Should 'Occupy Wall Street' Focus on the Negative?


Would supporters of Occupy Wall Street continue protesting if they thought their ongoing efforts would not produce any change?

That's a complicated question, and to be fair, it's one that may be answered differently among the movement's supporters. But two social science researchers think there's more to understanding what inspires people to resist or promote change.

In psychology, the idea of system justification, or ignoring negative information to maintain the status quo, is well documented. But embracing negative information to promote change has received less attention until now.

Called "system change," the theory is put forth by psychology researchers at Ohio State University. It suggests that people accept negative information about themselves or society if they think they have the ability to change things for the better.

In other words, facing negative information (rather than ignoring it) may depend on whether a person feels effective, or believes he can actually control or change something.

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During three experiments, the research team asked 320 college-aged participants questions after exposing them to hypothetical situations at their university. They found that students more commonly sought out negative information in situations they felt realistic change was possible.

For example, one setup involved having participants read about a college student who was not satisfied with orientation on campus. In one condition, his complaints were embraced by the administration, while in the other, he failed at producing any change in the program.

Afterward, participants were given the chance to look over an external review of the university — one with positive information and the other with negative.

People who read about the student's success were more likely to review the negative external review, perhaps because learning about negative feedback could be easier to handle if there's an a track record for improvement.

In contrast, people who learned that the student had failed to create change in the hypothetical situation more often chose the external reviews with positive information.

Photo by _PaulS_/

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