Relatively few people step up to address injustice – and new research helps explain why.
In these trying times, it’s very easy to feel outraged – constantly. We’re furious about Donald Trump’s treatment of asylum seekers and his ridiculous McDonald’s dinner parties. We’re incensed by the news that a Google executive was paid $90 million (almost £70m) to leave the company after being accused of serious sexual misconduct. We’re maddened by politicians who have proven themselves incapable of handling Brexit, yet keep popping up on TV, smugly claiming to have the solution.
It’s more than legitimate to feel horrified by such stories. But according to new research, most people are unlikely to take action when one person leaves them feeling outraged.
Instead, we prefer to stay angry – while hoping that karma will eventually catch up with the offending figure.
The new study, by Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, explores how people respond to two different types of injustices: when bad things happen to good people, and when good things happen to bad people.
Researchers found that most people are reluctant to do much about it when ‘bad’ individuals are rewarded with good things, such as Trump winning the presidency.
That doesn’t mean that many people aren’t determined to take decisive action: the international Women’s Marches are proof of that.
But it does suggest that the majority would prefer to sit back and wait for a situation to play out, rather than agitating for immediate change.
Why? According to the study, we often feel as though the forces that led to an unfair situation are too powerful for us to fight against on our own.
We may also believe that challenging injustice will be too personally costly to be worth the fight – which could explain why relatively few people translate their genuinely-held political beliefs into activism.
However, when people do decide to do something about a ‘bad’ person, they generally commit to it. The researchers explain that these people tend to spend significant amounts of energy and resources on making sure the bad person’s unfair privileges are wiped away – for example, the campaigners in the US pushing for Trump to be impeached.
Cheeringly, researchers also found that people are usually quick to help when they feel like decent people are suffering through no fault of their own. In the case of a natural disaster, for example, many people will act, even if that just means donating money to a relief fund.
Even helping in a small way makes us feel like we’ve made the world a fairer place, says Rosalind Chow, associate professor of organisational behaviour and co-author on the study. “You checked the box of doing something good, and the world seems right again.”
It’s possible that this study has made you want to get up and go – in which case, you’re in luck. Last year, we rounded up 13 simple ways everyone can get involved in activism (the focus is on feminist activism, but most of the advice applies to all subjects).
Go on – convert that outrage into action.
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