The Psychology behind Status Quoism

The protest by George Pemba (1990)

On April 11th 2018, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced the complete abolishment of quotas for government jobs in light of student protests calling for reform in the reservation system. Bangladesh previously reserved 56 per cent of their government jobs for minorities, women, relatives of freedom fighters, and disabled people.

India too has a long and contentious history with social inequality. Preceding governments have attempted to redress this through affirmative action (henceforth AA) policies to benefit disadvantaged sub groups of tribal citizens, castes and religion minorities, disabled people, and women.

Even so, the dominant perception toward such attempts at redressal is that they are ineffective, unnecessary and worse — ‘reverse discrimination’ against the socio-economically privileged. Turns out, they’re not.

One reason social justice policies elicit much resistance is because they are seen as preferential treatment (and in some cases they are), which privilege social group membership over ‘merit’ and seniority. It is understandably difficult to reconcile the intended objective of effecting social equality when it is perceived as simultaneously mandating social categorization to undo the undesirable effects of social categorization. To make this reconciliation, it would help to understand two things:

  1. Equal ‘treatment’ was never the objective of Affirmative action Affirmative action (both preferential and non-preferential) does not violate any notion of fairness. Its daunting purpose is to temper centuries of systemic oppression and inequality by increasing representation of protected groups into mainstream social structures. To this end, AA in India is intentionally structured around the notion of compensatory positive discrimination. Context also matters. For example, women are not a minority in India, but they are grossly underrepresented in STEM and male dominated professions — only one of the reasons which cause women to leak out of the talent pipeline and not attain senior leadership positions. AA policies benefiting women’s recruitment are meant to bridge this gap in workplace representation, irrespective of their numerical status outside of this work context. Efforts to maintain proportional representation in workplaces are intended as a means to effect cultural changes that dismantle the old boys’ club and the sexism it invariably breeds (think Uber and TVF). Besides, diversity at all intersections is ultimately great for the bottom-line, providing a business rationale for AA.

  2. ‘Fairness’ and ‘justice’ are distinct concepts — not to be used interchangeably The criticism against AA is misplaced in its appeal to ‘fairness’ — which, as mentioned above, was never the intended objective of AA, anyway. An appeal to fairness in maintaining the status quo is problematic because everyone’s lived experience of the status quo is different, premised in their sociopolitical and economic backgrounds, some of which are rooted in gross historical subjugation and consequent inequality. If today, hypothetically, all of us were to operate under uniformly applicable circumstances, we would still be functioning under a multitude of social realities dependent on our histories and relative privilege today. In this respect, an appeal to fairness itself comes from a position of privilege.

The more reasonable rationale (of administering ‘justice’) is best served through the current AA policies. However such paternalistic reassurances are rather unnecessary since there is also tangible evidence demonstrating that affirmative action not only does not hamper productivity, but sometimes boosts it. Other than these misperceptions about the purpose of AA, what else explains the discontent towards toward social change policies in India?

Does believing in a ‘just’ world make you less likely to perceive injustice? One reason could be the way people determine the ‘deservingness’ of outcomes for different categories of people. In psychology, the Just World Hypothesis tries to explain one’s perception of other-related deservingness (as well as attributions of self-related deservingness — did we deserve what we got?).

Those who believe in a just world believe that everything happens for a reason, so they rationalize outcomes by making causal attributions to possibly unrelated factors that help them bridge the gap in meaning in their minds.

Most religious teachings already espouse deterministic ideas congruent with the just world hypothesis in concepts like karma, or that the moral valence of our deeds today influences future fortune. Colloquial sayings like “What goes around comes around,” and “Jaisi karni waisi bharni,” (“You get what you give”) show just how pervasive such beliefs are in informing our sense of moral reasoning and notion of deservingness of positive and negative outcomes.

Studying such deep-rooted beliefs is important because they shed light on inherent biases and fallacies we might have in making causal attributions about merit or deservingness, particularly regarding specific social groups, as well as our propensity to initiate, partake in, or sympathize with social change movements.

Just world beliefs are of two subtypes — general (GJWB) and personal (PJWB). In a 2017 study, Wenzel, Schindler & Reinhard demonstrated that people high in GJWB tend to justify and defend the status-quo and resist social-change, whereas PJWB is positively associated with heightened sensitivity to injustice and an increased tendency to deviate from the status quo and strive for justice. Believing in a just world even acts as a precursor to system justification — the tendency to defend the status quo.

