According to system justification theory, we all want to live in a fair and just society. Even if you experience personal discrimination, it is in your best interest to pretend it is not happening. For instance, it feels better to think that a customer is rude to you because they is having a bad day—not because you are [insert gender, race, etc., here]. If the rudeness is random (e.g., flat tire), we can justify their behavior. If it is targeted, we must admit the system is flawed. This holds even when we are not the target of discrimination. If you think a homeless person is homeless because they made bad choices or got ‘dealt a bad hand’, it is easier to look away. If you think the system—to which you belong—is in some way responsible, it is much harder. Essentially, we are motivated to believe the system we built is fair because it is emotionally taxing to see it otherwise.
Gun violence is baked into our American system. As such, it is emotionally convenient to shrug it off as a fact of life, as suggested by the Onion article on regular rotation since 2014. Applying system justification theory, we should be able to overcome this injustice by allowing ourselves to experience the negative emotions associated with it. But aren’t we already doing this? Each shooting is followed by videos of grieving family members, stories of the victims’ community involvement, candlelit vigils, pictures of friend groups forever minus-one, and poignant eulogies. I doubt anyone feels no guilt, sadness, anger, frustration, helplessness, or fear in the wake of these events. But if these events evoke negative emotions, why does society-at-large still justify them?
Mass shooters do not discriminate. Schools, night clubs, grocery stores, shopping malls, no place—or people—are off limits. Perhaps it is this randomness that allows it to be rationalized. Like the rude customer, it is less emotionally burdensome to chalk it up to being in the wrong place at the wrong time than to feel particularly vulnerable or discriminated against. But I argue that, in this case, the randomness is discrimination. Discrimination is the treatment of a group of people based on membership to that group—rather than individual merit. As Americans, we are more likely to die from gun homicides than peer nation citizens. Indeed, ‘no other rich western country comes close’. Therefore, we are unfairly and unjustly subject to gun violence simply by living in this country, by belonging to the group of people called Americans. I acknowledge the leap in terminology. I also acknowledge that there is discrimination within gun violence. But by framing mass shootings as discriminatory against an entire nation, perhaps we can reach a critical mass to decide we can no longer justify this system.
The first set are typical responses to any potential threat to the right to bear arms—a protection guaranteed by the US Constitution. The second set consists of calls (past and present) for civil rights—also protected by the US Constitution. So, what’s the difference? I argue it comes down framing. The reason the pro-gun movement has been so successful is that the Second Amendment is positioned as a right to be conserved while other civil rights must be earned. Gun owners simply continue to keep their guns. Alternatively, women earned the right to vote, same sex couples earned the right to get married, Black Americans earned American citizenship.
These calls to action are framed differently because of how the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution. To understand the problem, let’s turn to social media. In January of this year, Asher Perlman Tweeted: There is no one I have less in common with than the me who wrote my Facebook statuses circa 2008. It’s a sentiment that hit home for lots of us, and I’ll admit to cringing when I read my Facebook memories. The obvious takeaway is that we have all changed over the past 14 years. Something that was funny or profound has not aged well. But it is also a reflection of how much our world has changed. Our culture, politics, fashion, etc., are not the same as they were in 2008, so a statement made then might literally not make sense now. Proclaiming “I’m Team Edward” might spark an intense debate in 2008 but get looks of confusion in 2022. Simply put, context matters, be it chronological or historical.
If 2008 was a long time ago, what about 1789? Nobody argues the significance of the Constitution, but a lot has changed since it was written. It would be logical, then, to take those changes into consideration when interpreting it, right? The current Supreme Court disagrees. They interpret the Constitution based on the original understanding of the text at the time it was adopted. That is, they read the words as they were intended to be understood in 1789. No updates, no refresh button. Perhaps it is not surprising that a conservative court would adopt this ideology. To conserve something means to protect it from change or alteration, and the goal of originalism is to conserve the original meaning of the text.
This interpretation is what gives gun advocates such a strong argument. Gun owners did not win the right to wield AR-15s, they conserved it—even though the AR-15 was an unthinkable technology in 1789. The originalist perspective allows judges to place it under the umbrella of “arms” in the Second Amendment. That way, it represents something you’ve always had but could be taken away—not something you must earn. Women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community, on the other hand, have not enjoyed such broad interpretation of the 14th Amendment. Ratified in 1868, somehow, they fell outside the umbrella of “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” Therefore, when Black men (1870) and then women (1920) won the right to vote, and same sex couples won the right to get married (2015), it was messaged as something the courts awarded them. These groups had to ask for [and march for, and fight for, and die for] something that was, constitutionally, already theirs. But an originalist interpretation made it seem as if these civil rights were generously bestowed upon them.
