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.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.