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How the Intolerable Becomes Acceptable

New evidence of our strong psychological need to rationalize the status quo.
Smoking is banned as fire cycle-dependent chaparral vegetation returns to life two-and-a-half months after a wildfire past through part of Griffith Park, in Los Angeles, California.

Public opinion can often seem mercurial. Obamacare was widely unpopular—until it took effect. The Republican tax plan was widely derided when it was proposed and debated, but people now seem to be warming to it.

Why the shifts? New research offers one likely answer: Once something becomes real, we are more inclined to view it more positively.

"People will often rationalize the status quo," writes University of British Columbia psychologist Kristin Laurin. In the journal Psychological Science, she analyzes public opinion on three divisive issues, and finds acceptance of the final outcome spikes soon after the matter is settled.

She traces this to our deep-seated motivation to see our society in a positive light—what psychologist Jon Jost calls "system justification." People are "motivated to reconstrue in an exaggeratedly positive light any undesirable elements of the status quo," she writes, "presumably to reassure themselves that the world they live in is right, good, and likely to satisfy their desires."

Laurin tested that thesis using three real-world events. The first was San Francisco's banning of plastic water bottles in 2014. Using a Facebook page, she surveyed 29 city residents the day before the ban took effect, and 50 the following week.

"Participants who completed the second survey reported more positive attitudes towards the ban," she reports.

The second was Ontario's 2015 ban on smoking in public parks, as well as on bar and restaurant patios. She surveyed 127 smokers living in the Canadian province two days before it took effect, and another 121 two days afterwards.

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"In the days following the new law, participants rationalized it more than in the days preceding the new law, adjusting their memory in such a way that the new law would feel less upsetting," she writes. For instance, those surveyed in the second round "minimized the extent to which they had previously smoked in the targeted areas."

In other words, they professed not to mind it so much, because it didn't really impact their lives. At least, that's what they told themselves.

The final event she studied was the 2016 presidential election. She surveyed 621 Americans about their attitudes toward Donald Trump at three points in time: early December; mid-January, just before the inauguration; and during the three days after the inauguration.

"Americans immediately felt more positively toward President Trump than they had toward President-Elect Trump," she writes. Specifically, "Participants were nearly twice as likely to report more positive attitudes than more negative attitudes in the wake of the inauguration."

This favorability bump emerged "even among participants claiming that they had learned no new information about Trump, and who disapproved of his inauguration performance," she writes.

"The specific day an anticipated sociopolitical reality becomes current is an important psychological trigger," Laruin concludes. "People prefer the reality after, compared with before, the behavior."

It seems we still haven't learned Voltaire's lesson. Rather than face reality, we'd rather believe we live in the best of all possible worlds.