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Turi: Today we’re thrilled to be talking to John Jost. John is professor of psychology and politics and co-director of the center for social and political behavior at NYU. He’s one of the leading global lights of social psychology and is most famous for his work on the psychology of political ideology and system justification theory. That system justification theory is what we’re going to be talking about today. Also in the context of the publication of his last book, a theory of system justification, uh, which will, which we’ll link to in the show notes and which also marks 25 years since the birth of the idea. So, John, thank you for joining us.
John : Thank you, Turi. It’s my pleasure. You’re very kind.
Turi: It’s great to have you with us. Um, so John, just to sort of start, yeah. As I understand it. Social scientists have traditionally seen the world as a sort of a bit of an us versus them poor versus rich, strong versus weak in versus outgroup.
But the work you’ve done suggests that almost always the disadvantaged members of society are invested and committed and almost complicit in the very systems that keep them down. You talk about black kids, preferring white dolls, women who feel entitled to lower salaries, victims, blaming themselves. People. We know this around the world, constantly voting against their own economic interests. As I understand it, your work shows that it’s sort of at the deepest psychological level victims are somehow committed to the systems that subjugate them. Is that a highest level description of what. System justification theory talks to, can you open that up a little bit?
John : Sure. Yeah. I think that is a very helpful overview. I don’t know if I would say, you know, almost always or things like that. Um, but I would say that there are, in addition to the fairly obvious kind of material advantages of, of advantaged groups, they have a lot of social and psychological advantages as well.
That lead us to, uh, lead members of disadvantaged groups, as well as, um, others to kind of see things their way and to give them in many ways the benefit of the doubt. So I wouldn’t deny at all that there are, um, intergroup dynamics that have the form that you described an us versus them or ethnocentric tendencies and so on. But the research really consistently shows that there’s an asymmetry. Um, and that, that the. The people who are relatively advantaged are, are much more, um, uh, unambiguous, I’d say, in their favoritism for their own kind than members of disadvantaged groups. And, and in part that’s because, uh, members of disadvantaged groups are not making the world. They’re, they’re trying to cope with the world that is at times very difficult and challenging for, for them. Uh, and I think it’s, I think we can’t, we can’t overestimate how difficult it would be to live a life in which you are relentlessly challenging and criticizing, uh, everything and everyone around you.
Uh, I think that that’s not a, uh, a really a long-term sustainable viable existence. And so I think that all of us in various ways have to make peace with the world as we find it with the status quo. Um, You know, that’s not to say we love everything about it. And that’s not to say there aren’t times in which we want something better for ourselves or for people like us. But it’s to say that it’s a complicated mix of motives that we have. And some of those motives, I think, are making it harder to change the way things are.
Turi: I want to come eventually to this point that you finished with here about changing the way things are. Um, because I think you think of it as lots of social psychologists do as sort of part of the job description to not only sort of elucidate some of the systems, which, um, impact the way we live in the world, but also to try and improve them for food before we get there.
That’s okay. I I’d love to do a little bit of a history tour of the different ways in which people have understood this peculiar phenomenon of. Say, um, people voting against their interests, people being committed to systems, which hold them down. And there’s a long history here. There’s uh, there’s, there’s the cognitive side. There’s social political approaches to this. You mentioned amongst others, Daniel Kahneman, status quo, bias marks angles, Graham Xi. McKinnon. Can you give us a little bit of the history of the ways in which people have understood this peculiar phenomenon?
John : Sure. In some ways you could, you could point to, um, uh, uh, an essay that was written by a law student in France in the middle of 15 hundreds, uh, named Etienne who, uh, is now remembered really only for being a friend of Montaine. So when he was just 22 years old, he wrote an essay for a law school in France and called the discourse of voluntary servitude. And in this, um, in this essay, he was trying to understand why throughout human history, there’ve been so many cases of tyrannical leaders who remained in power, despite the fact that the majority’s, uh, were oppressed by the, by these, um, individuals and their, and their condray. Um, and, uh, you know, why would the masses who have the power, uh, kind of sit back and put up with this. And, um, he went through various possibilities. Some of which I think are, are some of which you could see as material or economic, you know, there, there is a issue of patronage and people getting crumbs and someone from the table. Um, but there’s also, I think what we would, what I think of as social psychological forces or what you might also think of is as ideology or propaganda.
