This continues from my previous posts starting here - please read for context.
Let's consider first attitude extremity, which is the extent to which an individual feels strongly in one direction or the other, about an issue (Giner-Sorolla, 2001; Krosnick, 1988). One of the key determinants of this is what social psychologists term vested interest, which is the extent to which the attitude is relevant to the concerns of the individual who holds it. This typically amounts to whether the object or issue might have important consequences for this person. The results of many studies indicate that the greater such vested interest is, the stronger the impact of the attitude on behaviour is (Crano, 1995; Visser, Krosnick, & Simmons, 2003). For example, when students at a large university were telephoned and asked if they would participate in the campaign against increasing the legal age for drinking alcohol from eighteen to twenty-one, their responses depended on whether they would be affected by the policy change or not (Sivacek & Crano, 1982). Students who would be affected by this new law - those younger than twenty-one - have a stronger stake in this issue than those who would not be affected by the law because they were already twenty-one or would reach this age before the law took effect. Thus it was predicted that those in the first group - whose interests were at stake - would be much more likely to join a rally against the proposed policy change than those in the second group. This is exactly what happened: While more than 47 percent of those with high vested interest agreed to take part in the campaign, only 12 percent of those in the low vested interest group did so.
Not only do people with a vested interest behave in a way that supports their cause, but they are also likely to elaborate on arguments that favour their position. By doing so, attitude-consistent thoughts come to mind when an issue is made known. For example, Haugtvedt and Wegener (1994) found that when participants were asked to consider a nuclear power plant being built in their own state (high personal relevance), they developed more counterarguments against the plan than when the power plant might be potentially built in a distant state (low personal relevance). Thus attitudes based on vested interest are more likely to be thought about carefully, be resistant to change, and be an accessible guide for behaviour. - Social Psychology (Twelfth Edition) by Robert A Baron, Nyla R Branscombe, & Donn Byrne
It all comes down to personal relevance.
Will we stop a nuclear power plant from being built near our homes? Sure. Will we try to stop the increasing of the legal age for alcohol consumption if we are under the new proposed age and like to drink? Sure. Will we try to stop vaccinations if our child had an adverse reaction? Sure. Will we try to stop a war if our child has been enlisted? Sure. Will we try to stop a railroad from being built close to our peaceful suburban home? Sure. Will we try to improve public education if we cannot afford to send our kids to private schools? Sure.
Will we try to stop poverty if we are living comfortably? Ummm. Will we try to stop animal abuse if we don't have to listen to their death screams? Ummm. Will we try to stop some other place far away from us from building a nuclear power plant? Ummm. Will we try to stop a war in which our loved ones are not involved in? Ummm. Will we try to stop pollution (and therefore change our culture of consumerism) if we don't have to see the ocean filled with garbage? Ummm.
The funny thing is, that some of us simply don't care even when we do come face-to-face with some of the horrific things that happen in this world. We certainly don't care enough to change anything. The state of the world is a testament to exactly how much we care. Our compassion goes only so far - a heated debate, hand gestures, driving a Prius, bringing our own grocery bags - whatever - but ask us to address the cause of the problems by changing our lives and the way that we live? That is simply too much to ask.
What's even more funny is that we will all inevitably be affected by all of the terrible things in the world - but we live in the illusion that everything is OK because we're not so much affected by it right now. We all know inside ourselves that it is in our best (vested) interests to change our ways - we just like our ways too damn much to save even ourselves.
Maybe it has more to do with immediate rewards and convenience - changing the world will take a hell of a lot of work, we'd just rather not do that and live in what comfort we have now. If we cannot see the future coming then we don't have to think about it.
Why is it so impossible to conceive of a world in which everyone is happy and satisfied, where we have a vested interest in each other, as well as in ourselves?