“We built it” in the past, but “let's build it together” in the future: The roles of temporal framing and social justice orientation in shaping attributions for personal success

Daniel Rovenpor

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Political debates over how to address economic inequality are often rooted in rhetoric about whether or not success is self-made. Attributions for personal successes invoke self-relevant motivational processes and may pose barriers to ideological consensus on economic policy. This research examined the relationship between attributions for personal successes and social justice orientation (an ideological orientation toward providing for the economic welfare of others) as well as the impact of two contextual factors: past/future-framing and thinking about political discourse about inequality. Temporal framing was expected to shift the motivational incentives available for acknowledging the role of external factors; although it may feel good to take personal credit for past successes already achieved, there may be stronger incentives to acknowledge the situational factors that shape uncertain future successes. Studies 1–4 found that individuals low in social justice orientation were reluctant to make external attributions for their past achievements, but that thinking about poverty and successes they hoped to achieve in the future increased their external attributions to levels observed among people high in social justice orientation. The willingness to make greater external attributions for future successes appeared to be motivationally-driven: it yielded affective benefits (Study 5), was seen as desirable (Study 6), and emerged when personal financial vulnerability was primed (Study 7). Attributional shifts were in turn associated with greater support for social justice. These findings suggest that thinking about successes not yet attained may establish a sort of Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” that can encourage individuals to recognize the power of situations and the needs of others.
Original languageEnglish
Article number104250
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
Early online date7 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - May 2022

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