Um, but he, but there’s an element I feel of motivation even in his writings that there’s some sense in which people want to believe that, that the powerful leaders on which we depend are. Benevolent in some sense or are deserving of their place above us in some sense. So again, these are complicated things. There’s not one or two or three motives. There’s a lot of motives, uh, in human behavior. Uh, but I would say. That this idea was a super interesting one. And, and because, uh, people at the time found it to be such an interesting and somewhat revolutionary kind of way of thinking, uh, his work, his essay was passed down for generations.
Uh, it was published as a pamphlet at various times, and it was, it was passed down in manuscript form and many, uh, famous philosophers encountered it and were influenced by it and mentioned it in their own writings. Um, and then I think you can kind of follow that trajectory from, from Dylan. down to at least the early, uh, Karl Marx, uh, writings about ideology, uh, and, and with angles, false consciousness, and this idea that. I’m talking about the kind of his early work as in the German ideology and things like this before they went in, in a very kind of economically deterministic directions, sometimes referred to as the humanistic or sociological aspects of marks that were picked up by the Frankfurt school later. But, um, but in writing about, uh, etiology and the functions of Videology marks and angles noted that kind of the ruling ideas of every era are the ideas of the ruling class.
And this is sort of a similar idea that, um, in addition to all the material advantages, you have kind of theological advantages by being, um, by being part of the group that is ruling. And that gives you an opportunity to spread your ideas. And people are we’re very social creatures. And so even those of us who are, who are, um, you know, However you want to put it lower in the food chain or, or lower on the totem pole, whatever are, are going to end up internalizing many aspects of that perspective.
And so this is the concept in the Marxist tradition and in feminist tradition of false consciousness. And, um, and so throughout the 20th century, you’ve got, uh, so-called Western Marxists, like Antonio, Gramsci writing about the spontaneous consent, uh, given by the masses to the dominant ideology you’ve got, uh, in, in Hungary, uh, Julie Lucaj, uh, writing about cultural hegemony, uh, and, um, and class consciousness, uh, and so on. And they, they influenced a lot of sociologists and social theorists throughout the 20th century, including Berger and Lockman who wrote, uh, this, uh, I think a very interesting book called the social construction of reality in 1966, where they talk about how, um, How the way things are, uh, kind of ordinary social interaction has, um, among other things, it, it contributes to a process of legitimation of the status quo.
The things that we take for granted acquire a kind of default level legitimacy and this plays out in social interactions. So just simply by having all these conversations and interactions in which everyone is acting like everything is normal normalizes, the status quo in a variety of different ways.
Turi: Can you give an example, John of this kind of normalization?
John: Sure. I mean, I think, I think some of the examples that they use are about, uh, religious, religious interactions or religious institutions. Um, but even institutions like marriage or something, I mean, the conversations we have around, for instance, marriage or the nuclear family or something gives those systems a kind of default level legitimacy that they’re taken for granted. Um, as, as legitimate, we’re not seeing them through a critical eye or we’re not thinking about. Um, who is excluded from these institutions, for instance, we take them for granted and they, they, they acquire a broad kind of legitimacy. That is, it’s not that it’s never question it’s that it’s seldom question. Right. Um, and so that can leave certain people feeling excluded or, or not even feeling excluded and just objectively excluded. And, um, and there’s, there’s so many social systems like that, uh, from education and the workplace to, um, you know, the political system to the family, all these things are social systems.
And we ended up taking most of it for granted in our, in our daily interactions. And that has a way of reinforcing it on. And it’s a kind of ideological force that it acquires over time throughout the lifespan.
Turi: Can I ask you to pull apart this idea of false consciousness, which threads all the way through the thinkers that you’ve just described into this idea of systems thinking.
