Why do people fight for the status quo when it sucks?

Do you ever wonder why social change is so difficult? Why we accept things in our society that are harmful to others — even ourselves? Why we allow the widening gap between the rich and the poor to exist within our country?

Social psychology researcher Dr. John T. Jost has an interesting take on this phenomena with the system justification theory.

As humans with brains and instincts developed over many millennia, we are motivated to maintain a positive attitude towards ourselves and those that are part of our identified groups. And this desire to think positively extends to the systems and institutions those groups have put into place too.

“System justification motivation is the tendency to defend, bolster and justify aspects of the societal status quo, often at a nonconscious level of awareness”
- Dr. John T. Jost

Simply put, we want to feel good about who we are, the beliefs we hold and the people we hang out with. From a survival perspective, we are conditioned to want to reduce uncertainty and to ensure a feeling of security and belonging. Even if the reality is that those social groups and systems may be working against us. Woof.

Why do people vote for things that hurt them?

I’m sure you noticed this cognitive dissonance during the general election we just survived. How interesting to push back on our assumption that voting is not always the conscious, rational behavior that we believe it to be. There are other forces at play.

Despite the widely held understanding that voters cast their ballot for candidates whose legislation and ideology will ultimately benefit them, this is not always the case. We see impoverished voters championing policy that has the potential to add greater financial burdens onto their community. We see female voters supporting candidates who are decidedly not pro-women. We see parents voting for politicians who will strip away public school funding or add complexities to issues of college debt.

It can feel baffling to see entire voter groups perpetuating systems of violence and cycles of inequality within their communities with each ballot cast. This is a phenomena that has occurred across decades of voting at all levels of government.

But why? It’s simple but totally not simple: our human brains have been trained to rationalize and adapt to our current everyday reality. Even if it’s not great, it’s what we’re working with.

Perhaps deep inside we make these decisions because a known and understood challenge or injustice is less scary than an unknown one. Or perhaps, for some, our current reality requires such effort to simply survive that the idea of pushing back against the status quo AND still survive is simply too great a challenge to fathom.

Unfortunately, this resignation (as masked as it might be) and seeming inability to fight for change frequently impacts the most disadvantaged communities the hardest. And herein lies the critical point — it’s in this space that folks with privilege need to step in — you know, the folks who aren’t working three jobs, struggling against daily systemic racism and just trying to scrape by and have some additional bandwidth, skillsets and energy to pitch in.

Here is the opportunity for those with a desire for positive social change to listen to, learn from and support those community members who need the additional capacity to push back against the known but shitty status quo.

It makes me wonder if half of strong community collaborations are really about helping each other be brave and fall in love with the “what could be”.

Originally published at https://www.careharder.com on December 23, 2020.

I’m a musical marketing geek with a book problem. Social justice grad student. Aviation enthusiast. Lover of pizza. Mom of 2, master of none. www.careharder.com