Why Society Doesn’t Change: The System Justification Bias

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“Society’s tendency is to maintain what has been. Rebellion is only an occasional reaction to suffering in human history: we have infinitely more instances of forbearance to exploitation, and submission to authority, than we have examples of revolt.” (Zinn, 1968)

Have you ever wondered why society hardly ever changes? I think most of us have.

One answer is that humans have a mental bias towards maintaining the status quo. People think like this all the time. They tend to go with what they know rather than a new, unknown option.

People feel safer with the established order in the face of potential change. That’s partly why people buy the same things they bought before, return to the same restaurants and keep espousing the same opinions.

This has been called the ‘system justification bias’ and it has some paradoxical effects (research is described in Jost et al., 2004):

  • Poor people don’t strongly support the sorts of political policies that would make them better off. Surveys find that low-income groups are hardly more likely than high-income groups to want tax changes that mean they will get more money. Generally people’s politics doesn’t line up with their position in society.
  • Oddly, the more disadvantaged people are, the more they are likely to support a system that is doing them no favours. This is because of cognitive dissonance. In one US example of this low-income Latinos are more likely to trust government officials than high-income Latinos.
  • Most disturbing of all: the more unequal the society, the more people try to rationalise the system. For example in countries in which men hold more sexist values, women are more likely to support the system.

People seem to rationalise the inequality in society, e.g. poor people are poor because they don’t work hard enough and rich people are rich because they deserve it.

Incredibly, this means that some (but not all) turkeys will keep on voting for Christmas.

Image credit: kris krug



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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 26 July 2012

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Images: Creative Commons License