John: Yes. Yeah. I think it’s an important concept. The way I think about it is, um, and it’s related to what Marx does say about etiology he talks about, um, etiology as, uh, as having effects that are similar to cognitive and perceptual illusions. It kind of turns the world upside down. So we see things, uh, in an inverted or distorted form. And, um, that’s what it means. That’s I think the. To me, that’s a useful way of thinking about what false consciousness is.
It’s a way of, um, us seeing things that maybe are not so legitimate as being highly legitimate. Um, and that causes us to kind of. Uh, as, as, uh, some marks in authors have written kind of invest in our own unhappiness in certain ways. And this, this idea was taken up by a lot of feminist theorists. Uh, I think Catherine McKinnon and I wrote a great book in 1989 called toward a feminist theory of the state where she, uh, critiques Marxism from a feminist point of view. And she critiques feminism from a Marxist point of view and makes both better, I think, uh, but, but central to her account is, is this concept of false consciousness and the need to overcome it, uh, through consciousness, raising activities, which of course were very big in the 1960s and so on where women in that case needed to look at their lives and all the ways in which they had been prepared, uh, including by their families and people who love them and whom they loved preparing them for a life that was less than, um, then, uh, Then satisfactory on certain dimensions that was confining.
Um, and there was a need to kind of liberate and to liberate in reality, in behavior, you first need to kind of liberate mentally in your mind. And so I think that’s why, um, one of the things that any kind of social movement for change needs to accomplish is a kind of undoing of the kind of indoctrination that all of us experience in some ways. And that’s not to say everything about the world as we find it is wrong and awful and horrible either. It’s just that it takes us, it takes special effort to see things critically in order to, to make changes that will result in, um, a freer and happier existence in the long run. And that’s, I think the essence of overcoming false consciousness through consciousness, raising activities and processes.
Turi: Is it almost that it’s, it’s much easier to see what’s there than what isn’t. And it’s much easier to understand the justifications for what’s there than to come out. And critique them.
John: Yeah. That’s I think that’s part of it for sure. That the things that we they’re, they’re familiar to us, um, uh, are much easier for us to understand and grasp and, uh, in a way that’s a connection to someone else. You mentioned Danny Kahneman and prospect theory. Um, the things that are easily. Accessible to us that we have a lot of experience with, they serve often as a kind of a reference point or anchor or, uh, um, or as, um, as a the founder of social identity theory. It’s a theory who taught for years at Bristol university in the UK, um, argued that that’s, there’s a kind of lack of cognitive alternatives to the status quo in many cases.
So, um, it’s harder to think about, uh, counterfactuals to reality. What, what would be a better life, what would be a better social system? Um, those things are much harder to come up with, uh, with a concrete formulation of then to say, well, how did my parents do it and how did my grandparents do it and so on. So yeah, I think the there’s a way in which the status quo enjoys a lot of. It manages psychological, uh, and otherwise over counterfactual alternatives to edge.
Turi: That makes lots of sense. Um, so we’ve got, there’s some cognitive reasons for this, um, status quo advantage. Um, there’s some social and political ones you’ve just gone through, which is the dominant class gets to define the dominant ideology. They’re the ones who set the rules. I don’t want to describe what makes reality, et cetera, et cetera. But, um, but where, uh, your theory system, justification theory comes in, is it posits that there is a profound, psychological needs that are being answered?
By, um, by this identification with a system which can be profoundly oppressive. Um, and, um, and that they express themselves at a very granular and multiple different ways across, across people’s individual psychologies. It that’s, it’s sort of a motivated social cognition there. It’s sort of built into the very structure of, um, of our sense of self.
John: Absolutely. In terms of the underlying kind of motivational basis for why, um, people become psychologically invested in the status quo, even if it’s, if it harms their objective interest in various ways. I point now the way I think about it now, I point to epistemic existential and relational motives. You I’ll tell you what those mean. Epistemic motivation is the desire to reduce uncertainty, to acquire a subjective sense of predictability control, uh, certainty.
