Why do people defend unjust, inept, and corrupt systems?

…When we're threatened we defend ourselves—and our systems. Before 9/11, for instance, President George W. Bush was sinking in the polls. But as soon as the planes hit the World Trade Center, the president's approval ratings soared. So did support for Congress and the police. During Hurricane Katrina, America witnessed FEMA's spectacular failure to rescue the hurricane's victims. Yet many people blamed those victims for their fate rather than admitting the agency flunked and supporting ideas for fixing it. In times of crisis, say the authors, we want to believe the system works.

We also defend systems we rely on. In one experiment, students made to feel dependent on their university defended a school funding policy—but disapproved of the same policy if it came from the government, which they didn't perceive as affecting them closely. However, if they felt dependent on the government, they liked the policy originating from it, but not from the school.

When we feel we can't escape a system, we adapt. That includes feeling okay about things we might otherwise consider undesirable. The authors note one study in which participants were told that men's salaries in their country are 20% higher than women's. Rather than implicate an unfair system, those who felt they couldn't emigrate chalked up the wage gap to innate differences between the sexes. “You'd think that when people are stuck with a system, they'd want to change it more,” says Kay. But in fact, the more stuck they are, the more likely are they to explain away its shortcomings. Finally, a related phenomenon: The less control people feel over their own lives, the more they endorse systems and leaders that offer a sense of order.