This new escapism

February 26, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Economy 

Are we increasingly berating others to escape from the grim reality of an unjust social and economic system? A couple of recent events indicate that such a phenomenon may indeed be taking place.

The first was the news reported not so long ago that attacks on disabled people have increased dramatically over the past few months, with research from Scope showing that the number of disabled people experiencing hostility has increased by over 40 per cent in the last 4 months alone. Scope, Mencap, RNIB and others argue that this kind of antagonism has been driven in part by some in the media who are intent on framing disabled people as benefit scroungers.

The second event was on Radio 4’s PM show. Invited onto the programme to comment on the latest increase in unemployment figures, a young man in the midst of looking for work was ridiculed by phone-in callers and accused of not trying hard enough to secure a job. A similar episode was on Nicky Campbell’s Radio 5 show, where a caller who was describing her problems with personal debt was forced to defend her family’s spending patterns against a barrage of questions from an unrelenting Edwina Currie. The lady was eventually reduced to tears.

The kind of hostility witnessed in these examples appears to be part of a worrying trend of rising resentment against the vulnerable and needy in our society. 25 per cent of those surveyed in the latest British Social Attitudes survey, for instance, said that the reason people live in need is because they are lazy or lack will power. Twice as many said the reason why children live in poverty is because their parents don’t want to work. Whether it’s the unemployed, the disabled, or even an entire Mediterranean country, the sport of apportioning blame seems to have become a favourite past-time for an increasing number of us. As Miranda Sawyer succinctly put it in last week’s Observer, “are we all Curries underneath?”

Perhaps. But the bigger question we should be asking is what is it exactly that’s driving this ‘Curry complex’? One explanation, as I noted in a previous blog, lies in our craving to legitimise and make sense of an unjust and unpredictable system, something that has been termed by many as a “just world bias”. In short, we take comfort from blaming others for their misfortunes because it allows us to believe that we won’t face the same circumstances in the future. We’re simply too hard-working and honest to be unemployed, unhappy and in debt.

Since I wrote that blog, Duke University and the University of Waterloo have published a research paper pulling together a number of studies that give this hypothesis further grounding. The article’s authors, Aaron C. Kay and Justin Friesen, argue that we tend to rally to the defence of our systems when they appear threatened. They highlight the debacle of the preparation and response to Hurricane Katrina as one of the clearest examples of this kind of behaviour. Rather than laying the blame at the door of FEMA, the agency with a remit to prepare for and to mitigate the damage of hurricanes, people surprisingly tended to criticise the very victims of the disaster. Another interesting example is that of people’s reactions to the pay differentials between men and women. Having been told that men’s salaries are 20 per cent higher than women’s, participants in one study said that this was a result of differences in abilities between the sexes, rather than unfair pay arrangements.

The biggest insight from the paper is the finding that “the less control people feel over their own lives, the more they endorse systems and leaders that offer a sense of order”. This is perhaps one reason for the sizeable public support for the Government’s welfare reform programme, as well as for the high level of personal satisfaction ratings enjoyed by David Cameron. Indeed, Prospect and YouGov only this week published findings from a national poll which showed 74 per cent of people think that we spend too much on welfare and that the government should cut the level of benefits.

All in all, it appears as though these bleak economic times have turned many of us into defenders of our system rather than the constructive critics we ought to be. Albeit unknowingly for some, and with clear exceptions to the rule. There is no doubt that this way of thinking about the world – about our perceptions of the way our system works and about how much people can be held responsible for their circumstances – will ultimately lead to negative consequences for those already suffering misfortune. If we can’t come to recognise these cognitive traps and work to overcome them, it’s likely that these groups will only become more marginalised in the years ahead. And bear mind, we won’t be out of the woods for a while longer yet.


  • Hilary Sutcliffe

    And yet, according to the Charities Aid Foundation charitable donations went up last year.  Those seeking to volunteer is also up, more people are crowd funding new ideas than ever before, so be very careful what story you are weaving here.  

    As we find time and time again, stories are never as simple as ‘we are all getting nastier’.  Though agree attacks on the disabled is hard to fathom.

    In addition, please don’t start this Edwina Curry thing again.  The idea of the Curry Complex is exactly part of the same snideness and cheap laugh journalism which fuels this type of one sided debate in the first place.  It is unedifying and unhelpful.


    • Benedict Dellot

      Thanks Hilary.

      I agree that it is never black or white, but I thought this was an interesting view to add to the mix and something we should all be aware of.

      You’re right, the ‘curry complex’ term probably probably wasn’t helpful.


      • Hilary Sutcliffe

        Yes, you are right, it is in interesting perspective and I didn’t mean to be chippy!  However, I felt like the interesting thing is that both are happening.  How in the worst recession can charitable donations be up on the one hand and yet the things you say on the other true as well? Is it only a small number of people we are looking at and therefore is it really statistically relevant?  I have no idea!

        I am reading Daniel Kahnman’s Thinking, fast and slow at the moment who has some interesting observations about how we try to make sense of the world based on limited information to fit what we want it to look like.  That is not a great paraphrase but I am finding it totally fascinating and not a little depressing about how our brains kid ourselves!

  • Rahul Kamath, FRSA

    Without any scientific basis, I think this statement is bang on, “the less control people feel over their own lives, the more they endorse systems and leaders that offer a sense of order”. I find myself doing this occasionally and I am a pretty skeptical guy. Possibly we are hardwired to look for order? This statement also puts a lot of dents into ideas such as a desire for freedom/ liberty, a desire to be entrepreneurial etc. 

    • Benedict Dellot

      Very interesting points, Rahul. I agree that this is something we’ve probably been hardwired to do in order to maintain the order of our communities at all costs. A similar example is the way we’ve developed an acute ability to spot cheaters and free-riders.

  • Vsharpe

    Yes, Rabul, we are hardwired to look for “order,” but we are increasingly “soft-wired” to disavow any responsibility whatsoever for not only for easing the suffering of others, but for causing it, intentionally or unintentionally. If it’s not happening to me, there must be something wrong with you. It’s a paradox, given that we defend our personal senses of self-esteem by externalizing attribution for failure, but true “ego strength” lies in the ability to simultaneously acknowledge our individual value as human beings and our collusion in creating systems that oppress and suppress opportunity for the oppressed to escape. The inane controversy over contraception in the US right now is just another example. “If you’d just quit having sex, you wouldn’t need contraception.” I wonder what’s next.