So, what is the best way to interpret a centuries-old document? A textualist “hear[s] the words as they would sound in the mind of a skilled, objectively reasonable user of words.” The key difference is it considers context, which seems reasonable. This view takes nothing away from the historical relevance of the document, (after all, your 2008 Facebook status was insightful, hilarious, or whatever you were going for at the time), it simply acknowledges that things have changed over the past 233 years. The argument is not that newer equals better, rather it offers alternative perspectives. If John Adams were alive today and needed major surgery, he’d probably elect to undergo anesthesia (invented in 1846). He might then post about it on Facebook (launched in 2004)—or not. Either way, he would merge his previously held beliefs about medicine and communication with newly available resources to make an informed decision in his personal best interest (I bet he would be a TikTok guy actually). In the same way, our courts should use every available resource when making decisions in society’s best interest.
The upcoming Supreme Court term includes cases on gerrymandering, affirmative action, voting rights, and LGBTQ+ rights. The latter involves a web designer who does not want to create websites celebrating same sex marriages. Will the Court allow the business to discriminate against same sex couples, thereby conserving free speech of the web designer? Or will same sex couples have to earn the right to patronize a local business? Perhaps it’s time to flip the script, to take a page from the gun right advocates and frame LGBTQ+ rights as something to be conserved. After all, you should not have to earn civil rights.
The plan has three components, and two are designed to address the underlying problem of student loans in higher education (See the details here). The pushback, however, centers on the 10K or 20K of debt cancellation. This benefit will affect 43 million people, but the cost will be shared by taxpayers. Sort of a reverse tragedy of the commons. Is it fair? No. But public policy is not meant to be fair. The goal is equity—not equality.
The fact that some people get something and others do not is by design. This happens all the time. Remember when high-risk people received first access to the COVID vaccine? It wasn’t fair, it was equitable. An informed decision was made to help a particular set of people. Do ‘all lives matter’? Absolutely. But as we’ve realized, certain lives deserve special attention at certain times. Similarly, all loans matter (those you paid off, those you chose not to take, those you were unable to receive), but student loans warrant unique consideration in this moment.
And that highlights perhaps the most important point: public policy is not a zero-sum game. Policymakers can make more, and citizens have a voice in that decision—through their vote. That is how democracy works (minus the filibuster). Elected officials make policies. Citizens decide if they like those policies, and if more than 50% do, that official [should] get elected again. If that number falls below 50%, that official gets voted out, and new officials make new policies. The cycle repeats so that the majority of a population is generally content with current policy. From U.S. Congress to student council president, the goal is the same: give the people what they want. Sixty-percent of Americans support some type of student loan forgiveness, so the argument that “He just did this to get more votes” or “He just did this to make people like him” is not an argument at all. Those were transparent intentions.
The student loan dilemma is knotty—it can’t be solved without untangling a host of other institutional problems. This new plan has flaws, but it is a targeted effort to help people who need it. What’s more, the plan is designed to disproportionately help people of color and reduce the racial wealth gap. Do other people need help? Absolutely. Maybe the next policy can address blue collar worker incentives or commuters with auto loans. There is no policy quota. Each of the whatabouts deserve close inspection, budget scrutiny, public dialogue, and possibly public policy.
Paul Krugman defines a moral hazard as “any situation in which one person makes the decision about how much risk to take, while someone else bears the cost if things go badly.” At the federal level, the Supreme Court that overturned Roe was 6-3 male-to-female. (Kentanji Brown Jackson replaced Justice Breyer on June 30). District and circuit courts are roughly 1/3 female. The Presidents that appointed them were all men. The ratio of men to women in the US Senate (which confirms Justices) is 76-24. The House of Representatives is roughly the same (28% female). State legislatures--many of which have trigger laws and many more will most likely ban abortion—have been hovering between 15-30% female for decades. Taken together, mostly men are making the decision about how much risk to take while women bear the cost if things go badly. These costs may be economic, social, health-related, career-related, etc., but they are borne by women.
