How Believing a System Can Change Helps You Learn to Hate It
February 21, 2012 2 Comments
In general, people try to avoid hearing bad things about themselves. When those bad things are about characteristics that can’t be changed, people really try to avoid hearing them. In light of this behavior, Ohio State psychologists India Johnson and Kentaro Fujita posed an interesting question: If “changeability” influences whether we choose to see negative information about ourselves, might it also affect whether we choose to see negative information about the systems we belong to?
Johnson and Fujita tested their hypothesis by giving subjects an anecdote about freshman orientation at Ohio State. Some subjects read about a student who generated support for changes in orientation activities and eventually succeeded in bringing about change. Other subjects read about a student who generated support for changes, but was unable to actually bring about change. After reading the story subjects had a chance to view positive or negative information about Ohio State.
As expected, subjects in the low-changeability condition were less likely to choose to see negative information about their school. Because they felt stuck in their system, their reactions were motivated by system-justification. Meanwhile, subjects in the high-changeability condition were more likely to choose to see the negative information. The sense that change was possible made them react with what Johnson and Fujita call “system-change motivation.”
On a broad level, the study could help explain the contagious nature of revolutions around the world. When people see that an entrenched government can be overthrown, they’ll be more willing to seek out negative information about their own government because that negativity will seem less permanent. This creates a positive feedback loop as more political change leads to more knowledge that seeds the desire for political change.
Another thing the study brings to mind is how important it is for non-incumbent politicians to convince people they have a chance to win. For example, imagine you’re a challenger (e.g Rick Santorum) taking on an incumbent or system representative (e.g. Mitt Romney). If voters believe they are stuck with the current system (Romney), they’ll ignore your negative ads because they’ll be motivated by system-justification. However, if you convince voters that change is a real possibility, system-change motivation will take over and voters will be more open to hearing negative information about the current system. (All of this rests on the assumption that an elected official can be conceptualized as a system, but I think it works in the sense that Harry Reid is the current system of Nevada citizen representation in the Senate.)
Johnson, I., & Fujita, K. (2012). Change We Can Believe In: Using Perceptions of Changeability to Promote System-Change Motives Over System-Justification Motives in Information Search Psychological Science, 23 (2), 133-140 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611423670