Oct 24 • 1HR 19M

Why social change is so excruciatingly difficult

A chat with psychologist John Jost about system justification theory and the differences between conservatives and liberals.

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When looking over the course of human history, we tend to focus on times of disruption, when the established order is crumbling and something new is rising. But if we take a step back, something different strikes us: the vast majority of human history is characterized by small groups of people wielding often brutal power over massive numbers of others, without substantial resistance. Most of the time, the masses accept subjugation at the hands of a small cabal that they could, almost definitionally, overwhelm if properly organized.

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From this perspective, what's needed is not an explanation of why people rebel against systems that are not in their self or group interest, but why they so often — most often — do not. What demands explanation is voluntary servitude. Why do people so often, rather than organizing and rising up against injustice, internalize the ideology of their oppressors and come to view themselves as naturally or fittingly subjugated?

And it's not just history where such an explanation is demanded. It's also current events. Why have the citizens of developed democracies endured two decades of misbegotten wars, financial crises, and rising authoritarianism with very little in the way of radical resistance?

John Jost
John Jost

Noted psychologist, researcher, and author John Jost of New York University offers an explanation: people have very strong psychological needs that weigh against thinking of themselves as subjugated victims; they crave certitude, closure, safety, and predictability. They are inclined, for these reasons, toward what is called “system justification.” As Jost writes, “people are motivated (often unconsciously, without deliberate intention or awareness) to defend, justify, and bolster aspects of the status quo, including existing social, economic, and political institutions and arrangements.”

The tendency to justify unjust systems is pervasive, even and especially among the people those systems treat worst. This means that everyone working for positive change is starting behind the eight ball, rolling a rock up a hill.

I read Jost’s two recent books — A Theory of System Justification and Left and Right: The Psychological Significance of a Political Distinction — earlier this summer and I've been thinking about them ever since, so I'm thrilled to talk to him about the evidence for system justification theory, the way it is distributed among conservatives and liberals, and ways those seeking change can work around it.