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George Osborne's phrasing on the welfare cuts is sly

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

New Statesman
George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

The welfare cuts set out in the Spending Review have been greeted with more than a little cynicism. The twisted stats were pointed out today by Daniel Knowles and Zoe Williams, and the ironies by Ellie Mae O'Hagan - but it's also worth looking a bit at the sly phrasing.

Words like "scrounging", "handout", "feckless" have burrowed fairly deep into the way we talk about welfare, so yesterday Osborne was able to get away with these two phrases - "something for nothing culture", and "if you are not prepared to learn English, your benefits will be cut". The tone is moralising. He's not talking about all benefit claimants, mind, just the ones who don't deserve them. Which, incidently, are exactly those the government can't afford to support this time round.

This kind of moral justification is especially underhand because it is effective. We like believing people get what they deserve. The thought that bad things happen to good people is so abhorrent to us that the quickest way out is often to blame the victim for their own misfortune, and we do so wherever we can.

A classic set of experiments by Melvin Lerner demonstrates this. 72 female volunteers were made to watch a woman having a "learning experience", unaware that she was an actress. As they watched, the volunteer made a mistake, and seemed to recieve a painful electric shock. The "learning" continued in this way.

Some volunteers were given the option of stopping the torture, and they did, but others were not given that option. They were instead given a number of different elaborations on the victim's plight. One was that she would be afterwards rewarded in cash for her suffering, another that she was suffering for no reason, another that she was suffering for the good of the rest of them - a matyr.

The group was then asked to judge the victim. The results were shocking. The "martyr" recieved the worst reviews - she was despised by the group. The victim who got no money for her pain did little better. The subject who got cash deserved it - she had learned well. But it was the "saved" learner who did best of all - she was innocent, and unfortunate, and deserved to be saved. It seemed that the audience needed the victim to match her punishment.

We have a touching belief that the world is just and like to look away rather than be shown otherwise. So let's not let go of that cynicism just yet - in fact it's probably time to ramp it up a bit.