One Theory Explains Why We Can't Have Nice Things
People don't change. Why?
There's this moment in Gone with The Wind after Ashley Wilkes comes home from the war. Everything lies in ruins. People are starving and robbing each other food. Nobody has any idea what to do next. While Scarlett takes care of everyone, Ashley decides what they really need is a fence. Finally, Rhett Butler blurts out what she's been thinking for a long time.
The man she loves can't change.
He's married to the past.
He's a fool.
We're living through a moment like that now. We're surrounded by people we care about who can't change to save themselves, no matter how bad things get. They can't bring themselves to do anything different. They can't operate on a more realistic worldview. They can't break with their political party. They can't wear a mask. They can't demand clean air. They can't update their vaccines. They can't call out genocide when they see it.
Two social psychologists at Yale proposed a theory to explain all of this two decades ago. It's a theory of theories, a master theory.
It's called systems justification.
According to John Jost and Mahzarin Banaji, we're wired to resist change. Members of a group will go out of their way to defend the status quo. They do it to preserve social harmony and to boost their own self-esteem. Since most of us play varying roles in perpetuating the current systems, we all feel somewhat motivated to justify them to each other. It makes us feel better.
People do all of this unconsciously.
They don't think about it.
Systems justification theory draws on a range of other theories like cognitive dissonance and social identity theory. The concept has inspired dozens of studies. Jost published a book about it with Harvard University Press in 2020. So yes, it's a real thing worth some attention.
- People want to feel good about themselves (social identity)
- They want to eliminate tension (cognitive dissonance)
- So they fight against change.
Change makes people uncomfortable, even when it's necessary. Changing means you're forced to admit things aren't working, that the institutions and even the people you trusted have failed.
It's hard to admit.
People can resort to almost unthinkable measures in order to maintain a positive image of themselves and their own group. On the mundane end of the spectrum, they'll sling stereotypes at their opponents and offer pseudo-logical reasons for refusing to change or consider new ideas. They would rather come up with reasons to defend a broken system than reform it, even if that system hurts them. They're more afraid of being wrong than anything.
They're also scared of trying something new that might fail. Essentially, they work to keep what little they have because they fear losing everything if they take a chance and it doesn't work out.
They especially don't want to put the effort into something new if it doesn't work. They hate wasting their time and energy.
They don't want to be embarrassed.
It's easier to go with the flow.
In extreme circumstances, members go even further to maintain their positive self-image. They dehumanize their opponents. They engage in denial. They minimize and trivialize facts. They downplay. They use slurs. They commit violence. They do it to alleviate their own cognitive dissonance.
Look at the case of Christine Collins, back in 1928. The state of California was willing to lock her up and destroy her life rather than admit they tried to pass a runaway off as her missing son. Look at the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, whose own colleagues basically got him killed because they didn't want to believe something as simple as washing your hands could save lives.
We see so much systems justification going on now. We see it among some of the most educated, intelligent people.
A large chunk of the public has committed to the corrupt, broken systems that are leading us headfirst into overshoot, ecological collapse, war, and genocide. Our leaders mostly engage in the very systems justifications that social psychologists criticize. So does the media. They disparage alternatives. They talk about letting the vulnerable fall by the wayside. They cook their public health books while rejecting official death counts in massacres. They go on national television and minimize diseases like tuberculosis and avian flu.
They very likely let a virus into the world from a lab. Then they build a bigger, more dangerous version of the same lab.
It comes down to systems justification. The people who screwed up want to prove they weren't wrong. They want to save face. They want to maintain the positive image of themselves and the systems they've upheld. So they're going to double and triple down on those systems.
It's a kind of pathology.
We talk a lot about the importance of admitting our mistakes and learning from them. As it turns out, humans do the opposite of that far more often than we're willing to admit. We do it at scale. The ones in charge don't want to risk their reputations or careers.
So they go with the flow.
In this context, it makes sense why a lot of people can only conceive of voting for politicians who should've retired years ago, not because of their cognitive fitness but because they can't change.
Neither can most people.
As the world destabilizes, the public will want to cling to figureheads they recognize. Our biggest political contenders have brand recognition. They might not have any good ideas, but their names and faces look familiar. That brings comfort and reassurance to people petrified of change.
Psychology tells us that people don't really want to change, even if they know they have to. They're more than willing to believe misinformation. You need two things for systems justification to work. You need a group who's willing to lie to the public, and you need a public willing to believe lies.
We have both.
Only a fraction of us possess the mental and emotional hardware to see the need for radical change when it's necessary. We can overcome the inertia to do what's needed. Everyone else, not so much.
So that's what makes all of this so difficult.
How do you get someone to change?
Psychology says it's not easy.
Most of the time, something scares the hell out of someone. They have a close call or a near death experience. They get a wake up call. You know how that goes. It's the fear drive that motivates them.
Otherwise, they have to want the change more than they want to stay the same. They have to believe it's possible. That, plus they have to realize there's nothing left to lose by trying something different.
You have to convince them.
Sometimes, you can't.
Maybe you think we're doomed. If so, at least now you have a fancy new phrase to help explain why. Understanding our flaws makes it all feel a little less unbearable, a little less inexplicable. When someone does bizarre things or stoops to new lows to bolster the status quo, that's what they're doing.
It's part of our psychological makeup, and it takes a lot of work to overcome. It shouldn't, but it does.
Right now, our biggest problem is enough people don't trust each other to work toward a common goal. They believe everyone else will continue justifying the systems, so that's what they do.
And so nothing changes.
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