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A Theory of System Justification
 0674244656, 9780674244658

Table of contents :
1. A New “Discourse of Voluntary Servitude”
2. What Is Social Justice?
3. Intellectual Precursors, Major Postulates, and Practical Relevance of System Justification Theory
4. Stereotyping and the Production of False Consciousness
5. The Psychologyof System Justification: Eighteen Hypotheses about Rationalization of the Status Quo, Internalization of Inferiority, and Potential Conflicts among Self, Group, and System Justification Motives
6. Does a Sense of Powerlessness Foster the Legitimation of Authority and Hierarchy?
7. “Poor but Happy”: The System-Justifying Potential of Complementary Stereotypes
8. The Subjugation and Self-Subjugation of Girls and Women
9. Belief in a Just God (and a Just Society): Religion as a Form of System Justification
10. Overcoming Resistance to Change and Motivated Skepticism about Climate Change
11. Why Men and Women Do and Don’tRebel
12. System Justification Theory Twenty-Five Years Later: Criticisms, Rebuttals, and Future Directions
Appendix A
Appendix B

Citation preview


A Theory of System Justification

J O H N T. J O S T

Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England 2 02 0

 Copyright © 2020 by John T. Jost All rights reserved Printed in the United States of Amer­i­ca First printing Cover design: Annamarie McMahon Why 9780674247178 (EPUB) 9780674247185 (MOBI) 9780674247192 (PDF) The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows: Names: Jost, John T., author. Title: A theory of system justification / John T. Jost. Description: Cambridge, Mas­sa­chu­setts : Harvard University Press, 2020. | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2019054826 | ISBN 9780674244658 (hardback) Subjects: LCSH: Defense mechanisms (Psy­chol­ogy) | Oppression (Psy­chol­ogy) | Security (Psy­chol­ogy) | ­People with social disabilities—­Attitudes. | Poor—­Attitudes. | Power (Social sciences) Classification: LCC BF175.5.D44 J67 2020 | DDC 303.3/72—­dc23 LC rec­ord available at https://­lccn​.­loc​.­gov​/­2019054826

 This book is for Orsi, Eva, and Simone Szeretlek nagyon nagyon, zsebihalak



1. ​A New “Discourse of Voluntary Servitude”



2. ​W hat Is Social Justice?


3. Intellectual Precursors, Major Postulates, and Practical Relevance of System Justification Theory


4. Stereotyping and the Production of False Consciousness


5. The Psy­chol­ogy of System Justification: Eigh­teen Hypotheses about Rationalization of the Status Quo, Internalization of Inferiority, and Potential Conflicts among Self, Group, and System Justification Motives


6. Does a Sense of Powerlessness Foster the Legitimation of Authority and Hierarchy?


7. “Poor but Happy”: The System-­Justifying Potential of Complementary Ste­reo­types


8. ​The Subjugation and Self-­Subjugation of Girls and ­Women


9. Belief in a Just God (and a Just Society): Religion as a Form of System Justification


10. O vercoming Re­sis­tance to Change and Motivated Skepticism about Climate Change


viii   Contents

11. ​W hy Men and ­Women Do and ­Don’t Rebel


12. ​System Justification Theory Twenty-­Five Years ­Later: Criticisms, Rebuttals, and ­Future Directions


Appendix A


Appendix B











When I was a boy my very favorite t­ hing was to play cowboys and Indians. I tore through leafy neighborhoods in Cincinnati, Ohio, wearing a cowboy hat, vest, badge, and holster, firing cap guns at friends who had transformed themselves into the ­enemy. I loved the TV show Gunsmoke. I ­didn’t understand what whiskey was, but I assumed it was a magic elixir; in that re­spect, at least, I was right. But my cowboy fantasy came to a crashing halt when my liberal, hippie-­ adjacent parents summoned me to the dining room for a serious chat. They sat me down at the t­ able and spoke to me like an adult—or so it seemed. It was the only time I remember having a conversation like that with them. They said: “We know that you love cowboys, but you need to understand that they w ­ ere not ­really the good guys. . . .” My parents did not use the word genocide, but I absorbed the moral lesson nonetheless and left the conversation feeling proud that they trusted me with this sensitive historical information and, at the same time, disappointed to be retiring my spurs. The full significance of my parents’ words sank in many years ­later, when I was in gradu­ate school and discovered ­these remarks of James Baldwin (1965): In the case of the American Negro, from the moment you are born e­ very stick and stone, ­every face, is white. Since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose you are, too. It comes as a g­ reat shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with every­body ­else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a ­great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you. ix

