When you step back from the specifics of the health care debate — as well as the rancor surrounding it — an odd contradiction emerges.
Fairly or not, insurance companies have traditionally been regarded with a combination of contempt and scorn. Yet the president's proposal to change the nation's system of health care coverage — which would put restrictions on some of the companies' more egregious practices and provide increased competition — has provoked fear and outrage in a sizable portion of the populace. Americans who under other circumstances might be grousing about rising premiums or denials of coverage are tenaciously clinging to a system they know and dislike.
Many attempts have been made to understand this paradox, with presumed reasons ranging from racism to fear of big government. But a school of social psychology suggests a more fundamental answer: We have a strong internal motivation to perceive the status quo as the way things should be.
"This can help explain why some people are reluctant to changing a health care system that is deeply flawed," says New York University psychologist John Jost. "Many people are instinctively suspicious and afraid of any alternative to the status quo, even when the evidence shows that different health care systems in other countries are cheaper and more cost-effective."
In 1994, Jost co-authored a paper that introduced the term "system justification theory." It proposes, as he explained in a 2005 follow-up, "that people are motivated to justify and rationalize the way things are, so that existing social, economic and political arrangements tend to be perceived as fair and legitimate."
This tendency is not to be confused with status-quo bias, which refers to our innate preference to keep things pretty much as they are. Rather, it describes the desire to view the structure of society as fundamentally just. As a newly published paper testing this theory puts it:
"Acknowledging that one is forced to conform to the rules, norms and conventions of a system that is illegitimate, unfair and undesirable is likely to provoke considerable anxiety and threat; thus, when little can be done to change this reality, people will likely be motivated to justify their system in an attempt to view it in a more legitimate, fair and desirable light."
In other words, it's less stressful to live in a society you perceive as just, even if it's an illusion. Thus we are all descendents of Dr. Pangloss, the character in Candide who insisted we live in "the best of all possible worlds."
To test whether Voltaire's mockery of human nature remains relevant, a research team led by psychologists Aaron Kay and Danielle Gauchier of the University of Waterloo in Canada performed a series of studies, which they describe in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Their dual goal was to present direct evidence for system justification theory and to demonstrate different forms of motivation that produce this phenomenon.
Their first test explored whether instilling a perception that one is dependent upon the political system in place would increase support for it. Study participants — Canadian college undergraduates — read data revealing that an overwhelming majority of members of the Canadian House of Commons are wealthy. They were then given a second set of purported research findings stating that Canadians will find it either "increasingly difficult" or "increasingly easy" to immigrate to another nation in the coming years.
Those who were told escaping the country — and the system — would be difficult were far more likely to agree with the proposition that a parliament dominated by the rich is just fine.
A second test measured the effect of perceived dependency on the current system. Participants who read a strongly worded paragraph reminding them how dependent they are on their university — one that pointed out the opportunities afforded by their education will impact the rest of their lives — were far more likely to endorse the current funding allocations for various departments than those in a control group.
Two additional tests found a threat to the system similarly stimulated allegiance to the status quo. In one, participants were presented with a negative article about Canada purportedly published in a British newspaper. They were then told that women are either highly underrepresented or relatively well-represented among the nation's high-level business executives.
Those who were told that women are underrepresented in top jobs "subsequently rated a female business student with whom they interacted as significantly less likable and competent" compared to those who believed women were well represented. A threat to the system (the criticism from an outsider) apparently motivated them not only to support the status quo, but to internalize their society's perceived prejudices.
All of the above motivations could conceivably apply to the health care debate. If people feel dependent upon the current system for their well being and see no way out of it, this research suggests they will cling to it ever more fiercely. Proponents of change who point to Europe and, yes, Canada, as places where government-run health care works may actually be provoking a more-intense backlash, thanks to the rally-round-the-flag factor.
The research also suggests Democrats are mistaken in thinking the current economic uncertainty makes this a good time for health reform. It may be logical to think that people who are concerned they'll be laid off and lose their health insurance would be receptive to the idea of a government guarantee. But in reality, the opposite appears to be true.
"Anxiety related to economic insecurity may well be contributing to resistance to change, even though sticking with the status quo paradoxically makes people less financially secure in the long run," Jost notes.
In another recent paper (which has yet to be published), Jost and two colleagues look at the climate-change debate through the lens of system justification theory. They note that "the threat posed by environmental destruction is the result of the status quo itself." This fact makes addressing the issue extremely difficult, given our motivation to support the current system.
Psychologically, it's easier to simply deny the problem exists.
They conclude that the key to overcoming this obstacle "is to characterize pro-environmental change as "system-sanctioned" — that is, as a desired, perhaps necessary, means of preserving the American way of life." A campaign that stresses it is "patriotic to defend and protect natural resources" may help get around this psychological block.
Jost believes a similar rationalization could be constructed to help sell health care reform.
"I think that it is possible for liberals to make the argument that there is an important and valuable tradition going back to FDR and the New Deal that we build in safety nets so that people can take chances — that is, calculated risks — without losing everything," he says. "This is an essential part of the American dream."
What's more, he adds, the "freedom" mantra so beloved by anti-Obama protestors could actually be co-opted by those who support the president's plan. It can be argued that, under a universal health care system, "people are not tethered to unsatisfying jobs or careers because of their dependence on a benefits program," Jost notes.
So reforming the health care system could be framed as an issue of freedom — which, of course, is the ultimate foundation of the status quo.
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