Research Lead: Is Equality Zero-Sum, The Norm of Self-Interest, Failing Better, and More

You’re reading the Research Lead, a monthly digest connecting you to noteworthy academic and applied research from around the behavioral sciences.

“You think failure is hard? So is learning from it”

“Fail fast, fail often,” goes the business mantra. But there’s a problem. The Silicon Valley catchphrase doesn’t tell the whole story of failure. It takes for granted that we actually learn from it. And that’s not always so easy, explain Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Ayelet Fishbach. In a new paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science, they outline the emotional and cognitive barriers that can get in the way of learning when things go wrong. 

Emotionally, for example, failure is ego-bruising, and facing up to it means getting over the desire to protect our self-image. Cognitively, we may miss valuable information when we fail because understanding what went wrong is a less direct process than figuring out what went right. In their paper, Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach offer ideas for ways to overcome these emotional and cognitive hurdles so that when the inevitable happens, we can make the most of it. [Perspectives on Psychological Science; open access]

Rediscovery: “The norm of self-interest” (1999)

“What are we to make of evidence suggesting that material self-interest is a powerful force in people’s lives?” asks Dale Miller in his 1999 essay in American Psychologist. In his article, Miller explains that “this evidence is inherently ambiguous because the ideology of self-interest, widely celebrated in individualistic cultures, functions as a powerful self-fulfilling force.”

A key aspect of the self-fulfilling force, and the focus of MIller’s paper, is that “individualistic cultures spawn social norms that induce people to follow their material self-interest rather than their principles or passions.” What that means, he explains, is “people act and sound as though they are strongly motivated by their material self-interest because scientific theories and collective representations derived from those theories convince them that it is natural and normal to do so.”

Miller concludes: “As Kagan (1989) observed, ‘People treat self-interest as a natural law and because they believe they should not violate a natural law, they try to obey it.’” [American Psychologist, open access]

The misperception that equality is zero-sum

Is equality inherently zero-sum? A new Science Advances paper illustrates that those with the greatest power to enact change tend to think so, even in the face of evidence suggesting otherwise. Across nine studies, the authors examine the reactions of advantaged group members to equality-enhancing policies and find that they consistently and incorrectly assume that increasing equality harms their group.

In one study, they conducted a longitudinal field experiment examining support for affirmative action. The more the advantaged group (in this case, white and Asian Americans) believed that eliminating the ban would harm their own group’s access to employment and education, the less likely they were to vote for the proposition. The perception of harm was more indicative of voting behavior than outright prejudice, political orientation, or opposition to equality, lending support to the authors’ argument that the misperception of harm is a significant roadblock in garnering support for real-world equality-enhancing policies. 

In a separate series of lab studies, they tested whether incentives, collective benefit (i.e., policies that would increase resources for everyone, not just the disadvantaged group), and explicit guarantees that the advantaged group would be unaffected could help mitigate this false assumption. Nothing seemed to work—across scenarios ranging from mortgage lending discrimination to university admission, the authors observed the “persistent and pernicious misbelief that equality itself is inherently zero-sum.” [Science Advances]

Challenging the notion of slavery as the economic engine of the early United States

“Did slavery play an indispensable role in the rise of the U.S. economy to world preeminence?” asks economic historian Gavin Wright. 

The answer, he argues, is no. “Accounts of the sources of U.S. economic growth in the nineteenth-century suggest that slavery and the shift of the slave-owning South to cotton production early in the century had relatively little effect on growth for the nation as a whole,” he writes. “The deeper source of long-run U.S. economic growth were improvements in technology, internal transportation, finance, and education, and the slave-owning South lagged in all of these areas.” 

One reason for this lag was that slavery and growing cotton incentivized fractured and independent economic decisions, meaning there was little reason to invest in shared infrastructure, like roads or education. “Becuase slaves were movable personal property in a well-developed regional market, their value was virtually independent of local development,” Wright explains. “Because slaves provided captive labor for setup tasks like land-clearing, owners had little reasons to engage in recruitment of workers or settlers, activities that engaged extensive entrepreneurial energies in the states where slavery was prohibited.”

