When we embrace the system

Nieuws | de redactie
19 december 2011 | Under what circumstances do people support a system? A team of North-American scientists identifies four factors that lead masses to justify a system, leader or regime that works against them and their values.

2011 was the year of the protests. All over the world and fordiffering reasons people took to the streets protesting against a”system”: the Arab spring challenged and toppled autocraticregimes, the Occupy movement organized global demonstrationsagainst the financial elite and “indignados” lamented the dawn ofEurope’s new austerity.

Social movements can be powerful ousting leaders that terrorizedtheir peoples for decades as seen in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.Still, they tend to move slowly and an even greater paradox is thatsome individuals continue supporting their system even though itworks against them or their values.

Ian Kershaw extensively discussed this question in his book “TheEnd: Hitler’s Germany 1944-45” in the context of the final hours ofthe Nazi dictatorship. He argued that it was for the feeling thattheir “system” was threatened that many Germans continuedsupporting Hitler till the end.

4 factors create system support

Two North-American researchers, Aaron Kay (Duke University) andJustin Friesen (University of Waterloo), now conducted experimentstesting under which conditions people tend to support the statusquo of the systems they live in. Publishing their findings in the journal”Current Directions in Psychological Science”, Kay and Friesenargue that “people do not justify their social systems at all timesbut are more likely to do so under certain circumstances.”

Dominant factor here is that humans tend to justify a system,leader or institution if it is threatened from outside or heavilycriticized. People have the need to believe that the system theylive in is effective and in some way justified, Kay and Friesenargue. Even objective criticism in newspapers might trigger adefensive reflex. Prime example for the factor systemthreat is 9/11. President Bush enjoyed little supportuntil the terror attacks suddenly drastically boosted hispopularity.

Dependent, trapped, powerless: supportive

Next to system threat, the authors also identifysystem dependence, systeminescapability, and low personalcontrol as additional factors that foster support forthe status quo.

In one of the experiments, a group of test subjects was informedhow much less women earn than men given the same qualifications.Then, half of them were told that it was going to be easy for themto emigrate from this place, while the other half heard that thiswas not going to be possible.

Subsequently, the participants that felt they had no choice butto stay in this situation were much more likely to accept thissystem as justified. They argued that this was not unfair, butmerely reflecting differences in gender. The group of test subjectsthat did believe it was easy to move to a different place was, onaverage, more critical.

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