The science of privilege

July 15, 2013

an interesting segment from the PBS NewsHour:

15 Responses to “The science of privilege”

  1. Ola Says:

    It would be interesting to speculate how these behaviors play out at study section, with the privileged perhaps claiming certain things (e.g. making a KO mouse) are easier to achieve based on their own experiences, without realizing they’re at an advantage to the person trying to get funded. It’s probably a simple matter for CSR to figure out if average scores assigned by reviewers correlate with their own funding status.

    It’s notable that the title of the paper (higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior) is a classic conflation of cause/effect, and the opposite is quite possibly also true, i.e. it’s the unethical behavior that permits entry to the elevated social classes, resulting in a positive reinforcement loop.


  2. GMP Says:

    I’m just going to say thanks for the link! This is really interesting.


  3. DrugMonkey Says:

    Ola- the comments from the investigator towards the end hint at causality. He refers to data showing people *change* based on only his manipulations in his experiments.


  4. I had heard about this research, but appreciated you posting this video. I too find the most interesting aspect how the privileged view their success as a function of their own efforts. Of course, successful people work hard, yada yada, but discounting the critical components of environment and circumstance just seems ignorant to me. Especially amusing to me that biologists demonstrate in this way an ignorance of how evolution works. Top scientists honestly believe that their success within the system was due to their awesomeness on a blank playing field. .


  5. DrugMonkey Says:

    And they cannot possibly imagine that circumstances differ over time, either.


  6. Beaker Says:

    This research also reminds us of the critical role played by safety nets. We’ve all known people of privilege who screwed up somewhere along the way but got bailed out by family connections or money. Many then later go on to great success in their chosen fields of endeavor, with no long-lasting negative consequences from their screw-up. The same argument applies to those afflicted with acute serious medical conditions that get cured through good healthcare.

    I know one person like this, who comes from the upper middle class. He got drunk, wrecked his motorcycle, and almost died. Excellent healthcare and family care saved his life. Today, he’s the most self-righteous Libertarian bastard I know–a person quick to waggle the “welfare queen” cartoon in my face, as evidence of lazy poor people.

    Contrast this to a person of limited means from a poor family. That person is one screw-up or medical condition away from personal disaster. This is why government must be prepared to step up to the plate in situations where family means are limited or non-existent. The benefit far exceeds the cost.

    In the context of study sections, I guess safety nets and bailouts take the form of powerful mentors (the “rich parents”) rescuing trainees who are experiencing problems–or pulling strings to ensure that they get foundation grants, etc. And the closest thing to a “government bailout” is awards that favor young investigators or minorities. Again, the benefit exceeds the small cost of the investment.


  7. Juan Lopez Says:

    Thanks for the link.

    People belonging to a successful lab or university sometimes argue that they should be considered as better candidates (for jobs, awards, etc) given that they belong to this high-pedigree group. Somehow they borrow from the success of a group to argue that it means there’s something special about them. Similarly, they argue that the way they behave is valid or better than other ways because it makes for the success of the group. I have seen this openly argued as if there’s nothing wrong with it. “What do you mean I have to test for the variability in our measurements? we come from one of the best institutions in the world and have the best technicians”.

    This happens between rich and poor labs, rich and poor universities and rich and poor countries.

    Ola – I did not see the title of their paper as arguing causality but rather from the pure statistical perspective that one parameter predicts another. As bad press as they got, it may have looked even worse if they had done it the other way around (increased unethical behavior predicts higher social class).


  8. The Other Dave Says:

    This sort of research is fascinating, but if you actually read the primary literature the results are not very impressive. Even where the experimental design is unambiguously interpreted, the statistics are usually pretty iffy. Plus, the results are famously non-applicable across cultures.

    But let’s say that the trendy ‘truthiness’ of the stuff in this particular report represents real truth (which I think it does, but any carny or hooker could have told us that). I wonder if any of these guys have gone so far as to question their own status as experts, based on their conclusion that status breeds disillusion and cheating. Are they really better scientists, or do they just think so because their socioeconomic status permitted elite educational pedigrees and ultimately a highly-paid faculty appointment at a respected university? Are they more likely to ‘massage’ their results because of their position? Certainly they have increased opportunity to do so, given their status. And more to lose by not doing so.

    In fact we are left with a paradox: The high academic status of the people telling us to not trust status suggests that we should not trust what these people are telling us.


  9. DrugMonkey Says:

    Are you trying to do a spoof of a greybearded douchebag who hasn’t actually read the primary literature in depth, nor kept up, who wishes us to believe his authoritah?

    If not, how about some specifics, homes?


  10. The Other Dave Says:

    Here’s the paper describing the first study mentioned in the video:

    You judge whether the results are as dramatic or compelling as he made them sound. It won’t take long. You only need to inspect two pretty shoddy figures. And this is PNAS, so don’t tell me that it’s just an example of a poor paper in the field. This is about as good as it gets.

    So… tell me: If this guy were a 16 year old and this were a high school science fair project, would you be just as impressed? Is the authority of his statements derived from the quality of his work, or the fact that he’s a professor at Berkeley?

    Now, I’m not saying that all psychology research is underwhelming. A lot of stuff is really impressive. It’s just that this pop psycho-economics stuff that we hear so much about lately tends to have more style than substance, IMHO. I do love Kahneman, though.

    You can Google ‘cultural bias’ yourself. Here’s one of the top hits when I do it. I think it makes my point.


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