And, uh, that their existential needs as well for safety security to, uh, manage, uh, threat feelings of threat and fear. And there are relational motives to bond with, um, valued, important others, uh, including our family members, including our friends, including mainstream society as a whole. And the status quo, I think has advantages in all three of these domains as well, that, um, kind of, you know, the devil, you know, versus the devil you don’t, um, there is some, uh, advantage, uh, in, in terms of offering certainty to, to what is familiar to us. So we, because we have experience with, uh, the way things are done in, in my case in American society and yours may be British society. Um, these, these. There’s a sense in which our experiences and the familiarity of them provide us with a subjective sense of certainty. That that is, is far superior than, yeah.
Again, Cod counterfactual alternatives to it, which are, which are highly uncertain. Um, existential needs. There’s a sense of kind of safety, security protection that is afforded by, um, believing in the goodness and the, the legitimacy and the desirability of the social systems that we depend on. And there are relational, uh, needs that are met. I can, I can bond with my grandmother or my aunt or my uncle over these things, including the nuclear family and, and marriage. And in some cases, you know, for some people religion and for, you know, other people, various things. But, um, the point is that all of these things are pulling or providing kind of psychological, I think. Um, motivation for us to want to see the social systems on which we depend as being relatively legitimate desirable. Good. So which doesn’t mean we see them as perfect either necessarily. Um, although some people act as if they do. Um, but the point is it’s, these are, these are important motivations for us to understand. If we want to know why, uh, took to answer question of why people put up with an unjust status quo for very long periods of time. But what I’m saying about epistemic extension relational needs, maybe it’s easier to think about it kind of in the converse in terms of. What, what social political activists, people who are really trying, um, uh, with all their heart to change the status quo, what they, what they have to tolerate and what they have to put up with. Um, you know, if you’re a member of a, of a social movement that really wants to change the status quo, whether it’s occupy wall street or black lives matter or, or. Whatever kind of system challenging, um, social movement or organization. I can think of people who are out there, uh, on a daily basis, protesting, demonstrating, and so on.
They have to put up with a lot of uncertainty, a lot of potential threats and a real chance of being cut off from friends and family members. Um, so, you know, when you go, when you go to a demonstration or a March, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Um, and you don’t even know if you’re successful, what’s going to happen on the day after the revolution, right? There’s huge amounts of uncertainty about all of it. There’s threat, you know, are you gonna, are you going to be beaten up by, by counter protestors? Are you gonna be beaten up by the police or you going to be taken to jail? Are you gonna end up in the hospital? Uh, there are a lot of threats. Um, Even physical threats and in some countries more than others to standing up against the status quo.
Uh, and then there are relational things that maybe, maybe your parents or your, uh, your grandparents don’t understand, um, how you can be committed to this cause, or, you know, why you have so many problems and criticisms of, of the way things are. Why can’t you just accept the way things are. And so, and so, so I, I think this helps to explain why burnout rates, I think are super high among political activists, uh, in order to do this day in day out, you really have to tolerate a lot of uncertainty, a lot of threat and, and the potential of, of being socially ostracized and treated like deviant. These are, these are powerful things, not easy to do. Um,
Turi: um, can I ask you to go to walk her through some of the experiments that you’ve done, which helps us see the depth and granularity of this kind of system justification that goes on at an individual level?
John: So, so I took real world groups, but I provided people in one condition with information that one group was superior in some regard, I don’t mean, um, in terms of their care, their psychological characteristics. I mean that they were more successful. Uh, often it was socially, socially and economically successful. So I took in one, one example is I took university of Maryland students in college park, Maryland and told and had them. Give me their stereotypes about themselves and about, um, another group in our group of university of Virginia students. But I had, I asked for those stereotypes after I provided them with information that either after graduation, university of Maryland students made more money than university of Virginia students, or I told other students, other students that university Virginia alumni made more money than university of Maryland alumni.
So in essence, taking a group that’s real to people. That means something to people. Uh, so it’s not a trivial ad hoc thing. Um, but, um, experimentally manipulating. In essence, the socioeconomic status of the two groups relative to one another. Um, and so, and then what I, and so what I found was was that under these conditions, we, we clearly did obtain evidence for outgroup favoritism.
