Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


#OWS: What Took So Long?

• October 24, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Psychologists tie the reluctance to protest Wall Street bailouts to a deep-seated need to justify the status quo.

Among the many issues raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement, perhaps the most basic is: What took so long? Why did three years elapse between the time reckless financial traders nearly brought down the global economy and large numbers of people began collectively expressing outrage?

A new psychological study provides at least a partial answer. It finds people are strongly motivated to perceive the socioeconomic system they live under as fair and just, and links this pro-status-quo impulse with a reluctance to protest against the Wall Street bailout.

“It is extremely difficult for most of us to believe that our political or economic system is inherently corrupt,” said New York University psychologist John Jost, “and it is a belief that we are tempted to resist, even when there is evidence suggesting deep and fundamental problems.

“Because of our immense psychological capacity to justify and rationalize the status quo, human societies are very slow to fix system-level injustices and to enact substantive changes.”

In a paper titled “Why Men (and Women) Do and Don’t Rebel,” recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, a research team led by Jost examines the proclivity to protest through the lens of system justification theory. According to this school of thought, which Jost helped formulate in the 1990s, a fundamental need for certainty and security dampens our desire to rock the boat.

Jost’s evidence suggests this stay-the-course impulse – which played a measurable role in recent debates over climate change and health-care reform — is inherently stronger in certain people than others. But it also can be manipulated. He and his colleagues demonstrated its dual nature in an experiment featuring 108 NYU students, who were asked about their willingness to protest Wall Street bailouts.

The participants first responded to a series of statements, which were designed to reveal the degree to which they reflexively justify our economic system. They expressed their level of agreement or disagreement with such thoughts as “Laws of nature are responsible for differences in wealth in society,” and “There are no inherent differences between rich and poor; it is purely a matter of the circumstances into which you were born.”

Half of the students then wrote a short essay about “the experience of being uncertain,” while the other half wrote about watching television. Afterward, all read excerpts from a New York Times article about an Obama administration plan to “to liberate the nation’s banks from a toxic stew of bad home loans and mortgage-related securities.” The story described this proposal as “more generous to private investors than expected, but it also puts the taxpayers at greater risk.”

Finally, the students were asked to rate (on a scale of one to seven) how willing they were to engage in both disruptive and non-disruptive protests against this proposed plan. Disruptive actions included “occupying an NYU building as a sign of protest;” non-disruptive ones included writing an angry letter or email to government officials.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found participants who support the economic system were unwilling to protest, whether or not the concept of uncertainty had been implanted in their minds. But for the others, remembering a time they felt uncertain “significantly reduced the motivation to engage in non-disruptive protest.”

In other words, for people who are disposed to challenge the system, uncertainty dampens the urge to demand change. Since those inclined to support the status quo aren’t going to take to the streets, this drastically reduces the pool of potential protestors.

“If we can extrapolate from our experimental research (and I think that we can, at least tentatively), the economic uncertainty that most Americans have felt for the past few years — as we have waited to see whether various stimulus measures are going to work —probably undermined (rather than hastened) the motivation to protest against the Wall Street bailout,” Jost said in an interview.

So what shifted in recent weeks? Jost points to a couple of possible factors.

“In my view, people don’t need much to justify the status quo, but they do need something to hang onto,” he said. “It is possible that the extremity of the transfer of wealth and power from the people to the corporations that has occurred over the past 30 years —symbolized so powerfully by the taxpayers’ bailout of Wall Street banks [even while ordinary people endured] harsh austerity measures and property foreclosures — has left some of the U.S. population with little or nothing left to justify, nothing to defend.”

On top of that, there’s the “snowball effect” of media coverage of popular uprisings from around the world. “Protest activity in one part of the world can inspire protest activity in other parts of the world, and that is probably part of the story here as well, going back to the Arab Spring,” he said.

That said, Jost believes keeping the demonstrations going will be a challenge.

“I think that it is extremely difficult, for social and psychological reasons, for people to sustain themselves for long and painful protests against the status quo,” he said. “Protesters need to be able and willing to face a great deal of uncertainty and threat and to risk the disapproval of friends and family members.

“I think that most observers realize this on some tacit level, and that is why there is presently a great deal of sympathy for those who are involved in Occupy Wall Street and related protests.”

Jost sees a counterattack coming, as people made uncomfortable by this challenge to the system find reasons to disparage the protestors and their cause. After all, as he and his colleagues note in their paper, social change is “inherently unsettling.”

“So far, the protesters have been astute in expressing their patriotism and forestalling the backlash,” he said, “but it will not be easy.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.