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.
“If we can extrapolate from our experimental research (and I think that we can, at least tentatively), the economic uncertainty that most Americans have felt for the past few years — as we have waited to see whether various stimulus measures are going to work —probably undermined (rather than hastened) the motivation to protest against the Wall Street bailout,” Jost said in an interview.
So what shifted in recent weeks? Jost points to a couple of possible factors.
“In my view, people don't need much to justify the status quo, but they do need something to hang onto,” he said. “It is possible that the extremity of the transfer of wealth and power from the people to the corporations that has occurred over the past 30 years —symbolized so powerfully by the taxpayers' bailout of Wall Street banks [even while ordinary people endured] harsh austerity measures and property foreclosures — has left some of the U.S. population with little or nothing left to justify, nothing to defend.”
On top of that, there’s the “snowball effect” of media coverage of popular uprisings from around the world. “Protest activity in one part of the world can inspire protest activity in other parts of the world, and that is probably part of the story here as well, going back to the Arab Spring,” he said.
That said, Jost believes keeping the demonstrations going will be a challenge.
“I think that it is extremely difficult, for social and psychological reasons, for people to sustain themselves for long and painful protests against the status quo,” he said. “Protesters need to be able and willing to face a great deal of uncertainty and threat and to risk the disapproval of friends and family members.
“I think that most observers realize this on some tacit level, and that is why there is presently a great deal of sympathy for those who are involved in Occupy Wall Street and related protests.”
Jost sees a counterattack coming, as people made uncomfortable by this challenge to the system find reasons to disparage the protestors and their cause. After all, as he and his colleagues note in their paper, social change is “inherently unsettling.”
“So far, the protesters have been astute in expressing their patriotism and forestalling the backlash,” he said, “but it will not be easy.”