So when Maryland students thought that Virginia students made more money than them, they also thought that, um, that Virginia students were smarter than them more hardworking, uh, more industrious, more, more competent in a variety of ways. Uh, sometimes they would compensate by, by saying, but we’re more friendly or we’re more casual or we’re more fun or something like that. But it turns out that that also, I think, lends legitimacy to the status quo because then what you have is a kind of illusion of equality. Um, and so. The, the disadvantage group, if they acknowledged superiority or they create really in this case, it’s a creation, the, the superiority of the, of the outgroup.
Um, uh, and then they make themselves feel better by saying that we’re better on something else that turns out is not so valued by this particular social system, but it makes us feel better. But what it does is it creates, it allows everyone to be more satisfied with the overarching social system, because there’s a kind of illusion of equality. Well, they’re better at this, and we’re better at that. And, and you see this in gender dynamics, too. Gender stereotypes work very similarly to this, um, that men are, are, are competent, assertive, agentic, et cetera. Get the job done. Uh, women are nurturing and warm and friendly and caring and so on. And so. Society is kind of a cooperation of, uh, of groups that have something going for them, but not everything. No one has a monopoly on everything. That’s good. Um, but what this does is it creates a kind of a basis in stereotypes and, and ordinary thinking that is a kind of ideological legitimation of the status quo. And it leads people to accept, uh, existing relations for instance, between men and women, the division of labor within the family, within society, as fair as, as more fair, as more legitimate and so on, then they would, if they didn’t see it in this way,
Turi: John, you’ve just touched on this question of stereotypes, which is, I understand for you is that the fundamental building blocks of the system is that right? They sort of work as the ways in which people understand power dynamics. Tell me, understand that a little bit more.
John: Sure. Um, I mean, I think, you know, what a stereotype is really belief about the characteristics of a group of people, uh, and they can be positive characteristics or they can be negative characteristics, but I think that they do a lot of ideological work and sometimes we don’t, you know, fully appreciate how much ideological work they’re doing. Um, social psychologists early on realized that stereotypes serve a cognitive function of, of saving energy. Um, so, uh, you know, they came to be thought of as heuristics as, as, um, energy saving devices. Uh, if I can just, you know, put this group in that box and this group in that box and so on, I don’t have to think about the complexity of all the individuals in those groups and so on.
And I think that certainly is part of it, but that’s not the only thing that stereotypes are doing. They’re not just simplifying our world. They’re also legitimizing our world. They’re also telling us why the people at the top belong at the top. They have characteristics that justify them. Being at the top and staying at the top and so on. And the groups at the bottom, uh, the same thing, the stereotypes we haven’t them typically are, legitimising explaining and justifying why they’re at the bottom, why they should be at the bottom level. They’ll probably be at the bottom for a long time. Uh, and, and so on. So it’s not just simplifying, it’s also legitimizing or rationalizing or justifying.
Turi: So can we look at this from an evolutionary perspective as well? Which is, I feel like what we’re doing here is in part, um, there is there’s obvious evolutionary benefit in, um, aligning ourselves with something that we can’t change because too much energy, too much resource would be spent. Worrying about an inevitability. Are there other sort of evolutionary reasons, if you’re thinking about evolution psychology of this system, justification behavior, how else would you understand it?
John: I, I find evolutionary psychology to be really vexing, um, because it’s really difficult for us to know. I think what life was really like for our evolutionary ancestors, um, you know, there’s no fossil record of human behavior. And so, you know, we can, we have, you know, excellent anthropologists trying to do the very best they can at figuring out, you know, what the social lives were like of, of, uh, people in our evolutionary past. But it’s still, there’s an element of conjecture. And so I, I think there is a true evolutionary psychology. I just don’t know if we’re in a position to figure out what it is.
