A University of Waterloo study on the absoluteness of rules and restrictions might help explain the widespread growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a protest against social and economic inequality that began in Zuccotti Park in New York City’s financial district on Sept. 17 and has since spanned to all seven continents. The researchers found that when people feel like they are stuck with a fixed rule or permanent situation, their brains tend to make up rationalizations as to why the rule or situation is good. However, if people believe these things are impermanent, they are much more likely to react in a negative manner:

“For the experiment in the new study, participants read that lowering speed limits in cities would make people safer. Some read that government leaders had decided to reduce speed limits. Of those people, some were told that this legislation would definitely come into effect, and others read that it would probably happen, but that there was still a small chance government officials could vote it down. People who thought the speed limit was definitely being lowered supported the change more than control subjects, but people who thought there was still a chance it wouldn’t happen supported it less than these control subjects.”

Researcher Kristin Laurin said the results of the experiment confirm that if a restriction appears to be absolute, people will figure out a way to rationalize it and live with it.

“If it’s a restriction that I can’t really do anything about, then there’s really no point in hitting my head against the wall and trying to fight against it,” Laurin said. “I’m better off if I just give up. But if there’s a chance I can beat it, then it makes sense for my brain to make me want the restricted thing even more, to motivate me to fight.”

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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