Especially when they're not working, why do we maintain the status quo, whether it be health systems, social systems or political and government systems? Why do we resist change even when the system is failing, corrupt or unjust? A new article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, illuminates the conditions under which we’re motivated to defend our systems--a process called “system justification.”
System justification isn’t the same as acquiescence, explains Aaron C. Kay, a psychologist at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience, who co-authored the paper with University of Waterloo graduate student Justin Friesen. “It’s pro-active. When someone comes to justify the status quo, they also come to see it as what should be.”
In this lapse of values like equality and fairness, no one can now stay behind personally comfortable walls with people like ourselves and ask someone else - politicians and other "leaders" - to solve the problems that we all let fester, thinking we were immune to catastrophes that only affected others. The cooperation and compromises we need for change will not happen until "we the people" demonstrate that it can be done in our local communities. Wherever we live, we must model it before we demand it of others.
Only private citizens can develop a new consensus about the future role of our nations in the world and its collective responsibility for the use of our common heritage to benefit all Americans and the world at large. All of us must learn again that when a singular government becomes the central orchestrator of a complex society and distorts its laws to benefit the few, it will kill "the goose that lays the golden eggs."
Reviewing laboratory and cross-national studies, Kay's paper illuminates four situations that foster system justification: system threat, system dependence, system inescapability, and low personal control.
When we’re threatened we defend ourselves--and our systems. Before 9/11, for instance, President George W. Bush was sinking in the polls. But as soon as the planes hit the World Trade Center, the president’s approval ratings soared. So did support for Congress and the police. During Hurricane Katrina, America witnessed FEMA’s spectacular failure to rescue the hurricane’s victims. Yet many people blamed those victims for their fate rather than admitting the agency flunked and supporting ideas for fixing it. In times of crisis, say the authors, we want to believe the system works.
We also defend systems we rely on. In one experiment, students made to feel dependent on their university defended a school funding policy--but disapproved of the same policy if it came from the government, which they didn’t perceive as affecting them closely. However, if they felt dependent on the government, they liked the policy originating from it, but not from the school.
When it comes to health, we largely depend on conventional and regulatory systems that we feel assist in maintaining or advancing mechanisms that help control our health. The problem is, we have created self-perpetuating institutions that do the opposite. The FDA, USDA, NIAID, NIH CDC nationally and the WHO internationally are just a few examples of agencies whose implicit purpose is to support corporate entities such as pharmaceutical conglomerates that destroy rather than advance our health. They spread their octopus-like arms as mechanisms to convert and re-allocate large percentages of the nation's common resources (its human labor, nature's riches, and citizens' creativity) to a small percentage of U.S. citizens and international corporations. This process includes not only the transfer of general tax revenue. Even more important is the use (or non-use) of regulatory power to economically favor certain groups, particularly the largely amoral financial and corporate sectors.
When we feel we can’t escape a system, we adapt. That includes feeling okay about things we might otherwise consider undesirable. The authors note one study in which participants were told that men’s salaries in their country are 20% higher than women’s. Rather than implicate an unfair system, those who felt they couldn’t emigrate chalked up the wage gap to innate differences between the sexes. “You’d think that when people are stuck with a system, they’d want to change it more,” says Kay. But in fact, the more stuck they are, the more likely are they to explain away its shortcomings. Finally, a related phenomenon: The less control people feel over their own lives, the more they endorse systems and leaders that offer a sense of order.
The research on system justification can enlighten those who are frustrated when people don’t rise up in what would seem their own best interests. Says Kay: “If you want to understand how to get social change to happen, you need to understand the conditions that make people resist change and what makes them open to acknowledging that change might be a necessity.”