So I feel like we’re always going to be there for, in the domain of speculation. Um, but I think that, yes, it is. It is easy to imagine that in some ways it would be too. For first of all, it, it certainly could be to the advantage of the group. If people go along rather than. Fight amongst themselves and going along means among other things, the people at the bottom of the pecking order, uh, putting up with, uh, their, their deprivation to some degree and not challenging and fighting over everything. And especially as, as, as I was saying that. If you’re likely to get killed in the process and then you can’t pass on your genes anyway. So, um, so there are, there are presumably fitness advantages, both for the individual and for the group. If in general, we’re not, we’re not fighting about every little injustice or every little inequality and that we’re actually tolerating a lot of it and we’re creating, um, something that can have some social stability.
But what that ends up doing is it does end up, um, kind of re refining the status and power differences, but within even a small society and, and S Polsky’s work has shown that has. Negative consequences for the physiology of the people at the bottom. There’s much more stress and lots of physiological indicators of stress and so on when you’re, when you’re low in the pecking order compared to when you’re higher in the pecking order. Um, so the individual is suffering even at a physiological level by buying into the, the, uh, hierarchy that exists even in these small societies, even in other, in other primates.
Turi: I mean, I, this actually links to the question I was going to ask, and you’ve already answered, which is, does system justification work so far as you know, there’s lots of evidence. I think there’s lots of evidence you’ll contradict me, um, that. Uh, conservative people, that religious people, that people who make themselves as to use your time, make peace with the established society around them are happier than people who are to your point, activists burning out, bashing their heads against trying to change stuff.
So does it work? Are we right to be system justifies in them in the main?
John : Well, if all we care about is, is happiness, then, then you could make that case. Sure. Um, I don’t. Maybe it’s the way I was raised, but I don’t think happiness is everything. It’s a good thing, but it’s not the only good thing. Justice is good too, and other things. Um, but,
Turi: and you’ve just mentioned the fact that, that people at the bottom of the society in system justifying structures suffer physically physiologically. Right?
John: So, so that’s part of, part of my answer is short-term versus long-term. Um, trade-offs so, so I think, um, feeling that the system is good, that the people, the authorities are beneficial and taking care of you and so on that can feel good in the short term. Um, but, but over long periods of time, if you’re, if you’re, um, disadvantaged that can have chronic consequences. And so, um, people have been doing some really interesting work along these lines with regard to, uh, sexual minorities. Um, so members of the LGBTQ community, who on one sense, uh, on uncertain short-term things, it’s an advantage to not see discrimination against members of your group. As being very strong as thinking that society is basically, you know, pretty reasonable and fair and so on treats people like you relatively well, but in the long run, it also can involve, um, things like internalized homophobia, um, not being at peace and okay with who you are, um, because you are psychologically kind of committed to mainstream society and the legitimacy of it, even though you’re not valued necessarily by that mainstream society. So I think we have to think in terms of advantages and disadvantages. Um, and so, so yes, there are more advantages to system justification if you’re a member of an advantage group versus a disadvantaged group you’re right. That, um, that in, I think every country where I’ve seen good data from, um, people who are politically conservative are report being happier. Um, they’re, they’re higher on subjective wellbeing. And I think. And we’ve been able to show and other people have been able to show that partly it’s because people with those ideologies do not experience, uh, inequality as being as unfair and unjust, uh, as people who are on the left of the spectrum do so there’s advantages in a purely kind of hedonic sense to seeing everything as, as completely fair and desirable and their disadvantages in terms of happiness, subjective wellbeing of seeing injustice everywhere.
Um, but on the other hand, and back to the, you know, the question of, of, uh, In a way, this is an evolutionary question too, or at least it’s a question about change and improvement. Um, you know, it’s better for society and for the group as a whole, maybe if we can move to, um, social systems that are more just, uh, rather than defending and sticking with the ones that are familiar simply because they’re unfamiliar. Um, if we can come up with better social systems than we would want to do that. And then, um, you know, there wouldn’t be as much of that kind of chronic physiological stress and other, other downsides for people.
Turi: Yeah. It almost feels as if social justice itself is an evolutionary category like that. One might ask why groups don’t evolve to develop greater social justice and the premise that it would make us more competitive.
John : Yeah. Right. I mean, there, there definitely is research that shows that, um, groups that behave in a more egalitarian pro-social way are more cooperative with each other and they’re, they, they operate in a more coordinated fashion as a, as a group. And in that sense, if you’re one group competing against another group, then that would be an advantage.
