Overcoming resistance to social change

On Jan. 21, 2013, Dr. Danielle Gaucher (assistant professor of psychology, University of Winnipeg) explained the social psychology behind why people sometimes resist social change, particularly when it comes to First Nations water supply and sanitation issues. She also offered some practical solutions for increasing public support on these issues.

Although one might assume that the presence of a social injustice would lead people to care about the issue and fight for equality, this often isn’t the case.

“I’ve come to realize that awakening a sense of injustice in people is actually really difficult,” Gaucher said, noting that many social psychological theories provide insight into this phenomenon.

Research shows that in general, people tend to prefer hierarchical social arrangements and to favourably view members of their own groups.  Research also shows that people are often motivated to believe that the world is fair and just and over-arching social systems (i.e. the Canadian government) are legitimate. When the presence of an injustice threatens these cherished beliefs, people often respond by rationalizing, denying or reinterpreting the injustice to protect these beliefs.

“All of these [motivations] together … give us some ideas as to why people might be resistant to social change,” Gaucher said.

While these theories appear to paint a grim picture of human nature and the potential for social change, Gaucher says there is hope. She and her colleagues (Katherine Starzyk, Mount Royal University; Katelin Neufeld, University of Manitoba; and Greg Boese, Simon Fraser University) work backwards from these theories to develop practical ways to increase public support for First Nations water supply and sanitation issues. Gaucher presented evidence-based suggestions from three of these studies.

Frame possible solutions as feasible
Comments such as “it will cost too much money” and “the government can’t afford it” are common arguments against providing adequate water systems to all First Nations homes. Gaucher and her colleagues call these “feasibility arguments,” and argue they may arise when the aforementioned cherished beliefs are threatened.

“Maybe they truly think it’s too expensive… But it could also be a rationalization – people like to maintain the status quo,” Gaucher explained. “We ran a study to see whether giving people information about how affordable it would actually be … could increase peoples’ support.”

Gaucher and colleagues tested this idea by having participants (all White and Canadian-born) read a passage about First Nations water supply and sanitation issues. Within the passage, the researchers varied feasibility: All participants learned the estimated cost of providing clean running water to all First Nations homes, but only half of the participants also learned the amount of money the government spent on foreign aid the year before.

“So relative to how much money the government has, it seems possible,” Gaucher explained.

Because people are motivated to view their own government as good and fair, the researchers also wondered whether people would be more supportive of these sorts of infrastructure investments outside Canada.

In addition to feasibility, the researchers also varied the geographical setting of the issue: Half the participants read about the situation in Canada, while the other half read this is a problem facing Australian Aborigines. Gaucher and colleagues predicted that participants who thought this was a Canadian problem would feel threatened and less supportive than those who thought it was an Australian problem – which is exactly what the research found.

“So when it’s happening in their own backyard, [participants] aren’t that supportive, at least relative to when it’s [apparently] happening in Australia,” Gaucher explained.

And what happened when participants also received assurance the solution was feasible? “We get people moving up in support equal to if [the injustice occurs in] someone else’s system,” said Gaucher. “We’ve concluded – at least from this initial study – that providing feasibility assurance is a good thing.”

Evoke reminders of connection… but be careful!
In addition to the feasibility argument, Gaucher noted that another common argument against providing clean running water to all First Nations homes is “Why don’t they just move?”

“We know that relocating communities has disastrous effects psychologically – it undermines [First Nation peoples’] really deep spiritual connection to communities and lands” she said. “So we wondered if reminding non-Indigenous people of how they themselves are connected to their own communities … would increase support for government action.”

In this study, non-Indigenous Canadians were instructed to either describe how they are connected to their community, disconnected from their community, or to simply describe their community. Participants who were reminded of community connection were least likely to endorse relocation as a solution to First Nations water issues and most morally outraged. While the results were encouraging, Gaucher and colleagues wanted to learn more.

“What is it about people writing about how they’re connected to their community that’s having positive effects, and will all reminders of connection have beneficial effects?”

To answer these questions, the researchers ran another study in which participants either wrote about how they are connected to or disconnected from their community, or how they are connected to or disconnected from their country. Once again, participants who were reminded of their community connection showed more support for First Nations water issues than did participants reminded of their community disconnection. Writing about connection to Canada, however, had very different effects.

“If we have people write about how they’re connected to [Canada], we actually see lower levels of support than when they write about how they’re disconnected from their community – we get the exact opposite pattern,” said Gaucher. “We don’t want to evoke national imagery because it seems to be working in the opposite direction.”


Issues discussed this week:

It’s interesting that you view moral outrage as being positive. There’s often a social pressure to not be angry and to be forgiving, which seems to support the status quo as well. 

“Moral outrage, or the way it’s conceptualized here, is an inward feeling of ‘I have to do something – it’s not right’ and then that feeling predicts behaviour,” clarified Gaucher. She also noted that while the resulting behaviours aren’t necessarily aggressive, people sometimes do dampen their moral outrage as it can make other people uncomfortable and not want to support the issue.

Do your studies show why reminders of community connection are helpful in raising public support for First Nations water issues?

“No, not yet,” admitted Gaucher, “but we can theorize. It seems likely that … thinking about your community is evoking some kind of perspective taking… [Participants] are thinking about their own community, and that’s allowing them to think more about another’s community.”

Gaucher added that she and her colleagues are designing studies to better understand the cause and effects of community connection reminders.

You get opposite effects when you have people think about their community versus country. Does this mean people don’t think about Canada as a community?

Gaucher and her colleagues are currently considering a few potential causes, one being that thinking about country evokes formal, rigid boundaries, like “Canadian” and “American.”

“So when you think about your country, you’re getting these group processes that are being evoked, and when people get ‘groupy,’ they get competitive and they want to keep resources for themselves. But thinking about community boundaries, the boundaries are more flexible, so maybe [thinking about community] isn’t putting people in that ‘groupy’ mindset.”

Helen Fallding (manager of the Centre for Human Rights Research) suggested that the effects may have to do with the fact that the Canadian government is responsible for solving this issue, and not local communities. “So if you’re feeling good about the government that should be doing something, then you might think ‘Well, if there’s something that should have been done, they would have done it, so it’s okay.’”


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