In 2012, I completed a thesis titled Shifting the public psyche: Is WikiLeaks reducing system justification? I wanted to measure the psychological impact of unauthorised disclosures in the information age. I was also investigating, for the first time, whether the phenomenon of system justification is a temporal feature of human psychology – specifically, whether it is reversible. This would pertain to the psychological factors necessary for mass social change or revolution.
The findings were complex but very interesting – the irrationality shown in response to facts that appear as ‘system threats’ was measurable.
I presented my findings at OHM2013, an international festival in The Netherlands.
You can download the PDF here: Shifting the public psyche: is WikiLeaks reducing system justification?
The abstract is below.
System justification is a psychological tendency to rationalise the socio-political status quo, in order to sustain a safe, consistent, and socially shared view of the social and political systems one is subjected to. Informed by theories of cognitive dissonance, system justification theory posits that information which disconfirms perceptions of the system as legitimate and desirable poses a ‘system threat’, induces dissonance, and motivates justification of the system. In this paper, the potential of disconfirming information to reduce system justification levels is explored for the first time. The author hypothesized that WikiLeaks challenges the ability of Americans to rationalise the status quo by publishing delegitimising information about the U.S. political system, which originates from within the political system. The unique combination of anarchic methodology and authoritative information was hypothesized to instigate an endogenous reduction of system justification for some, whilst predictably increasing system justification in others. Two studies measured system justification levels after exposure to a real ‘WikiLeak’, attributed either to government and military archives (with the leaked nature covert), or to WikiLeaks itself. System justification reduction was observed in response to leaked material, but only when contextualised by a non-threatening government source. WikiLeaks sourcing in fact increased system justification in response to the leaked material. The findings suggest that system justification can be reduced by WikiLeaks content, but that the salience of a system threat in the content’s sourcing and leaked nature leads to irrational information processing, and motivates a system justification response. Implications for the prospects of system justification reduction and the psychological conditions for social change are discussed.