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Why Does the GOP Hate Food Stamps But Love Farm Subsidies?

2013 October 3
by Eric Horowitz

Perhaps the most striking thing about the GOP’s plan to shut down the government sans a long- or short-term strategy is that it’s arguably not the most incomprehensible position they’ve taken in the past month. That award goes to their comittment to ravage spending on food stamps while preserving subsides for a much wealthier group of farmers. As Jonathan Chait points out, regardless of what you think about the role and size of government, it’s hard for such a position to be logically consistent without your primary motivation being the immiseration of poor people.

Of course psychology research provides a lot of explanations for the seemingly inexplicable, so I’ll play devil’s advocate for a moment. What could possible make somebody think we should give money to wealthy farmers but not to malnourished poor people?

One possible answer comes from a new study led by Arie Nadler of Tel Aviv University. The question motivating the study was fairly straightforward: Do people think about or act differently toward low-status help-seekers compared to high-status help-seekers? Specifically, Nadler hypothesized that low-status people would be offered “dependency-oriented” help — i.e. a full solution to their problem — while high-status people were more likely to be offered “autonomy-oriented help (tools to solve their problem.)

The study involved a series of experiments that were based around participants interacting (via a computer) with a fictional person who either sought or did not seek help on math and verbal problems. (When participants arrived they were told they would be either the problem solver or the guide, but all of them were assigned the role of guide.) Across three different experiments the problem solver’s status was manipulated in different ways. In the first experiment participants were told he had either a 90% or 30% success rate on similar problems. In the second experiment they were told he lived in an area that was either high or low in socioeconomic status. And in the third experiment they were told he scored either high or low on the Israeli equivalent of the SAT.

Sure enough, when the problem solver was low-status, participants were more likely to offer dependency-oriented help — in this case, the actual answer to the problem. On the other hand, when the problem-solver was high status, participants were more likely to offer autonomy oriented help — in this case, an explanation of the way similar problems could be solved.

While that’s all fairly interesting — and may even seem to run counter to the GOP’s desire not to give poor people money for food — the findings relevant to today’s GOP come from some additional analyses Nadler conducted in order to uncover what was driving behavior toward the help-seekers. The most jarring finding was that while high-status people were viewed as more motivated to succeed when they sought help compared to when they didn’t seek help, low-status people were viewed as less motivated to succeed when they sought help compared to when they didn’t seek help. I believe this is what’s known in the business as a double standard. When high-status people seek help it’s because they’re driven and tenacious, but when low status people do it it’s because they’re lazy.

Nadler also found that when participants expected a strong performance on the problems (due to the problem-solver being high-status), they rated the problem-solver as having more ability when he sought help compared to when he didn’t seek help. On the other hand, when low performance was expected, participants rated the problem-solver as less able when he sought help compared to when he didn’t seek help. Once again, help-seeking was viewed as a positive trait for high-status people (e.g. rich farmers) but a negative trait for low-status people (e.g. food stamp recipients.)

Here’s Nadler summing it all up:

The findings indicate that a request for help by a low-status person is attributed to lack of ability and motivation, elicits feelings of pity, and leads to dependency-oriented assistance. The same request for help by a high-status person is attributed to momentary lack of concentration, elicits feelings of identification with the seeker’s predicament, and leads to autonomy-oriented assistance. These findings reinforce the suggestion that the help seekers’ status determines the meaning of a request for help. When they enjoy high status, the request for assistance indicates transient difficulty, high motivation to overcome it, and ability to do so. Conversely, when their status is relatively low, the same request indicates inability and chronic dependency.

This way of thinking is essentially a giant exercise in erroneously attributing outcomes to internal factors — a tendency also know as the “fundamental attribution error.” External circumstances simply aren’t considered when it comes to success and failure. High status people are successful because they’re great and will use your help to continue to be great, while low-status people lack what it takes to be successful, and thus they’ll continue to fail no matter what you give them.

If the GOP caucus is susceptible to this way of thinking, slowly but surely their position begin to make sense. Food stamps will always be a waste because in the end their recipients will always remain a drain on taxpayers. Hard-working farmers, on the other hand, have what it takes an thus they’ll put the tax dollars they receive to good use. It doesn’t matter that that’s not actually how farm subsidies work — some of the money goes to people who don’t do any farming or people who are dead. But once you assume you know somebody’s future based strictly on their past, none of that really matters.

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)

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Nadler, A., & Chernyak-Hai, L. (2013). Helping Them Stay Where They Are: Status Effects on Dependency/Autonomy-Oriented Helping Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0034152

One Response leave one →
  1. bernie1815 permalink
    October 3, 2013

    I hate these kinds of psychological experiments because the experimenter seldom explores the presumably optimum case of the individual who treated both high status and low status individuals in exactly the same manner. Even Tversky and Kahnemann paid scant attention to eliciting the thought processes of those individuals who displayed minimal biases. In the famous Milgram torture experiments the interesting people are those who resisted behaving barbarically. The cited study appears to be behind a pay-wall so I am not sure how many people acted in a less prejudicial way.
    As for the practical question of food stamps and farm subsidies, my own reactions I believe are predicated on the available data. If I am in line at the grocery store and a person uses the benefits card to purchase luxury items then I consider them as taking advantage and as essentially people I shouldn’t be forced to help. Similarly, though the data is more difficult to access, if I saw a farmer obtaining farm subsidies and using them in inappropriate ways I would make the same attribution as to taking advantage and being “bad” people.

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