All the little Scrooges of the world . . .
Alms for the poor. Sidewalk Santas with clanging bells. The words and images may seem a bit Dickensian, but the charitable sentiment still resonates throughout the winter holiday season. After all, every one of the world’s major religions preaches compassion and generosity toward those less fortunate.
Yet despite the universality of this simple message, a substantial body of scientific research shows that sympathy for the disadvantaged is not an automatic impulse for most people. In fact, generosity may require that we actively override some baser impulses, like blaming the victims of adversity. Not only do we sometimes treat the unfortunate as bad people, we tend to unduly admire those who have been smiled on by fortune.
Where do such notions come from? Why do we look at life’s lottery through a moral lens? Scientists are curious about how we think about the causes of social inequality, how we learn about the connections between luck and merit, privilege and deprivation. One way they explore the origins of these intertwined ideas is to study children, whose views of the world are presumably more innocent and less diluted by experience.
In one study, for example, children listened to stories depicting good luck, bad luck, good deeds or bad deeds. For example, a lucky kid might find $5, while an unlucky kid might have his soccer game rained out; a good kid might volunteer to help his teacher, while a bad kid might lie to his parents. The 5- to 7-year-olds in the study were then asked to judge the likability of the characters in the stories.
Not surprisingly, the children showed a preference for the do-gooders over the liars. That’s a start. But the kids also showed a strong preference for the lucky kids over the unlucky kids. What’s more, while they liked the unlucky kids more than the liars, they did not favor the good kids all that much more than the lucky kids. In other words, good fortune was perceived as nearly akin to benevolence.
This is distressing, but it gets worse. In another experiment, the scientists had the children view two groups of kids on a computer screen. The groups were distinguishable only by the color of their T-shirts and the fact that they stood together. Most of the kids in one group were depicted in stories as lucky, while most of the kids in the other group were portrayed as unlucky. The researchers threw a couple of “neutral” kids into each group, however, to keep the fictional world from being black and white. The neutral kids wore the same T-shirts as the others in their group, but were described with phrases such as “He likes oatmeal.” Then the researchers introduced new members to each group, and asked the study participants what they thought of the newcomers, who arrived with no stories—just the shirts on their backs.
The results were unambiguous. The subjects strongly favored the new kids who joined the lucky group. Think about this. They preferred these particular kids, knowing nothing about them except the color of their T-shirts. Furthermore, they liked them not because they were individually lucky, but simply because they were associated with lucky kids. In effect, some of the computerized kids had the good fortune of being “born into” the right stratum of society, while others were disdained for a virtual accident of birth.
Why would children have such a cynical attitude toward privilege and misfortune? One theory is that humans have a very powerful need to believe in a just world, where good things happen to good people, bad things to bad people. The kids appear to be generalizing their emotional response, so that they cannot distinguish between malevolence and misfortune. If you get a bad roll of the dice, you somehow must have deserved it, even if the reason is not readily apparent.
What’s most discouraging here is that this cynicism can be seen in such young subjects. The preachings of religious leaders notwithstanding, these studies suggest that benevolence may be hard to come by. Generosity of spirit must compete with a powerful bias in favor of sheer luck. It’s not implausible that our early, deep-seated prejudice for the privileged is helping to perpetuate social injustice. That’s a troubling noel for the holiday season.
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