Episode 32: Why people resist change- even when it benefits them

Sometimes it seems like the people who would most benefit from social change are the most resistant to it. Think of anti-feminist women or students with loans who oppose canceling student debt. There are many examples of groups who exhibit this paradoxical behavior.

Whether it’s in advocacy or at the individual level working with participants, nonprofits face this opposition regularly.

This presents a unique challenge for nonprofits- how can you advance your mission if the very people who would benefit from your work, resist it?

System justification theory is an idea out of social psychology that attempts to explain this paradoxical behavior. Justin Friesen and colleagues have done a lot of research into system justification, including experiments that test how system justification varies in different contexts. Their article, System justification: experimental evidence, its contextual nature, and implications for social change, published in The British Psychology Society, summarizes their research as well as other pertinent research on the topic.

Here’s what you can expect to take away from this episode…

⦿ What is the system justification motive and how does it show up in our lives

⦿ What variables mediate the system justification motivation

⦿ How can we leverage system justification to promote acceptance of social change


⦿ [4:05] System justification theory posits that people are motivated to uphold the social arrangements that make up the status quo- or the system. Essentially, people are motivated to keep things the way they are.
⦿ [7:10] Through their research, Friesen and colleagues found there are three contexts that mediate the system justification motivation- system threat, system dependence, and system inescapability or stability.
⦿ [9:45] People are more motivated to bolster the status quo when they depend on the system more than when they depend on the system less. Certain systems naturally have that tendency to create dependence.
⦿ [14:00] What the researchers found is that when the system justification motivation is heightened- as in when facing system threat, dependence, or an inescapable situation- people believed the status quo was desirable and it occurred no matter what the status quo was.    
⦿ [14:35] The researchers here propose that social change occurs along a time course from pre-decisional, to pre-implementation, to post-implementation. And, along these three phases, system justification motivations vary.
⦿ [19:07] It’s possible that for some social change, we could focus on how it would preserve the status quo, an idea called system-sanctioned change.

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⦿ Article: System justification: experimental evidence, its contextual nature, and implications for social change
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