As election season begins its divisive descent, everyone with a political ax to grind has a theory about why the “other side” believes what it does. And whether they’re talking about Republicans, Democrats, other parties, or people in the middle, these theories are rarely charitable. Americans are fortunate enough to live in a country where votes count and the government is accountable to the people. But even in a relatively open society such as ours, corruption is commonplace. Turn outward to the rest of the world and you’ll find shocking corruption and injustice.
We all like to believe that we’d fight injustice wherever we found it, but the truth is that unjust systems often survive precisely because the citizenry is complacent. So what causes people to accept or defend systems that are inept, corrupt, or harmful? An article in the Association for Psychological Science’s journal Current Directions in Psychological Science lays out the circumstances that cause people to accept unfair systems:
When you’re dependent upon a system, you’re much more likely to defend it. For example, one study found that students who were induced to feel dependent upon a college department were much more likely to defend its ineptitude, but they disliked similar policies if they emanated from an entity upon which the students didn’t feel dependent. People are dependent on a variety of systems—government, jobs, universities, even their marriages—to varying degrees. The fact we all depend on some system to some degree at some time makes us much more likely to defend the system, even if it’s not working for us.
Inability to escape
Most of us have heard friends claim that they plan to emigrate to some other country if their favored candidate does not win the presidential election. Rarely, if ever, do they follow through with these threats. In fact, they might even end up defending the candidate they loathed. People who feel they can’t get out of the system are much more likely to defend it. After all, no one wants to resign themselves to hopelessness; finding the positive is a psychologically sound strategy even if it’s personally and socially harmful.
In some cases, the inability to escape might mandate defending the system. Citizens who were unable to escape Nazi Germany, for example, very likely felt pressure to comply with the system in the hope that they wouldn’t be punished for disobedience. Extremely tyrannical systems, then, may be even more likely to garner support—however forced or faked the support is.
Politicians know that one of the best strategies for gaining support is to make people fear some outside threat. Whether the threat is the other party, political meltdown, or another country, this strategy can be highly effective. People who are afraid are much more likely to support a system they feel can protect them, even if the system is otherwise corrupt, unjust, or even dangerous. Dictators have long taken advantage of this inclination, but it also occurs in more mundane political contexts.
Whichever party or candidate you’re supporting this season, it might be helpful to reflect on the myriad reasons people make political decisions. Some of these reasons are as much psychological as they are philosophical.
- Kay, A. C., & Friesen, J. (2011). On social stability and social change. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(6), 360-364. doi: 10.1177/0963721411422059
- Why do people defend unjust, inept and corrupt systems. (2011, December 12). Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/why-do-people-defend-unjust-inept-and-corrupt-systems.html
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