Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Author: Polaris Koi

Self-control and socio-economic disadvantage: trickier than it seems

In social psychology, there is a small industry for articles reporting positive correlations between measures of self-control and various measures of socio-economic status and achievement. For example, Tangney, Baumeister and Boone (2008) found that self-control, measured on a self-report scale they devised, is correlated with better grades, somatic and mental health, and stable social relationships such as marriage. Moffitt et al. (2011) conducted a longitudinal study that followed children who had participated in the Mischel “marshmallow tests” to the age of 32 years old, and found childhood performance in that delayed gratification assignment to be correlated with measures of health and economic success, interpersonal adjustment, and  with criminal justice outcomes, even after controlling for childhood socio-economic factors.

Studies like these have been widely publicised, and the message in popular science media often leads with the idea that self-control is a stable trait that some have, some don’t. The ones who were dealt a losing hand in self-control got a losing hand overall, ending up with poor health, poverty, unstable relationships, and crime not out of ill will, but because they simply can’t hold it together. In short, the causal arrow goes from poor self-control to socioeconomic disadvantage.

This line of thinking has received plenty of criticism. Some have pointed out that the studies have been designed from a perspective assuming a middle-class lifestyle, and that self-control may not be as adaptive for people from all backgrounds.

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Accounting for global and local justice in behavioural climate policy

Anthropogenic climate change is a global concern. However, that climate change concerns all of us does not mean that it would concern all of us equally. Income is the primary correlate of carbon footprint whether analysed on a national or individual level. The richest half of the world’s countries (in GDP) emit 86% of global CO2 emissions. The difference is even starker when analysed on an individual level: income level is also the strongest correlate with citizen CO2 footprint (2016 data from the Global Carbon Project). The effect of attempts to decrease carbon footprint in wealthy countries by producing climate-friendly consumer goods, energy, and transport options have had limited effect – in part because these only transform a small part of citizens’ total consumption behaviour, and in part because reductions are needed, primarily, in the amount of consumption by high-income citizens rather than in the specific goods being consumed.

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