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The Psychological Appeal Of Sweeping Change

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This campaign season has seen promises of big, sweeping change from candidates on both sides of the aisle. Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson talks to psychology professor Arie Kruglanski about the appeal of clean slate promises, and how the same rules apply in other parts of our life.

Interview Highlights: Arie Kruglanski

Why are voters drawn to the idea of tearing something out and starting over, rather than tinkering with existing systems?

“The promise of great change that will introduce sweeping alterations into the way things were is very appealing, especially if the existing system is uncertain and fraught with negative possibilities. Many people are suffering from economic uncertainties, living paycheck to paycheck, their American Dream in shambles. Somebody who says, ‘yes, I know, you’re suffering and I’m going to correct all of that and make you happy,’ this is a very appealing prospect that people are attracted to.”

If you want a change in your own life, which is better? Wide, sweeping change or slight modifications?

“This is a very difficult question to answer. The important thing is the psychology of it. It’s not whether it’s in actuality good or bad, but psychologically its very appealing to have this total makeover drastic change that will sweep aside all that was bad and introduce something that is totally and purely good. The outcome is uncertain in any case, it’s the promises that are certain. The outcome, it’s up to God and fate. We can talk about the psychology of it, we cannot talk about the objective benefits or costs of it.”

Then why are we so drawn to sweeping change, when the benefits or drawbacks are not certain?

“The answer resides in a psychological concept called the need for cognitive closure. When uncertainty prevails, when bad things can happen, people have this need for cognitive closure that can be reduced only by immediate certainty and a certainty provider such as leaders, or anybody, a sales person, a professor that provides certainty is at great premium, at great advantage. This need for closure has a variety of very interesting consequences, for example, it implies that people are ceding control to somebody else, to an autocratic leader. They are leery of examining things on their own because it’s taking too long, too much effort, it’s too complicated where someone who gives you an answer is at an advantage. Under those conditions, autocratic leaders emerge.

There is a tendency to privilege one’s ‘in group’ over the ‘out group,’ to adopt ‘us versus them’ kind of terminology, and clear cut categories of good versus bad, right versus wrong, winners versus losers are very appealing, and once the leader is bestowed with this epistemic authority of telling you what is right and what is wrong, he can do very little that is wrong. People explain away everything and just accept the answer that is so appealing to them.”


Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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