Another way to define moral hazard is “a lack of incentive to guard against risk where one is protected from its consequences.” Just a week after Dobbs, the Court ruled to rescind the EPA’s right to regulate emissions from power plants. Deregulating environmental policies at the Supreme Court level will exacerbate climate change in the US; however, wealth offers a general protection from the worst effects of climate change. The negative outcomes will fall mostly to poor Americans. But pollutants do not recognize national boundaries, so this decision will disproportionately impact poorer nations, leaving the Global North relatively insulated. Finally, while climate change is here, the heaviest burden will rest on the shoulders of future generations. Therefore, this decision represents a national, global, and temporal moral hazard as the buck is passed to vulnerable populations whose risk was decided for them.
Unfortunately, given the power and trajectory of the Court, morally hazardous decisions may become easier to make. Research shows that knowing you will not personally incur the risk encourages you to take more risk. Our tolerance increases until putting others at risk becomes an acceptable outcome. The contractor may buy cheaper and cheaper materials, you may begin shopping in the discount meat aisle (OK, not really). Cases are coming to potentially reverse same-sex marriage, restrict rights of the LGBTQ+ community, and silence the voices of voters through gerrymandering. To my knowledge, the Court is made up of straight, cisgender people whose voices will always be heard, meaning each case represents a moral hazard.
In a country of 330 million people, I understand the need for—and value of—impartial and thoughtful decision-makers. Judges are trained and appointed to literally decide outcomes for others. Further, the Supreme Court is not obligated to align with public opinion, and some of their brightest moments have come despite heavy opposition. However, whereas earlier contentious decisions acknowledged human rights—thereby reducing risk (e.g., Obergefell, Roe, Brown, Griswold, etc.)—these recent decisions do the opposite. They strip human rights and assign risk to specific people. Moral hazards are inevitable in our judicial system, but we should strive to minimize the risk we saddle on those who have no say in the matter.
We’ve come to expect this from corporations, but politicians and pundits are equally adept at this tactic, and the repercussions are far more serious than a purple polka-dot dress shirt. Demand engineered in politics often casts a critical light on people who simply want the rights and privileges afforded everyone else. Take same-sex marriage. This is a basic civil right that was unavailable to millions of people. Yet rather than focus on the actual issue, early detractors worried it would erode the sanctity of traditional marriage, shining the spotlight on what might be taken away from one group rather than what might be finally offered another.
The LGBTQ+ community must often fight for what others take for granted, and the latest example involves athletics. Several states have put forth bills banning transgender athletes from sports, including Iowa, Alaska, Tennessee, Florida. The debate ranges from middle school to high school to college, and even the Olympics. The nutshell argument is that transgender students should not be allowed to compete in female sports because they are bigger and stronger than their cisgender counterparts. (Note: gender is a dynamic and evolving social construct distinct from biological sex. For more, read the WHO’s overview). Proponents of this argument say it creates an uneven playing field, putting cisgender athletes at a disadvantage. These bills will “ensure fair competition.” However, this argument is myopic, disproved by the data, and has unintended negative effects (e.g., ‘bigger’ or ‘stronger’ cisgender girls and women could be required to undergo an invasive exam to ‘prove’ their gender). Most importantly, like arguments against same-sex marriage, the rhetoric focuses on the statistically insignificant negative consequence for everyone else instead of the known benefit for the vulnerable population in question.
In short, we are glossing over the very issue that should be receiving attention: the transgender athletes. Why? As usual, the louder voice wins, and a chorus of improbable “what if” scenarios will usually drown out reasoned, considerate logic. Like many LGBTQ+ issues, the conversation is framed as what society should ‘allow them to have’—as if it’s their right to bestow—instead of correcting a societal inequity.
Fear is an easy demand to engineer because it is quickly embraced. Indeed, this may be a ‘wedge issue’ of the 2022 elections as people fear transgenderism will be ‘injected’ into school curriculum much like CRT. But the fact is that LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately more likely to battle depression, anxiety, and bullying, and this legislation exacerbates the problem. A gender diverse athlete simply wants to belong—somewhere—and if we can engineer fear, we can surely engineer empathy. Our collective priority should be that every person feels welcomed, accepted, and included; that every child gets the opportunity to compete, to experience the comradery of sports, to be part of a team. When that box is checked, we’ll tackle the what ifs.
Perhaps not surprising, these dueling cohorts fall neatly along political party lines. Each has logical arguments. The worriers point to higher infection rates and number of cases, the non-worriers to relatively low severity accompanying those cases. These attitudes manifest in policies for masking, school modality, and social gatherings, among others. I get both sides, but neither is perfect. There is a fine line between altruism and moral superiority, and a somewhat thicker line between apathy and brazen disregard for others. I’ve been on the COVID-caution spectrum from Day 1. My rationale has generally been about negative externalities. I don’t want COVID, to be sure, I am more stressed about spreading it to someone else. While this is certainly a possibility given Omicron’s penchant to sidestep the vaccine, I tend to veer off toward rather unrealistic scenarios. “What if I take my mask off for a second to drink of water during class, I get COVID, I give it to my dog, who licks the mailman, who then gets COVID and spreads it to his immunocompromised grandfather.”
I have written about negative externalities before. Essentially, a choice made by person A negatively impacts person B, who had nothing to do with the decision. In this case, my choice impacts my mailman’s fictitious grandfather, which would definitely be a negative externality. However, this is improbable and bordering on impossible. One might even call it catastrophizing. If you’ve ever overthought a scenario to its most terrible and absurd conclusion, you have catastrophized. Catastrophizing distorts our perspective, creating a cognitive spiral towards the worst possible outcome. Amidst the grind that is COVID, it is no surprise that catastrophizing is related to anxiety and depression, but as hope crests the horizon, some people may be paralyzed by two years of playing out worst-case scenarios to embrace it.
In the coming months, the messaging will likely recommend a letting down of our collective COVID guard. But the catastrophizing folks might need extra coaxing. One helpful mantra may be Zeynep’s Law. Named for Zeynep Tufekci, it states “Until there is substantial and repeated evidence otherwise, assume counterintuitive findings to be false, and second-order effects to be dwarfed by first-order ones in magnitude.” I’ve simplified it to “Don’t overweight what might happen for what will happen.” My mailman’s grandfather is probably not going to get COVID because of me, but my class will definitely be better if I don’t pass out from dehydration. The first-order effect of 40 students getting a better educational experience outweighs the slim-to-none second-order effect of my implausible COVID domino rally.
This is normal. We tend to overweight low probabilities when the payoff is big (e.g., we all think we have a chance to win the lottery). The COVID payoff (i.e., another person’s life) is huge, and so caution here can—and has been—a useful risk mitigation strategy. As the death toll surpasses 900,000 in the United States, risk mitigation is still paramount, and there will always be a place in public health for caring about other people. There is also a place for sound judgment and rational choices.
Therein lies the problem with comparing academic credentials. In the US, we love the idea that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough. Bootstraps and the like. It’s a devastatingly beautiful myth perpetuated by tales of underdogs, overachievers, and Cinderella stories. Hard work is certainly correlated with achievement, but opportunities are not distributed equally. So when we inquire about someone’s education, what are we really asking about?
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives have become commonplace in most organizations, and while we can argue their effectiveness, as a culture we are at least acknowledging that the American workplace is often not diverse, equitable, or inclusive. One noble, if unfulfilled, aim of DEI trainings is to help companies make fair hiring decisions through implicit bias seminars, online modules, redacted information, and interview guidelines. The idea is to prevent discrimination based on things like age, gender, race, ethnicity, marital status, family stage, socioeconomic status, and disability. Each candidate’s body of work should, theoretically, speak for itself and create a fair comparison. However, in striving for an objective assessment, one traditional demographic variable escapes scrutiny and remains part of the discussion: education, be it degrees acquired, affiliated institutions, grade point average, or test scores. The problem is that, in many ways, one’s academic background serves as a proxy for those very factors. We don’t choose our race or gender, but we are not in full control of our academic outcomes either. So in trying to be diverse, equitable, and inclusive, why do we put so much weight on something that aggregates many baked-in biases and disparities?
A few more examples. Question structure and order favors advantaged students. Even how a test is framed can influence the outcome by inducing stigma priming. For instance, Black students perform worse when a test is declared an assessment of ‘intellectual ability’ and female students perform worse when the goal of a math test is to uncover ‘gender differences’. In both cases, framing triggers stereotype threat and produces a self-fulfilling prophesy. Perhaps the starkest example is that Black students score lower on the SAT if asked to identify their race before the test than if asked afterward (See study 4). Because of historical discrimination and identity biases, the sheer reminder of race and gender shapes educational performance.