Um, but there’s other times when maybe when people are even within the same group or competing with each other for resources, uh, and that’s a different story, but, but, and it gets back to the, the, ultimately I think the ambiguity of. What we can, and can’t say about our evolutionary past. Uh, but there was, there, there have been arguments that, that suggest something like what you’re saying. Christopher Boehm has a book, uh, arguing that, um, we, in addition to, uh, to other things that, that we apparently have evolved a preference for, there is an inequality there, there, there is. He argues a kind of aversion to, to gross inequality that kind of. That that at some point, if the people at the top are, are too greedy and selfish, that there will be a rebellion from people at the bottom.
And that, that is a kind of countervailing force against sort of pure dominance and so on, which would, which would have its own, uh, advantages. And so, so that on some level it’s, it’s, it’s, um, it’s, it’s like a break on, on too much oppression and too much, uh, inequality, but of course these things in human beings are enormously complicated and, and we’re affected by so much more than just our genes, um, you know, including our, our whole cultural Neal you and so on. And so, um, so that’s, I think that’s part of the story, but obviously the whole focus on propaganda and ideology and so on is a whole nother level of analysis that has to be taken into account.
Turi: So I was, um, just sort of to, to begin to wrap here. Um, one of the things which struck me reading about, um, system justification and the tremendous rarity with which people push back against it, you have a line from Howard Zinn, which is, um, human history.
You have infinitely more advantage instances of forbearance to exploitation and submission to authority than it does have examples of any kind of revolt. I wondered whether w how important having an alternate system is a system which helps frame what revolt would look like. I’m thinking whether it’s the communist manifesto or recently Thomas Pickety or Antonio Gramsci that you mentioned earlier, people who’ve articulated a different way of seeing the world. How important is that verbalized alternative system? Used to justify an attack on the other. In other words, do we have to intellectualize our way into understanding oppression? Do we have to do it cognitively before we can do it felt wait?
John: Well, uh, I don’t know if we have to, but I think there would be advantages to doing so. Um, so sometimes I think social change can happen in a haphazard almost accidental way, although it’s rare, but I think that the most successful. You know, paradigm changes, you know, quantum improvements in human life have come with when there’s a plan for the day after the, the, you know, and so I think there is a real advantage to, to that. You know, many, many people have argued against that, that you can’t have a blueprint for, you know, for what comes after. And, and the problem with many utopian visions is that they’re very light on the details and they can be inspiring, but, but they don’t solve the epistemic extensional relational needs that we have. They don’t tell us they don’t satisfy. If they’re, if they’re too vague, uh, they don’t satisfy our needs for certainty, our needs for safety and security. I mean, anarchy could be really dangerous for most of us. Uh, for instance, if we don’t think through like how we’re gonna solve the problems and we pretend that the problems don’t exist, we’re not gonna.
You know, it’s not going to be a very successful kind of revolution. I think so. Um, so we need to take those things into account and how we’re going to build consensus and so on for it to solve the relational motives. I think, I think we do want to think this through, but the other point you make is, um, there’s a big difference between imagining of a counterfactual alternative to the status quo versus seeing a real alternative in a neighboring state or a neighboring country. And I do think that what I’m saying is very consistent with what, at a macro level, you know, you can describe as kind of the domino theory of social change, right? So in the 1980s, um, you know, you get new social movements happening. Yeah, in, in Hungary and the Czech Republic, because they can see what’s happening in Poland, uh, and so on.
And so the, and the fact that you know, that a movement, and you could say the same thing about the Arab spring a few years ago, you know, when you see a successful regime change in one country, that you can see some similarities between your country and that country, it changes the entire world. Psychologically. I think leaders know this. I think, I think foreign policy advisers know this, uh, it changes everyone’s psychological reality in one oppressed country to see that they’ve managed to, um, overthrow the oppressor in a neighboring country. That’s a huge psychological change among other things. And, uh, and so, yes, I think we can’t underestimate the extent to which which having real models of alternative social systems is hugely important.
