but we ourselves won’t get the benefits.
As you’ll recall from the health reform debate, somewhat paradoxically it’s the current beneficiaries of single-payer government-provided health insurance who evince the most opposition to universal health care. Basically, they’ve got theirs and don’t care about extending the benefits of universal health care to younger people. Ryan and Hensarling are proposing to institutionalize this version of the intergenerational bargain—culturally conservative oldsters still get paid, but the welfare state they enjoy and support will be phased out for Generations X and Y. [More]

It doesn't help much, but when I now witness farm leaders espousing baldly hypocritical positions (cut entitlements, but not mine) I will try to remember they may honestly believe their bizarre position. Moreover, they may have been taught that frame of mind.

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