System Justification & Internalized Oppression While it intuitively makes sense that people who benefit from the status-quo are motivated to defend it and resist social-change, those who are disadvantaged by the status quo also tend to lend support to the system.

For instance, Correia, Alves, Morais, & Ramos showed that women who identify highly with the female gender are more likely to legitimize the occurrence of wife-abuse (physical and sexual) by husbands, as compared with women who identified less with their gender. In popular discourse, we know such self-hate as ‘internalised misogyny’.

Closer home, a minor but notable segment of the Men’s Rights Movement (MRA) movement were women who trivialized gendered violence against wives by their in-laws, and instead insisted that men were the true victims of rape and India’s anti-dowry laws. One female MRA was quoted saying, “In today’s world, no boy asks for dowry. The girls want a lavish marriage and they want to show off by giving gifts to the husband’s family.”

Such nuanced reasoning aside, what motivates members of the disadvantaged group of a decidedly patriarchal social structure to deny rape statistics and ingratiate themselves to the oppressor?

According to SJT, system justifying motives are an attempt to undermine the psychological threat of being part of a flawed system (one that disadvantages one’s own social group in particular), fueling people’s desire to accept and support the status quo and peg the disadvantages unempirically to say — deservingness (“She had it coming.”).

People justify the current system when they perceive a heightened dependence on it. The possibility of acknowledging that the system is not operating in their interests provides an anxiety-driven motive to justify the status quo.

This is congruent with findings which demonstrate that increased system justifying motives are associated with an unwillingness to protest in men and women, even those belonging to the group disadvantaged by the status quo. The need to mitigate personal ambiguity or uncertainty in the face of change contributes to system justifying motives because the certainty of homeostasis is preferable to unsettling change.

This dependence on the system is mediated by perceived system-threat and system-inescapability. System threat is illustrated when members outside of one’s social group (called the out-group) criticize the system that the in-group member belongs to. In-group members would be motivated to deflect this criticism and prevent the out-group from delegitimizing the status quo, thus safeguarding their system-supporting ideologies. System inescapability is when in-group members have few exit options from the system, or sparse support-network outside it, their tendency to rationalize the status quo correspondingly increases.

In the context of a patriarchal society, it can then be said that more patriarchal the society, higher would be the perceived system-threat and system-inescapability, and greater the tendency for women to victim-blame other female victims of this patriarchal system.

On April 2nd, dalits across the nation protested against the Supreme Court’s ruling to dilute the SC/ST Act, which rolled back constitutional protections for dalits against atrocities committed against them. On March 6th, farmers led a 200 km morcha over 6 days to press the government into meeting their long deferred promises of forest land, better rates for crops, loan waivers etc. Since February, students at TISS have been protesting the increment in hostel and mess fees, and the termination of fee waivers for SC/ST/OBC students. And now the nation — men and women — are up in arms protesting against government complacency in addressing the Unnao, Kathua, and Surat child-rape cases.

People’s movements provide seemingly contrary evidence to findings of system justification research, until we realize political ideology demonstrably mediates our tendency to either support the status quo, or undermine it and partake in these movements.

Admittedly, more research is needed to contextualize these findings to Indian specificities (such as socioeconomic and political backgrounds, and the consideration that Indian politics is difficult to pigeonhole into a right-left binary); if these studies do illuminate people’s motivated tendencies to maintain the status quo, not just by those privileged by it, but those who are oppressed, it speaks volumes for the need to mobilize the most complacent and proudly apolitical demographic — the urban voter.

Central to the idea of mobilizing individuals to partake in what eventually becomes a people’s movement— is discomfort. Denial of our social realities, calls for censorship — or even the pressure to self-censor — and ignorance of the efforts needed to mend or improve upon them stand in the way of progress, whatever definition of progress one embraces.

Don’t justify the status quo.

Critique it.

Opt in.

Participate. And change will come.


Saloni Diwakar (she/her) is academic researcher and Psychology faculty at Nolmë Labs. She enjoys reading about popular science, watching cartoons, and promotes rational thought in daily life. She can be followed on Twitter and Instagram (notsalonee).

A version of this article appeared in The Qrius (formerly the Indian Economist) on May 8th 2018.

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