x   Preface

The myriad ways in which we, without even realizing it, take the side of dominant groups and individuals and, in so ­doing, devalue the perspectives of ­those who are at their mercy has been my major topic of study, and it is the topic of this book. I have, in a sense, spent the last twenty-­five years trying to understand and explicate the shocking phenomena that Baldwin so deftly put his fin­ger on, to probe his penetrating observation that “what the system does to the subjugated”—­and, indeed, I would add, to the subjugator as well—­“ is to destroy his sense of real­ity”—or at least to distort it dramatically. What I hope to do with this book is to give interested readers with a variety of backgrounds and interests—­including, if all goes well, philosophy, social theory, sociology, politics, po­liti­cal theory, anthropology, history, economics, orga­nizational be­hav­ior, and psy­chol­ogy (my home discipline)—an accessible but in-­depth overview of research based on a theoretical perspective that I have been developing since I was a Ph.D. student at Yale University in the early 1990s. Much of the research I summarize could be considered pure experimental social psy­chol­ogy, but I also draw on studies of personality (individual differences) and public opinion as well as the fruits of qualitative research, including interviews with members of disadvantaged groups. The ­whole enterprise started with a set of questions that came to mind as I attended lectures and seminars, not only in social and personality psy­ chol­ogy, but also in clinical, cognitive, and developmental psy­chol­ogy, as well as other departments, including philosophy, sociology, and po­liti­cal science. I began to ask myself: Why do some ­women feel they are entitled to lower salaries than men, why do p ­ eople stay in harmful relationships, and why do some African American ­children come to believe that White dolls are more attractive and desirable than Black dolls? Why do ­people blame victims of injustice and why do victims of injustice sometimes blame themselves? Why is it so difficult to get p ­ eople to stand up for themselves and each other, and why do we find personal and social change to be so challenging, even painful? ­There are also thorny questions about po­liti­cal economy that just keep coming up: Why do so many p ­ eople, including poor ­people, oppose the re­ distribution of wealth? Why do we tolerate po­liti­cal and economic corruption? Where is the outrage, even ­after a series of worldwide financial crises, meltdowns, and bank bailouts—­and deeply disturbing po­liti­cal developments in the United States and Eu­rope that only a few years ago seemed practi-

Preface   xi

cally unimaginable? Why is it seemingly impossible, for social and po­liti­cal reasons, to make genuine pro­gress on the prob­lem of anthropogenic climate change, even as climate-­related catastrophes affect more and more lives? Is ­there a common denominator h ­ ere, something that helps to explain all of ­these troubling social and psychological manifestations of in­equality, injustice, and exploitation? That is what I wanted to know—­and want to know still. Years ­later, I came across a passage written by one of my erstwhile teachers at Yale, the gentle spark plug in a tweed jacket, Leonard W. Doob. When I was in my twenties—­and he in his eighties—we met weekly in his basement office in Berkeley College to read and discuss the history of social psy­chol­ogy and politics of the twentieth ­century. He astonished me with personal anecdotes about the found­ers of our field, including the ­brothers Floyd and Gordon Allport, Hadley Cantril, Muzafer Sherif, and Max Wertheimer. As a postdoc in Germany in the 1930s, Doob had heard rumblings about a volatile po­liti­cal propagandist making the rounds of local beer halls; the speaker, of course, was Adolf Hitler. Years l­ater, Professor Doob, a committed liberal socialist in the tradition of Norman Thomas, was frustrated to discover that he had been censured by the National Science Foundation in the United States for being “prematurely anti-­fascist.” ­Little did I know then how richly Leonard Doob—­like James Baldwin—­had anticipated many of the ideas that would form the basis of my own research. Perhaps he passed them on to me in ways that eluded conscious awareness; it would not surprise me if he did. A few years before I was born, in a book called Patriotism and Nationalism, Doob wrote, “So it is and that’s that.” A touch of the fait accompli is usually detectable when the pre­sent arrangement is justified simply ­because it is the one now in existence. “We are ­here, we are not ­going to move, nobody can force us to do so, we have a right to what we have.” Prob­ably a conviction stemming from naturalistic ethics explic­itly or implicitly sustains such thinking: what­ever is, is right, for other­w ise the pre­sent would not have come to pass the way it has. The plea of status quo, like that of duration, moreover is based upon ele­ ments in the past; if a custom has functioned well or sufficiently well, why risk the unknown components a change in the ­f uture is likely to add? The princi­ple of arguing from pre­ce­dent, stare decisis, which plays such an impor­tant role in the l­ egal thinking of some countries in the West, reflects

xii   Preface in part confidence in the past as a guide to the pre­sent and ­f uture. ­People, in a glib but valid summary, become accustomed to the customary. Over generations, moreover, what has existed for a long time is hallowed by tradition and hence, it is believed, should not be disturbed. The suspicion must be expressed, nevertheless, that justification via the status quo can often be far from satisfying. Some other chord must be sounded before ­people feel righ­teous. Possession is said to be nine-­tenths of the law—­presumably the remaining tenth produced disquietude which can be dispelled only by filing an additional claim. (Doob, 1964, p. 190)

