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Welfare reform - our confused attitudes

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Just because I’ve lost my job doesn’t mean I’m ‘unemployed’.

On Wednesday I asked why it is that Labour strategists believe people are becoming ever more censorious towards unemployed benefit claimants, a belief which is borne out by opinion polls. The psychology seems counter-intuitive; surely as more people lose jobs through no fault of their own, they should become more sympathetic to other unemployed people?

The answer may lie in the combination of cognitive dissonance and the proven tendency of normally-adjusted people to view themselves more positively than they view others.

Cognitive dissonance is what we experience when reality conflicts with our beliefs. The theory predicts that we are as likely to respond to such dissonance by changing our view of reality as by reforming our beliefs.

What Jonathan Haidt has called the ‘rose coloured mirror’ is the way we systematically assume we are better than other people. On a whole array of questions (for example, whether we are good drivers), the overwhelming majority of respondents - usually about 90% - claim they are ‘above average’. But this optimism does not extend to others, not even our nearest and dearest. We are good at predicting the performance and behaviour of everyone else but ourselves.

Put this together - and growing hostility to welfare claimants is neatly explained. People who have thought themselves safe in their jobs and as being ‘too good’ to end up on benefits suddenly find themselves at risk of unemployment. This causes cognitive dissonance. One way to resolve this dissonance is for them to believe that even if they do lose their jobs they will still be better than other people on benefits.

So, the more difficult it is for us objectively to distinguish ourselves from those we have previously looked down upon, the more our belief system has to maintain that distance for us.

To keep ourselves feeling good we have to think badly of others.

This is a doubly baleful aspect of our psychological makeup: first, because it is delusional and hypocritical; second, because it is ultimately self-defeating. Just like when you realise you have grown up into the kind of person you promised you would never be, there comes a point when we can no longer distance ourselves from people who share our plight. At which point our carefully cultivated disdain of others is turned on ourselves.

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  • Thanks for these comments. Marbury is right that there is a more humdrum explanation for people's resentment, although I still think we would expect people to be more intolerant of claimants when there are loads of vacanices to fill. Michael, I love the RSA Books of the Year idea - which i will now feature in my blog!

  • I've always thought of hate as externalised self-loathing (e.g. homophobics - who are, science says, disproportionately excited by homosexual pornography). As Herman Hesse said "If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us." It sounds like you might agree.

    Also, I'm surprised you didn't mention explicitly the fundamental attribution error or actor-observer bias: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F...

  • Um, hang on a minute. I'm not sure we need to employ social psychology here, brilliant though it is (is cognitive dissonance a posh way of saying, some people - not me or you, obviously - are out of touch with reality?). If I get more pissed off with people taking advantage of the benefit system, the more people lose their jobs, does that make me disdainful/delusional/hypocritical? Or is it a logical response to the fact that when more and more people are in real need, it's doubly outrageous that some people are playing the system?

  • That's a great description of cognitive dissonance and its effects, thank you.
    I'd be interested to know your "books of the year" - non-fiction and fiction. The lists that appesar in newspapers at this time of yeat always seem to favour inviting fiction writers, and the choices are always dominated by fiction.
    I wonder if Prospect has compiled a list?

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