In a recent Miller-McCune article, Tom Jacobs looks at research by psychologists that links people’s reluctance to protest against Wall Street bailouts to a deep-seated need to justify the status quo.
Among the many issues raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement, perhaps the most basic is: What took so long? Why did three years elapse between the time reckless financial traders nearly brought down the global economy and large numbers of people began collectively expressing outrage?
A new psychological study provides at least a partial answer. It finds people are strongly motivated to perceive the socioeconomic system they live under as fair and just, and links this pro-status-quo impulse with a reluctance to protest against the Wall Street bailout.
“It is extremely difficult for most of us to believe that our political or economic system is inherently corrupt,” said New York University psychologist John Jost, “and it is a belief that we are tempted to resist, even when there is evidence suggesting deep and fundamental problems.
“Because of our immense psychological capacity to justify and rationalize the status quo, human societies are very slow to fix system-level injustices and to enact substantive changes.”
In a paper titled “Why Men (and Women) Do and Don’t Rebel,” recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, a research team led by Jost examines the proclivity to protest through the lens of system justification theory. According to this school of thought, which Jost helped formulate in the 1990s, a fundamental need for certainty and security dampens our desire to rock the boat.
Jost’s evidence suggests this stay-the-course impulse – which played a measurable role in recent debates over climate change and health-care reform — is inherently stronger in certain people than others. But it also can be manipulated. He and his colleagues demonstrated its dual nature in an experiment featuring 108 NYU students, who were asked about their willingness to protest Wall Street bailouts.
The participants first responded to a series of statements, which were designed to reveal the degree to which they reflexively justify our economic system. They expressed their level of agreement or disagreement with such thoughts as “Laws of nature are responsible for differences in wealth in society,” and “There are no inherent differences between rich and poor; it is purely a matter of the circumstances into which you were born.”
Half of the students then wrote a short essay about “the experience of being uncertain,” while the other half wrote about watching television. Afterward, all read excerpts from a New York Times article about an Obama administration plan to “to liberate the nation’s banks from a toxic stew of bad home loans and mortgage-related securities.” The story described this proposal as “more generous to private investors than expected, but it also puts the taxpayers at greater risk.”
Finally, the students were asked to rate (on a scale of one to seven) how willing they were to engage in both disruptive and non-disruptive protests against this proposed plan. Disruptive actions included “occupying an NYU building as a sign of protest;” non-disruptive ones included writing an angry letter or email to government officials.
Not surprisingly, the researchers found participants who support the economic system were unwilling to protest, whether or not the concept of uncertainty had been implanted in their minds. But for the others, remembering a time they felt uncertain “significantly reduced the motivation to engage in non-disruptive protest.”
In other words, for people who are disposed to challenge the system, uncertainty dampens the urge to demand change. Since those inclined to support the status quo aren’t going to take to the streets, this drastically reduces the pool of potential protestors.”