If I am correct that most ­people are motivated to defend, bolster, and justify aspects of the societal status quo, then it should be relatively easy for them to find one or more means of rationalizing that remaining tenth. Another figure who was extraordinarily influential on me was William J. McGuire, my dissertation advisor. Bill was a brilliant, hilarious, and iconoclastic social psychologist who clearly had mixed feelings about my early forays into po­liti­cal psy­chol­ogy—­especially around the theme of false consciousness—­but he mentored me caringly, effectively, and terrifyingly nonetheless. At some point ­a fter I left his tutelage I discovered this line from his 1999 collection Constructing Social Psy­chol­ogy: Creative and Critical Pro­cesses in which he linked one of the fundamental insights of cognitive dissonance theory—­that ­people generate “nonobvious postfactum cognitive justifications for [their] be­hav­ior and for t­ hings as they are” (McGuire, 1999, p. 107, emphasis added)—to the ­earlier psychodynamic lit­er­a­t ure on identification with the aggressor in the vein of Anna Freud and Bruno Bettelheim. Maybe we w ­ ere on the same page a­ fter all, even if it was only one page. It was another extraordinary Yale mentor, Mahzarin R. Banaji, now the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University, who encouraged me to develop system justification theory. As my own students know well, the theory grew out of a one-­page critical reaction paper and then expanded to a term paper that I submitted in the spring of 1991 for her seminar on stereotyping and prejudice. Mahzarin liked the paper, so she invited me to give what turned out to be two lab group pre­sen­ta­tions on the theory, such as it was; t­ hese occurred at Naples Pizza (ironically, now called Wall Street Pizza) in New Haven, Connecticut. Fellow students Curtis D. Hardin, Alexander J. Rothman, and Irene V. Blair w ­ ere spirited discussants, and they inspired me to persist.

Preface   xiii

As you w ­ ill see, the questions that struck me as impor­tant back in gradu­ate school are still with me t­ oday, and t­ hese are the questions that my students, collaborators, and I have attempted to address in the vari­ous research programs described in this book. I cannot promise, dear reader, that you ­w ill find entirely satisfying answers to ­these questions, but I do hope that you ­w ill appreciate my good faith efforts to address them both theoretically and empirically, and that in some way they w ­ ill advance your own thinking on ­these ­matters. As the poet Rilke (1984) said, you “have to try to love the questions themselves” (p. 34), and I most as­suredly do. Maybe you w ­ ill come up with better resolutions than I have thus far. I hope you do. In fact, that is my main reason for writing this book: so that ­others, in coming years and de­cades, can make further pro­gress on the thorny remaining questions about system justification motivation, including the questions of how to harness it constructively and how to prevent it from causing further harm to our species and o­ thers.


 The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very

likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel

question: “if ­you’re so smart, why ­ain’t you rich?” ­There ­will also be an American flag no larger

than a child’s hand—­glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

—­kurt vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-­Five


A New “Discourse of Voluntary Servitude”


N THE M ­ I D D L E O F the sixteenth c ­ entury, a twenty-­t wo-­year-­old law student in France by the name of Etienne de la Boétie wrote an essay entitled “Discourse of Voluntary Servitude” that was to be circulated among academics for centuries to come. In this work, de la Boétie (2008) set out to understand

how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer ­under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him. . . . ​Surely a striking situation! Yet it is so common that one must grieve the more and won­der the less at the spectacle of a million men serving in wretchedness, their necks ­under the yoke, not constrained by a greater multitude than they, but simply, it would seem, delighted and charmed by the name of one man alone whose power they need not fear. (pp. 40–41)

Why do ­people appear to tolerate, even embrace, their own subjugation when they are ­under no forcible compulsion to do so? De la Boétie outlined three major hypotheses to explain the politics of obedience. According to the sociologist Steven Lukes (2011), ­these amount to (a) “cultural inertia” or the “force of custom and habit”; (b) “manufactured consent,” that is, ideology and propaganda; and (c) “patronage,” such that “tyrants surround themselves with dependents, who in turn have their own dependents” (p. 20). The anthropological rec­ord suggests that religious rituals, including ­human sacrifices, also “played a power­f ul role in the construction and maintenance of stratified socie­ties” in early civilization by “combining displays of ultimate authority—­the 1

