System justification: motivated avoidance of vulnerability

System justification: the tendency to defend an organization or institution in the face of negative public opinion or distressing facts.

Have you ever noticed that when some person, institution, value, or position you love and cherish is being attacked, you come to its defense? Think back to your childhood. You may have mistreated a sibling but if someone else was a bully, you did not stand idly by. You may have criticisms of your church or country, but if an outsider attacks it, you feel a level of outrage. When you finally do come to see the criticisms of outsiders as valid, it is also common for us to leave our once cherished system and become an enemy. Consider how former catholics converting to evangelical christianity may often be more critical of their former church than those who never followed the tradition.

This is a common, understandable, but potentially unhelpful response. It seems that it is difficult to stay inside a system and yet be vocal about its value AND weaknesses. Either we stay and defend or leave and attack.

Some Evidence

Steven Shepherd and Aaron Kay say,

Being actively critical of something one is dependent on is thought to be psychologically uncomfortable, and therefore avoided in favor of increased perceptions of legitimacy, trust, and desirability. System justification theory posits that people are motivated to justify and legitimize the status quo and the system in which one lives. (Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 102(2), 2012, 264-280)

They go on to say that feeling dependent on a system leads to increased trust in that system which leads to active avoidance of evidence critical of that system. In other words, we like to be comfortable and loss of an important system increases our sense of vulnerability.

This “motivated avoidance” of information that might undermine our sense of safety shows up in domestic violence  research. In the most recent journal of  Psychological Trauma (5(3), 2013, 241-250), Ryan Matlow and Anne DePrince point out the differences between women who experience chronic violence at the hands of one partner versus domestic violence from the hands of multiple partners. Those who stay with a violent partner appear to use active avoidance strategies to ignore the violence but focus only on the good qualities. The assumption is that the attachment bond is more important to protect than to admit that their partner is abusive.

One more piece of anecdotal evidence: many spouses of adulterous partners either leave immediately or stay and defend against the evil other person who “attacked” the family. It is rare (but I have seen it) to stay with someone who you think is the main or sole cause of adultery.

We stay and defend instead of stay and reform. Or, we leave and attack. Staying and criticizing for reform is difficult and potentially dangerous.

Is there another way?

Imagine that one of the authors of the newly revised DSM 5 were to acknowledge that several of the significant changes were based merely on political or philosophical forces and not at all on empirical data. Imagine that a Republican or Democrat in Congress would agree that their party cared more about winning than finding true compromises. Imagine that a member of the PCA (my denomination) admitted that electing but not ordaining deaconesses for service in the church was hiding behind semantics.

What enables us to have the courage to stay and critique our favorite systems (assuming that there is something worth saving!)? I suspect the following must be present:

  • A love for truth above winning arguments (which will influence how we criticize others!)
  • A love for both those outside the system and those inside who need to change
  • Honest admission of previous or current support of problem systems
  • Courage in the face of criticism from others who dislike our truth-telling
  • Vision for reform (it is too easy to destroy, much harder to construct)
  • A willingness to give up what provides comfort, choosing future honor over insider status
  • Acceptance that one outcome may be your being kicked out of your beloved system

Of course, the power to avoid avoidance of vulnerability comes not from intellectual prowess but from no other place than the Holy Spirit. Why else would we trade current comfort now?

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Filed under Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, Relationships

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