Why do we endorse systems of authority even when we know that those systems are inept, unjust or corrupt?

by Dr Barbara Tey

Time for ChangeWhen a system obviously “sucks”, people clamour for change, right? Amazingly, no.

Instead people prefer to preserve the status quo. They may whine and groan, but at the same time, they stick up for the very system they are frustrated about – be it an organization, or a government, or even a relationship.

It is a strange but real phenomenon.

But why do people not pursue change, even if it is for their own good? What is going on here?

The phenomenon is related to what researchers call “system justification”. According to Aaron C. Kay, a psychologist at Department of Psychology & Neuroscience of the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University, system justification motivates us to defend the status quo.

What is system justification?
When feeling threatened under crisis, we tend to defend ourselves and want to believe that the system that we have relied upon all this while, does work after all – even though they have serious loopholes.

To support the assertion, Kay and fellow researcher Justin Friesen, a graduate student from the University of Waterloo, provide examples such as the 9/11 event in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Despite their national system’s failure to prevent those tragic outcomes, the general public still supported the system of the day – their approval rating for President Bush increased (surprise!) after 9/11 and where Hurricane Katrina was concerned, the public blamed the victims themselves for their predicament.

The phenomenon was further highlighted in an experiment on university students. Students who felt reliant on their university defended their school funding policy, but yet they disapproved of the very same policy if it came from the government. On the other hand, students who felt reliant on the government liked the policy when it originated from the government, but did not like that same policy when it originated from the university!

Nevertheless, system justification is not the same as acquiescence. Unlike acquiescence which implies compliance or silence without objection, system justification is proactive, explains Kay. This is because “…when someone comes to justify the status quo, they also come to see it as what it should be.”

Why does system justification happen?
Humans adapt. When we feel we cannot escape a system, we find ways to cope and adapt. Somehow we manage to persuade ourselves that the things which we would have otherwise deemed undesirable are alright.

Here’s another study by Kay and Friesen to illustrate the point: Participants were informed that men’s salaries in their country were 20 percent higher than that of the women. Participants who perceived that they could not emigrate attributed the wage discrepancy to innate gender differences instead of implicating an unjust system.

In short, the more stuck people are in their situation, the likelier they are to justify its shortcomings. From Kay and Friesen’s review of many laboratory and cross-national studies, there are four scenarios that foster system justification: (i) system threat, (ii) system dependence, (iii) system inescapability, and (iv) low personal control.

How does the study on system justification help us?
Very often, leaders who desire social or organizational change are frustrated when people fail to stand up for what is clearly good for themselves. But instead of feeling frustrated, leaders must first understand the conditions that make people resist change, for example:

·        Does the person feel threatened by the system? (System threat)
·        Does the person feel dependent on the system? (System dependence)
·        Does the person feel trapped within the system? (System inescapability)
·        Does the person feel he has no control over his life/decision making? (Low personal control)

If the answers to the above questions are “yes”, then the likelihood of system justification is high. However, by understanding and addressing those specific conditions, we can find ways to effectively inspire and convince people of the necessity for real change. Through training development and coaching, we can help people overcome the self-limiting beliefs they have accumulated over the years, and empower them to take bold charge of their lives.

Photo credit

A. C. Kay and J. Friesen. 2011, “On Social Stability and Social Change: Understanding when System Justification Does and Does Not Occur”, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(6).