System Justification: Why People Buy Into Social Inequality

Why do we support social systems that can work against our interests?

Theorists and laypeople often assume that voting behaviour is “rational”, whereby people direct their vote toward the candidate that helps (vs. hinders) their own self or group interests. Jost and colleagues (2003) suggested that this belief about human nature is virtually a truism in the scientific literature.

Yet research shows that people in disadvantaged groups (e.g., low income; racial minority) endorse the belief that unequal social systems are fair and necessary. In fact, there is some evidence that the disadvantaged endorse these beliefs even morethan those who are advantaged (e.g., rich; Whites) (see Jost et al., 2003). I suspect that this strikes you as counterintuitive. It certainly tells us something very interesting about human nature. People apparently feel a need to justify and support social systems, even unfair systems that harm themselves or their groups.

System Justification Theory (SJT; Jost et al., 2003; Jost & Hunyady, 2002; Kay et al., 2007) offers some valuable insights into why this might be the case. At its core, the theory proposes that “people tend to provide cognitive and ideological support for the existing social system” (Jost et al., 2003, p. 14). More specifically, “there is a general social psychological tendency to rationalize the status quo, that is, to see it as good, fair, legitimate, and desirable” (Kay et al., 2007, p. 305). Stereotypespertaining to both advantaged and disadvantaged groups play a role, “explaining” and “justifying” differences in the nature of groups or their differential social status (see “Stereotypes as Legitimizing Myths“). In this way, stereotypes can make group differences seem natural and normal (if not inevitable). This helps to maintain the status quo.

Why do we do this, even when we are members of disadvantaged or subordinate groups? For one, system justification is palliative in nature—it can reduce uncertainty, anxiety, and guilt. It can also instill a sense of control.

According to Jackman (2005), “control” is central to understanding intergroup relations. Dominant groups are very invested in social control, and for this reason endorse ideologies and beliefs that keep intergroup relations conflict-free if possible. Subordinates (or disadvantaged groups) are invested in minimizing further losses in a system that already disadvantages them. To Jackman, this locks the powerful and the less powerful into an interdependent relationship, where both sides rationalize the status quo, albeit for different reasons.

To properly appreciate this interplay it is important to keep in mind each social context from the perspective of the dominant and subordinate sides. Taking action against a powerful advantaged group can result in retaliation or an unstable situation, both of which can be undesirable to the weaker party. In cases of unstable systems, different subordinate groups (e.g., Blacks, Hispanics) might compete against each other to climb the social hierarchy. Taking action, therefore, can come with risks.

We also see this in the context of sex relations. During the women’s rights movements in the U.S., some of the most vocal and strident opposition against women gaining more power and rights came from women. Clearly, those in disadvantaged positions can fear changes. Of course, the dominant group (in this case, men) can foster and encourage this perspective. As noted by Glick and Fiske (1996), men can hold paternalistic attitudes toward women that reward women for staying in traditional roles (i.e., those with less power and influence). In a dynamic social system, women can in turn endorse ideologies that keep women from attaining the power enjoyed by men. Research demonstrates that, in countries characterized by greater sexism, women more strongly endorse beliefs that women should hold traditional and underpowered roles (presumably in exchange for paternalistic protection) (see Glick, Fiske et al., 2000).

Let’s turn to an anecdotal example to consider these ideas less formally. In my last post (“Race as a Social Construction“), I drew on Trevor Noah’s experiences growing up in South Africa. Notably, Noah was born to a Black mother and White father in apartheid South Africa, hence he was “born a crime” because interracial mating was illegal. He describes an incident where he was playing doctor with his Black cousins and accidentally pierced the eardrum of one cousin. His Black grandmother, he claims, subsequently beat both of his Black cousins (one with the damaged ear, and another who was a bystander). But she did not beat Noah. According to Noah, in explaining this differential treatment to his mother, his grandmother said: “Because I don’t know how to hit a white child…. I don’t want to kill a white person. I’m so afraid. I’m not going to touch him” (p.52).

Keep in mind that in apartheid South Africa Noah’s Black grandmother found herself in the most disadvantaged social group, lower than “Coloureds,” and certainly lower than Whites. Yet in this anecdote she is buying into the hierarchical social arrangements, giving preferential treatment to the non-Black child (and punishing the Black ones). Of note, she not only failed to beat the biracial child (the perpetrator) but she actively beat the Black children (one victim, one bystander). In doing so, she was effectively justifying and perpetuating a system of inequality whereby Black lives were socially and legally demarcated as less valuable and important (see also Hodson, MacInnis, & Costello, 2014).

My overall point is that we do not always favor our own groups, and we do not always act in the best interests of our self or our groups. Or at least not in the obvious interests of our selves or groups. Those in disadvantaged groups find themselves relatively powerless and in turn often invest in ideologies, beliefs, and practices that rationalize the status quo that most benefits the dominant group. They do so, in part, to avoid system change and uncertainty. Such system justification can occur to reduce cognitive dissonance (e.g., Jost et al., 2003), but can also reflect the desire to not risk worsening an already bad situation (Jackman, 2005). It is critical, therefore, to consider the power dynamics characterizing an intergroup context from all points of view to better understand the psychology of action or inaction.

Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996). The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 491-512. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.70.3.491


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