2  A Theory of System Justification

taking of a life—­w ith super­natural justifications that sanction authority as divinely ordained” (Watts et al., 2016, pp. 228–230). In the 450  years since de la Boétie’s “Discourse,” a cadre of celebrated intellectuals—­including David Hume, Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau, Wilhelm Reich, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and Vaclav Havel—­have revisited the fundamental questions of why p ­ eople submit willingly, even enthusiastically, to humiliations inflicted by the power­f ul, and the conclusions they reached echoed ­those of de la Boétie: habit, ideology, and dependence. Several commentators have noted that de la Boétie’s description of voluntary servitude (sometimes referred to as “self-­domination”) has much in common with Marxian concepts of ideological hegemony and false consciousness (Rosen, 1996). To take just one example, the famous Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1971) marveled at the “ ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the ­great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group” and proposed that “this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys ­because of its position and function in the world of production” (p. 12). Po­liti­cal economists t­oday marvel at the so-­called paradox of in­equality: despite sharp increases in economic disparities between the rich and poor over the past several de­cades, concerns about in­equality appear to be declining, and citizens have become even more convinced that income differences are merited, caused by hard work, talent, and ambition (Kelly & Enns, 2010; Luttig, 2013; McCall, 2013). A plausible explanation of the paradox of in­equality is that ­people living in cap­i­tal­ist socie­ties tolerate, and even justify, in­equality as a way of coping with harsh economic realities that they cannot change (Trump, 2018). Even unambiguously oppressive social systems—­such as slavery, caste systems, segregation, apartheid, and patriarchy—­withstood shockingly long periods of stability and even perceived legitimacy before concerted efforts to overthrow them ­were fi­nally undertaken. Although p ­ eople sometimes do turn against unjust authority (Gurr, 1970), the per­sis­tence of in­equality and exploitation leads social historians such as Howard Zinn (2002) to conclude that “rebellion is only an occasional reaction to suffering in h ­ uman history; we have infinitely more instances of forbearance to exploitation, and submission to authority, than we have examples of revolt” (p. 16). The question is why p ­ eople are as accepting as they are of social injustice. Even if we allow that the acquiescence of some can be bought with patronage and cynical concessions to material self-­interest,

A New “Discourse of Voluntary Servitude”   3

­ uman beings are, among many other t­ hings, ideological animals. Ideology h plays a meaningful role in the affect, cognition, motivation, and be­hav­ior of a g­ reat many individuals and groups. For a variety of reasons, then, ­people may internalize the norms of the social order on which they depend (Fehr & Gintis, 2007), even when they are disadvantaged by the social order, and in so d ­ oing develop “­mental re­sis­tance to the fundamental flaws of their social order” (Kuran, 1991, p. 32).

The Need for a Theory of System Justification It is hardly surprising that de la Boétie’s student essay, penned during the Re­nais­sance, falls short of providing a complete or adequate theory of how and why ­human beings submit to tyrannical regimes. Nevertheless, some of his observations about h ­ uman nature anticipate the framework of system justification theory, a social psychological perspective that seeks to elucidate the individual-­level and group-­level mechanisms contributing to ­people’s inability to see the true nature of the socioeconomic system, as in the Marxian concept of false consciousness. In addition to p ­ eople’s blindness to their own oppression, a social system—­any social system—­can provide psychological benefits. Gramsci emphasized the popu­lar tendency to experience “the existing social order” as a “stable, harmoniously coordinated system” (Fiori, 1970, pp. 106–107). According to system justification theory, p ­ eople are motivated—­often at a nonconscious level of awareness—to defend, bolster, and justify the social, economic, and po­liti­cal institutions and arrangements on which they depend. As the French historical archaeologist Paul Veyne (1992) observed, “the tendency to justify what exists constitutes one of the ­factors which combine to shape opinions” (p. 379)—­including opinions about the legitimacy of hierarchy, in­equality, and exploitation. This psychological tendency to justify what exists is, in a nutshell, the subject of this book. Experimental studies, which ­will be revealed in some detail in subsequent chapters, demonstrate that when w ­ omen, for instance, are made to feel especially dependent on the social system, they come to view gender disparities in politics and business as natu­ral, desirable, and just. In other words, ­people are very good at making a virtue out of necessity, coming to accept (and even appreciate) the ­things they cannot change. For example, interviews with domestic workers in post-­apartheid South African homes reveal that ­these ­women, most of whom ­were Black—­far from seeing themselves as underpaid or exploited—­saw themselves as lucky to be part of a symbiotic