“A simple summary of these patterns,” Wright concludes, “might be this: Slavery enriched slave-owners, but impoverished the southern region and did little to boost the U.S. economy as a whole.” [Journal of Economic Perspectives]

“American enslavement and the recovery of Black economic history” 

In the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Economist Trevon Logan makes the case for a more human-centered look at the economic history of slavery. Drawing on data and narratives from his own family’s work growing cotton in the 1950s and 1960s, he illustrates what current methods of economic history miss and what could be gained if the methodological approach is expanded. Importantly, a deeper understanding the economic history of slavery can help inform contemporary conversations about its legacy and effects.

“Racial identity and economic identity are deeply related in ways that are immediately obvious in qualitative data but are obscured in much of the current work on race in economic history,” Logan writes. “Race as an experience,” he continues, “means that it is a process that is not easily described by a fixed variable in a dataset. Limiting ourselves to the quantitative record gives us partial answers to the questions we ask about racial economic inequality and the endurance of those inequalities over time.” [Journal of Economic Perspectives]

The possibility for peace in Colombia

After the emergence of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) in the 1950s, Colombia spent many years racked with internal conflict. In 2016, a peace deal was put to a popular vote through a national referendum. But it was rejected. Although a revised deal was ultimately ratified, peace remains an aspiration rather than a reality. 

A peaceful resolution is unlikely without popular support for the reintegration of former FARC combatants into Colombian society. To help drive this support, a group of researchers and local filmmakers teamed up to develop a five-minute media intervention featuring interviews with former FARC combatants. The goal of the video was to assuage doubts among non-FARC Colombians about the ability and willingness of ex-FARC members to change. And they succeeded—across three studies, the video helped reduce reported dehumanization of former FARC members and boosted support for peace and reintegration. The positive effect persisted even in a 10-12 week follow-up survey.

The authors are hopeful their media intervention approach could contribute to resolving conflict more broadly: “Practically, this intervention can be scaled up relatively easily and thus has the potential to nudge Colombian society, as well as other societies immersed in conflict, towards more lasting peace.” [Nature Human Behaviour]

“People see political opponents as more stupid than evil”

“Conservatives think liberals are stupid, and liberals think conservatives are evil,” wrote the political columnist Charles Krauthammer. But do they? Rachel Hartman, Neil Hester, and Kurt Gray probe this oft-cited but unstudied idea in an article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Across four studies, they surveyed over 1,600 people to better understand how they viewed their political opponents’ intelligence and morality. 

In each study, they asked participants to evaluate their political ingroup and political outgroup across six dimensions of unintelligence (e.g., not smart, illogical) and six dimensions of immorality (e.g., immoral, have bad intentions). Across the studies, they found that both conservatives and liberals perceived the other side as more unintelligent than immoral. Or, in Krauthammer’s framing, more stupid than evil. One caveat is the relative stakes of intelligence and morality—“evil” is a much more damning label than “stupid.” 

The authors suggest a takeaway geared toward finding a way to come together: “If partisans view each other as more unintelligent than immoral, there is reason to believe that asking them to reflect on the morality of their outgroup may reduce animosity toward them.” [Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin]

“The promises of summer youth employment programs: lessons from randomized evaluations”

Summer youth employment programs (SYEPs) are a policy tool for supporting youth, particularly those from underserved communities, during their pivotal transition into adulthood. A team from J-PAL North America reviewed the results of 13 randomized controlled trials that evaluated the effectiveness of SYEPs in New York City, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. 

Across these studies, the authors found that most teens (90 percent) who received a summer employment offer through an SYEP accepted it—a dramatic improvement from the 20-30 percent baseline summer employment rate. They also found that program participants were less likely to enter the criminal justice system. Encouragingly, the youth at the highest risk for negative outcomes (e.g., arrests, convictions, and premature death) were those that benefitted the most. [Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab]