Social Welfare and Evolved Intuitions about Helping

The article, “Social Welfare as Small-Scale Help: Evolutionary Psychology and the Deservingness Heuristic” by Michael Bang Petersen, appears in the January 2012 issue of the American Journal of Political Science. Here, Professor Petersen provides a summary of its content:

When people form opinions about social welfare programs they use a simple rule-of-thumb or heuristic: Are the recipients making an effort to get by on their own? If so, people tend to support providing extra help in the form of welfare. If a group of recipients, in contrast, are perceived has lazy and unwilling to contribute themselves, people strongly oppose providing welfare benefits. This has been documented in multiple studies of particular Americans but a question lingers: Why are people so preoccupied with the deservingness of welfare recipients?

Thirty years ago, psychologists predominantly referred to learning when explaining the origins of heuristics. This learning perspective also influenced how political scientists explained the origins of the deservingness heuristic. In particular, researchers have been describing it as a result of cultural learning in highly individualistic cultures with small welfare states such as the United States.

Yet, the problem of whether to provide other individuals with benefits is not a recent problem. Rather, it predates the emergence of modern culture and modern political institutions and must have been a constant feature of human social life for hundreds of thousands of years. In the small hunter-gatherer groups that have dominated human evolutionary history, our ancestors did not make decisions about food stamps and Medicare but they did make decisions about whether to share the meat they had just hunted or the roots they had just gathered. In such situations, it was a matter of life and death to share with the right individuals and, in an evolutionary perspective, the “right” individuals were those who were willing to return the favor when fortunes reversed. Being preoccupied with whether people are making an effort could, in other words, be an essential part of human nature, originally build for exchanges of help in small-scale groups.

To test this, I devised a sophisticated psychological measurement technique in nationally representative surveys in two countries that are highly different in terms of culture and welfare states: United States and Denmark. This technique – a memory confusion protocol – measures whether participants process two pieces of information by the same psychological process, by different processes or whether they do not attend to the information at all.

In a series of experiments, participants were presented with individuals who either received help from a friend in an everyday situation (equivalent to the kinds of help-giving situations our species have confronted for hundreds of thousands of years) or who received social welfare from the government. Furthermore, some of these individuals were clearly in trouble because they were lazy, others were in trouble because they had been victims of bad luck but where clearly making an effort to get back on their feet.

The analyses showed that both Americans and Danes – despite the vast differences between the countries – where equally paying attention to whether individuals were lazy or unlucky. Furthermore, they used the exact same psychological processes to do so independently of whether the individuals received help from a friend or from the government. In fact, participants fully stopped paying attention to whether the individuals were receiving help from one or the other. Psychologically speaking, the participants saw no difference between these situations.

This demonstrates that when people across cultures think about welfare recipients in terms of deservingness, they do so using psychological mechanisms designed to process generic help-giving situations. The psychology that guides our welfare opinions is not a psychology build for modern mass welfare politics but for making adaptive social investments decisions within small-scale groups. As such, there are reasons to be wary of our intuitions about what works and what does not work in the context of welfare programs. Most likely, the solutions that intuitively come to mind are solutions that worked ancestrally rather than today.

About the Author: Michael Bang Petersen is a Professor in the Department of Political Science & Government at Aarhus University (Denmark).

The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association. AJPS is published by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing and supported by the Michigan State University Department of Political Science and the MSU College of Social Science.


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Online ISSN: 1540-5907

Print ISSN: 0092-5853


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The Editor of the AJPS is at Michigan State University and the Editorial Office is supported by
the Michigan State University Department of Political Science and the School of Social Sciences.

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