Sekoul Krastev, a managing director at The Decision Lab, sits down with Dr. Brooke Struck, our research director, to discuss his vision for the organizational goal of bringing about social justice achievements through behavioral science. Some topics discussed include:
- Trying to define social justice and its importance
- How culture impacts efforts towards social justice
- The behavioral science pitfalls that hinder social justice
- The assumptions of most people who are uninitiated in behavioral science
- The struggle of de-biasing training and the effectiveness of educating about non-rational behavior
- Recognizing the neoliberal tendencies of behavioral solutions, and crafting ideas about how to circumvent them
- Research-based opportunities to improve efforts towards equity
- A sketch of behavioral science policy for social justice
- The benefits of behavioral science in the face of how challenging it is to address systemic issues
Sekoul:Thanks for sitting down with me Brooke. I want to begin our discussion by asking you to give a tentative definition of social justice.
Brooke: I would define social justice as the fair distribution of opportunities—and probably outcomes, perhaps to a lower degree—across society, at the individual and group levels. These resources should be fair along various dimensions, including health, wealth, education, power, and various dimensions of rights. At a minimum, this means a fair distribution of opportunities, such that one individual has the same opportunities as any other, all other things being equal.
Sekoul: Why do you think that fair distribution is important?
Brooke: Other than the moral imperative that things ought to be fair, which is probably the most important reason, there are other dimensions as well. One that comes to mind is the stability of society. If there is a shared perception of unfairness, the status quo is threatened. This is not to say that resources and opportunities must be equally divided. The way that resources and opportunities are divided, however, must reflect how most people believe it ought to be. That will determine how stable the society is. A state of general fairness will engender support for the status quo. Whereas, when there is a broad sense of inequality, there will be unrest and the status quo will be unstable. This, in my opinion, can lead to revolution.
Sekoul: Is there a unified wisdom about how to achieve social justice?
Brooke: I’m not sure there is a unified wisdom about that; in fact, it’s very culturally specific. The value placed on equality of outcome or opportunity varies significantly between cultures. In a Western context, we like to think that we have certain inalienable rights. Other groups still don’t agree with that idea of broad-based equality. For instance, Thomas Piketty, in Capital and Ideology, discusses the emergence of property rights. Property rights are something that typically in the West we consider to be universal. Everyone has an equal right to own things. Previously, that was not the case. And even the concept of property around the world differs from one culture to the next.
This idea of universal human rights, for instance, assumes an equality of all humans with all others, which is, itself, a cultural artifact. It’s an outcome of our history that we believe, to borrow the famous words, that “all men are created equal,” which is not necessarily a given. Human biology is not hardwired to affirm universal equality, rather, it is only one of many possible cultural outcomes.
Sekoul: What behavioral science pitfalls do you think might exist in our society in the West, or at least in North America, let’s say, that would prevent social justice?
Brooke: First, people expect that they have a great deal more control over their own preferences and experiences than they actually do. And one of the ways in which behavioral science gets pulled into that is something like unconscious bias training. Unconscious bias training relies on the tacit assumption that once someone has explicitly learned about a bias, they will be able to overcome it because they are aware of its effect. There’s good evidence to suggest that we should not have that much faith in the power of our conscious mind to affect the subconscious infrastructure on which consciousness is built.