Turi: So on the one hand, having an articulated justification for protest works and on the other, um, having explicit examples, um, that the, that alternatives are possible works. Are there anything else talking to your, um, activist listeners? But if the, as we were saying earlier, if you know, part of the job of a social social psychologist is to cure the ills that they’re identifying. What’s your, what are your, um, what are the tools in your
John: well that’s right. Uh, I mean, one of the, so, so in general you could say that, that the kinds of social, psychological processes that I’m describing contribute stability to the, to the social system, to the status quo, but that doesn’t mean that change is impossible. Um, and in fact, some of these dynamics, if they’re used skillfully can be used on behalf of, uh, efforts to promote social change. And so, um, uh, you know, one, one thing is that when people feel that an alternative is, is not only possible, but likely, um, at some point there’s a tipping point, uh, and other, you know, Um, political economists and others have described this in different ways.
Um, but I think at the psychological level of analysis, it’s consistent that, that, and it’s related to what we were just saying about the kind of the domino theory in Eastern Europe or in the Arab spring or something that, you know, at some point it’s, you, you switch over from a regime change being extremely unlikely to actually likely. And when it becomes likely, then you’ve got the force of the anticipated status quo on your side. And that’s also why I think it happens so fast. It’s, it’s a very fast tipping point. You go from thinking that an alternative is really not. Possible to, Oh, it’s possible. Oh, it’s likely it’s happening. Look at that. And then bam. And then, and then, and all these psychological processes I’m talking about are working in your favor and that’s why, and I think that’s why, you know, dictators and other people in colonial powers. And so they know these things too, and on some level, and that’s why they move so quickly when something is gathering momentum because the momentum can change very quickly.
Um, and maybe we could say social media makes that even happen even faster. Um, I think that’s a possibility for sure that, um, that, that it’s a way of changing the definition of, of. Of reality and what’s likely to take place. So that’s one way in which system distribution motivation could actually be on the service of social change once it gets to a certain point, but there’s other things too, which, which you can think of in terms of framing effects or, or communication effects or persuasion effects. Um, you know, one of the, and we found in our research is that that people who are hi system justifiers, especially high system justifiers in the economic domain, they’re, they’re big fans of capitalism and someone, we think the capital system is, is not only efficient, uh, and desirable, but, but fair and legitimate and justice and so on. Uh, people who have that view or are. Amongst the more, and at least in the U S um, resistant to acknowledging problems of anthropogenic climate change and doing something about it. And so what we found was, well, how do you get past that psychological defensiveness? You know, people don’t want to do something about climate change because they think it would acknowledging the problem and doing something about the problem would involve suggesting that the market-based system is problematic in certain ways where they at least needs to be reigned in or controlled or regulated or whatever it is.
Um, um, they’re defensive against that possibility. Uh, and so what do you do? Well, one of the things we tried to do to reach that group of people is to frame the need, to do something about climate change, as consistent with preserving the American way of life. Um, the American dream and so on. And so, you know, it’s a way of, of, of framing the need to protect the environment as a kind of conservative, uh, impulse. And in that we, you know, at least in small scale experiments, you know, we haven’t, we haven’t brought this out to scale. That would be great to do sometime. Um, if we had the resources to do that, but in, in small scale experiments, we and other people have had success and getting, uh, even high system justifiers, political conservatives, more open to wanting to do something about climate change when it’s framed as a way of protecting and preserving, uh, the American way of life, that’s familiar to them that that was like what their parents had, what their grandparents had, et cetera. Um, and so, and that’s in a way that’s taking some of the threat. Out of, um, the perception of change, because part of what people don’t want to do is change everything. Um, so, you know, to get some people on board, we have to point out that we need to make some changes. If you want things to continue as they were before in any way,
Turi: john, I can’t thank you enough for walking us through a really very complex idea. So extremely clearly, um, it’s been deeply instructional for me. Um, and, um, and I’m enormously grateful. Thank you for, well, thank
John: you. I’m very grateful to you. So I thank you. And I thank your listeners as well.