A host of other predictors favor the privileged. Recent studies show that air pollution negatively effects cognitive functioning while green spaces provide ‘mental extensions that allow us to think well’. Not surprisingly, low income areas—urban or rural— have more air pollution and less green space than high income areas, creating a cumulative parallel between socioeconomic status and academic achievement. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that the shift in trajectory occurs so early in life. Your career depends on your college degree, which depends on your high school GPA, which depends on the quality of your middle school, which depends on your school district—all of which depends upon family wealth, social status, race, etc. The academic snowball starts rolling at a young age.
Some predictors are less obvious. Have you ever ‘choked’ on an exam, in an interview, on an important presentation? Research shows the best way to overcome this phenomenon is by blending practice with experience to quell the natural nerves stemming from these situations. Now consider the disadvantage of a first-generation college student, or a second grader with a single working parent, or a high schooler working to help with family bills. How would these students gain the practice or experience to level the playing field with a fourth-generation college student, a second grader with two parents and private tutor, or a high schooler not chipping in for rent? The list goes on. Having children makes it harder to earn advanced degrees. Depression and anxiety can limit academic achievement. You would never ask a job candidate if they take antidepressants or how many children they have, but there is reason to expect differences in educational history based on these factors.
This all makes sense. Perhaps that is why we have simultaneously witnessed a dramatic drop in undergraduate enrollment with an increase in graduate enrollment, or “the educational equivalent of the rich getting richer.” The relationship between demographic variables is nothing new, but given these relationships, how do we adjust our hiring practices in the workplace and advanced degree program placement? There is general agreement that screening by gender, race, and age is discriminatory, but filtering by education may not be that different.
The last thing I want to do is denigrate the value of education or the merit of personal academic achievement. I chose this profession because I believe in the power of education and the promise it affords my students. But we can innovate policies to account for the noise. For instance, we could eliminate the GPA on entry-level job applications the same way many institutions phased out the SAT as a prerequisite for college. We could have implicit bias training to minimize discrimination based on whether a student went to an ivy league school, HBCU, community college, or state university. We could avoid stress triggers like money and food in our elementary math assessments. We could handicap standardized test scores based on access to clean air in the school district. We could do more for students with mental or physical disabilities than adding twenty minutes to their allotted exam time. We will never be able to compare academic apples to apples, but maybe that’s not the goal. After all, oranges grow in a different climate with different soil and different amounts of water—but they are no less delicious.
I understand that job requirements are there for a reason. If you are unable to operate a forklift, you should not get the forklift operator position. I also understand the necessity for objective metrics of academic performance. This is not a participation trophy situation, but I do believe we need to be thoughtful in how we assess academic achievement across candidates. Graduate school programs and managers of entry-level positions are usually looking for potential, and screening out individuals based on a distorted number or school name precludes a lot of potential.
My wife calls this “meeting with no.” In essence, I’ve set my default to no, so turning to a yes requires effort. This is not trivial. Humans love to go with the default. Setting a default is one of the most consistent nudges employed to alter behavior. Research has shown the power of default in everything from organ donation to 401K sign-ups. However, what happens when the default option produces an undesirable behavior? My no paints a conversation in a negative light. My no creates an uphill battle just to get to neutral ground. If no is the first instinct, a yes is hard to achieve.
But isn’t there something to be said for the first instinct? The common advice when you face a tough decision is to ‘go with your gut’. If you are taking a multiple-choice exam and can’t decide, trust your first instinct.
Research, however, says otherwise. Just as I, upon deeper consideration, end up wanting to meet friends or go to the farmer’s market, our gut choice is not always the correct one. While some decisions benefit from intuition, others require deliberation. In four studies, Kruger, Wirtz and Miller (2005) found that students more often changed their answer from incorrect to correct than vice versa. They called this the first instinct fallacy, which is directly counter to what SAT and GRE prep courses had long lauded as the ideal strategy. Humans are programmed this way. Imagine you are back in high school, and the teacher hands you your graded test. You notice for one question, you erased the correct answer to put the wrong one. That feeling looms much larger in our memory than the handful of questions where you did the opposite. In fact, you may not even notice the answers you correctly changed. The point is that we trust our first response, which when can lead to faulty answers for complex problems. I argue that this fallacy applies to discussion of race in America.
