The moral and emotional tenor of the debate over extending unemployment benefits is consistent with psychological research showing that we all like to believe that people generally get what they deserve. We tend to have a high opinion of individuals who receive fortuitous rewards, and a low opinion of individuals who are victims of bad luck.
Melvin Lerner, the psychologist best known for his book, “The Belief in a Just World,” considered this belief a delusional means of avoiding moral discomfort.
The economists Roland Bénebou and Jean Tirole argue that however delusional the belief in a just world may be, it can be economically advantageous. Individuals who believe they will inevitably be rewarded for their effort and initiative are likely to exercise more discipline and self-control than those who don’t.
The problem comes down to why do people continue to hold on to delusional beliefs, especially in the face of more than ample contrary evidence. These delusional beliefs make it impossible to form rational policies to respond to our problems. The posting does go on to at least partially explain the continuance of this mass delusion as being a useful adaptation:
They also argue that our policies reward merit more effectively – even if they are harder on the poor (and, presumably, the unemployed). But Professors Bénebou and Tirole don’t offer much support for this lofty claim. Nor do they consider the possibility that meritocracy might be undermined by trends toward increased income inequality and long-term unemployment.
Belief in a just world is not a self-fulfilling prophecy. While it may bolster individual effort, it can also undermine collaborative efforts to make reality conform a little more closely to our ideals of justice.
So there is ultimately a policy challenge here. The voting public has a useful adaptive belief that at the same time prevents a proper institutional response. More worrying however, is that long term trends such as inequality may be undermining the benefits reaped from these delusional beliefs. This is a problem I keep coming back to, some of the very same traits that made America so successful in the past century were particularly well suited to the industrial age, not the modern one. I remain hopeful because I believe the strongest trait Americans have is our willingness to change and adaptability. What worries me is that there is so much evidence that so many favor other traits over our adaptability and are willing to sacrifice adaptability and change as national traits to preserve other elements of Americaness.