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The Illusion of Linear Social Progress
Things change, but the degree to which they have changed can be difficult to evaluate. We propose that people possess the belief that society has made, and will make, progress in a linear fashion toward social justice. Three sets of studies demonstrate that people consistently estimated society has made positive, linear progress toward social issues, such as racial diversity and gender equality over time. These estimates were often not aligned with reality, where data indicate that much progress has been made in a flat or stochastic form. Our results further rule out alternative explanations based on generalized optimism: Linear beliefs were specific to social issues, and were not contingent on people’s preferences for social progress. The final study suggests that these linear-progress beliefs tend to inhibit the willingness to act on social issues, offering implications for policymakers encouraging change: Unless people understand societal change accurately, they may fail to act.