There is a moment in every TV or podcast interview, political or economic debate, or personal conversation about race where you can determine if a meaningful discussion will occur. It happens almost immediately after the subject is broached. The response could be non-verbal, like a frustrated sigh, a roll of the eyes, a dismissive laugh, a shake of the head. It could be spoken out loud, like “America isn’t racist,” or “We solved the issue of racism,” or “I don’t see color,” or “We are living in a post-racial world,” or more dismissively, “Oh not this again.” The person has met the conversation with no, hitting the shutoff valve that prevents the discussion from even starting.
I get it. Remember, this is my jam. My first instinct is to say no to anything that disrupts my routine, makes me uncomfortable, wasn’t planned, or requires effort. A snap judgment is made by me (“We don’t need more kale”) before the idea (“Let’s have a morning walk at the Farmer’s Market instead of the bike path”) has even sunk in.
It’s no wonder that discussions of race are met with no, particularly by white people. They are inherently uncomfortable, they disrupt the routine of white privilege, they force us to change our plans, they require effort. But this is a deliberative—not intuitive—cognitive process. At the risk of oversimplification, an open mind may be the essential ingredient to engage in a dialogue around race in America. If the gut response is to deny existence of the problem, the conversation never happens. The answer has been marked and won’t be changed. However, this is not a true/false test. This is not even a multiple-choice quiz. This is a working document, which will have erasures, strikethroughs, notes in the margins, post-its, corrections, highlights, and scribbles. As I’ve written about before, you don’t have to be a subject expert and we are going to make mistakes. The goal is not for white people to feel personal shame and responsibility for all of the injustices of human history. The goal is to engage in dialogue that leads to meaningful action, social change, equitable opportunity, and policy reform.
While the premise is simple, I acknowledge that the execution is not. By opening the door to the conversation, we embrace discomfort and vulnerability, we expect to change our plans, we are open to disagreement with friends and interruption to our routines. But the right answer is not always the first one or the simple one. Occam’s razor does not apply to this context. Complex issues require complex dialogue. Having an open mind is key.
How Our Cultural Norms & Social Institutions Reflect The Value We Ascribe To Each Other
Value is difficult to define because it depends on context. Instrumental value is the value that something or someone can achieve or attain. It is derivative by nature, and can fluctuate based on the desirability of the outcome. The instrumental value of a can of beans, for instance, changes based on how hungry you are. Intrinsic value, on the other hand, is the inherent worth of something through its sheer existence. It does not fluctuate, nor does it need to achieve or attain anything to garner that value.
Instrumental value is how we apply the term in economics. The market dictates the cost of goods and services and we can exchange our money for something of equivalent value. A one-dollar bill may buy you that can of beans, but that requires us to extract instrumental value from that dollar. By itself, it is just a small piece of green paper. The can of beans, on the other hand, has more intrinsic value. It consists of caloric energy, sugars, carbohydrates, all of which are essential properties and require no exchange to be valuable.
So what kind of value do we place on people in the US in 2021? I’d like to believe we value individuals intrinsically, that they don’t have to earn it. But that is not the reality. Instead our social institutions and cultural norms reflect our emphasis on instrumental value. We value what can be extracted from or earned by individuals.
Some examples. Veterans would be treated better if we valued their service. Employers would raise wages—and consumers would fit the bill—if we valued labor. A college degree would not plunge you into debt if we valued education. The Affordable Care Act wouldn’t be continually under attack if we valued physical health. The elderly would not suffer disproportionate loneliness if we valued mental health. School shootings would not occur if we valued children over guns. Customers would wear a mask if we valued essential workers. Black people wouldn’t be incarcerated at a rate four times higher than white people if black lives mattered. The LGBTQ+ community would not be constantly battling in the Supreme Court if we valued civil rights. Wages would not be stagnant if we valued ‘hard work’. Childcare would be factored into our GDP if we valued families. The death penalty would not subsist if we valued the sanctity of life. Poverty would not exist if we valued human dignity.
In each case (and there are many more), the institution is broken. The value is not placed on individuals, rather it is ascribed to the output they produce. We do not intrinsically value ‘hard work’, only the instrumental value we decide your type of work is worth. We will gripe when restaurant prices increase, but not mind that the person making our food needs a second job to afford rent. We thank veterans for their service and wish moms a Happy Mother’s Day, but our socioeconomic system values veterans and working mothers them less than, say, accountants and lawyers. Instrumental value is derived from a societal judgment about what matters, and I believe we have a value misalignment in our incentive structure.
This is not an attack on capitalism, democracy, or meritocracy. It is an observation on the contradiction of our American rhetoric, leaving us two options to attain consistency. The first is easy: match the message to reality. Proceed with business as usual—but stop pretending we value each other intrinsically. Continue an economy where CEOs benefit from a pandemic while their employees suffer. Write more tax codes that give Jeff Bezos a $4,000 child tax credit. Treat job-seekers as ungrateful for wanting better wages. Create voting laws that disproportionately impact people of color. Ban teaching critical race theory in schools. If we choose this path, we simply need to change our words to match our actions. I am not encouraging this, but at least we will be consistent.
The second option is much more challenging: match reality to the message. There are countless considerations: a universal basic income, climate change coalitions, free community college, minimum wage increases, reparations, a negative income tax, an ultra-millionaire tax, hazard pay for pandemic essential workers. But there are also ways to demonstrate we value people intrinsically without financial investment. We can change our mindset by making Juneteenth a Federal Holiday, applying Title IX protections to LGBTQ+ students, and not calling poverty a choice.
It sounds pie-in-the-sky to think that reshaping our value system could fix our norms and institutions. These policies and programs are far from perfect. But humans are not perfect, so why would our solutions be? If, however, we strive to form a more perfect Union, we should ascribe value to people for who they are, not just for what they do. I’m pulling for option 2.
The US vaccination goal has shifted from herd immunity to simply getting as many needles in arms as possible. But the underlying obstacle remains the same: how do you persuade people to get the shot?
In recent weeks, vaccine incentive programs have bubbled up all over the country, but few have garnered the attention of Governor DeWine’s “Vax-a-Million” lottery. Last Wednesday, Abbigail Bugenske (age 22) won the first of five million-dollar prizes and Joseph Costello (age 14) won a full-ride scholarship to college. While critics remain, the Associated Press analysis concluded the state vaccination rate is up 33% since the announcement. President Biden endorsed Ohio’s program last week, and other states have begun similar lotteries.
Originally I was skeptical of the Vax-a-Million lottery. I argued to put $100 in the pocket of every newly vaccinated person because people usually prefer a sure thing over some chance of a larger payout. But Governor DeWine leveraged another aspect of prospect theory, namely that individuals tend to overweight low probabilities. That is why we buy insurance, go to casinos, and play the lottery to begin with. Governor DeWine simply applied this behavioral trait to his vaccination strategy. And, perhaps unwittingly, he employed an additional persuasion tactic—he generated ‘social proof’.
Social proof, a term coined by Robert Cialdini, suggests that people alter their behavior to be more like people around them. Imagine it is your first day at a new job. You are in jeans and everyone else is wearing a suit. What will you wear tomorrow? Not only do humans have an innate desire to fit in with others, we are more receptive to suggestions if people similar to us have already engaged in that behavior. That is why we ask friends for Netflix recommendations and visit Tripadvisor before planning a vacation. We seek the advice of others because we think we will like what they like.
Social proof is more effective when the desired behavior is observable. For instance, people are more likely to wash their hands when others are watching. This is one reason social proof was a useful persuasion tool with mask-wearing. Even people who didn’t ‘believe in’ masks wore them to not stand out from the group. But vaccines are invisible. Sure, you can get a sticker or button, but there is less social pressure to conform to the group because there is no visible proof that the group exists.
The genius of the Vax-a-Million lottery is that it manufactured its own social proof by leveraging social media. Every article about the program has hundreds or thousands of comments pushing the dialogue toward vaccination. Not all are positive, but there is a chorus of “I got my shot and feel so relieved!” and “My whole family is fully vaccinated!” Giving space for these comments creates a public forum where people can observe the group mentality. It underscores that many people—your friends, neighbors, fellow Ohioans—are engaging in the same behavior to achieve a shared goal.
How do we maintain this momentum and offer more social proof to those still on the vaccine fence? It could be as simple as changing the headline. Instead of highlighting the number of people who have not received the vaccine, focus on the percentage who has. With more people getting vaccinated every day, this group continues to expand, and the desire to be a part of it will too.
[This piece was originally published in the Columbus Dispatch.]
Colin Gabler is a writer at heart.