4  A Theory of System Justification

relationship with their wealthy White employers. Similarly, rather than blaming their prob­lems on the social system, low-­income Latinx and African-­ American ­mothers in the United States reported that poverty is caused by drug and alcohol abuse and other personal shortcomings of poor ­people. And despite significant disparities in income, education, employment, and health, low-­status minorities in New Zealand—­Māori, Asians, and Pacific Islanders—­legitimize hierarchical ethnic group relations as much as, if not more than, members of the Eu­ro­pean majority. ­Because it would be too painful to acknowledge that one is living in a state of injustice or exploitation, t­ hose who are disadvantaged may be motivated to distort and defend against certain realities by concluding that t­ hings are not r­ eally as bad as they seem. Psychological research suggests that this pro­ cess of rationalization yields palliative emotional benefits for the individual insofar as it decreases negative affect and increases positive affect as well as satisfaction with the status quo, but it also undermines support for collective action aimed at changing the system. That is, individuals—­including members of disadvantaged groups—­who defend and bolster the legitimacy of the social system are less willing to protest on behalf of the disadvantaged than are ­those who question the system’s legitimacy. Over time, ­there may be a kind of “habituation to subjection” (de la Boétie, 2008, p. 54). The disadvantaged may come to tolerate injustice, lower their aspirations, and adapt themselves to unfortunate circumstances. This is especially likely when they view their situation as inescapable or inevitable. Even ­under truly harrowing circumstances—­such as slavery or Nazi concentration camps—­survivors are known to have made “an adjustment of some sort to the system” so that their “obedience became unquestioning . . . ​they did not revolt . . . ​they could not ‘hate’ their masters” (Elkins, 1967, p. 410). On the contrary, many are said to have “identified with the aggressor,” as Bruno Bettelheim (1943), following Anna Freud, concluded. No doubt ­there is an instrumentally rational basis to many acts of obedience; it is often better to comply with power­ful o­ thers than to risk injury or death. At the same time, it is impor­tant from a social psychological perspective to distinguish excessive and proper meekness, as the Norwegian social theorist Jon Elster (1982) put it, or obedience that is anticipatory versus compulsory, in the language of the American historian Timothy Snyder (2017). Rather than criticizing the social system and its authorities—to the extent that criticism is allowable—­many ­people may turn inward and blame themselves and other victims of misfortune. They may, for example, ste­reo­

A New “Discourse of Voluntary Servitude”   5

type the poor and exploited as lazy, unintelligent, or other­w ise deserving of their plight while lionizing t­hose who are rich and power­ful. Members of disadvantaged groups may internalize a sense of inferiority, coming to see themselves more negatively than they see members of more advantaged groups. As de la Boétie pointed out, rulers over the ages have cultivated ­these beliefs, using “­little tricks” to inspire “reverence and admiration” and to sow “doubt in the minds of the rabble as to w ­ hether they w ­ ere not in some way more than man” (2008, p. 66). The Roman emperor Caligula, for example, dressed like a deity, ordered statues to be made with his own head placed on the torsos of the gods, and built a ­temple in which his subjects could worship him. And in 2018, US president Donald Trump sought to inspire admiration and establish authority by taking to the online platform of Twitter to insist that he “would qualify as not smart, but genius” and to boast of his “much bigger & more power­f ul” nuclear arsenal, in comparison with that of a foreign adversary. It is not too surprising, perhaps, that the power­ful would work diligently to maintain their hegemonic status, but how are we to understand what de la Boétie regarded as the “con­ve­nient gullibility” of the populace (2008, p. 66)?

System Justification Theory in a Nutshell System justification theory, which seeks to answer de la Boétie’s question in a new, empirically tractable way, is built on a number of fundamental findings from the discipline of psy­chol­ogy. Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler both won Nobel Prizes for documenting the frailty of ­human reasoning. ­People are by no means purely rational when it comes to pro­cessing information and making judgments about the world around them. On the contrary, we are irrational in certain predictable ways, and some of ­these have to do with the tendency to overvalue ­things that are already firmly established. Among other t­ hings, we exhibit a robust status quo bias and prefer to hold onto what we have rather than risk something worse. When it comes to pro­cessing social and po­liti­cal information, additional sources of gullibility come into play. Belief systems and ideologies distort the ways in which we perceive and interpret social, economic, and po­liti­cal systems. Although preference for the status quo (cognitive conservatism and risk aversion) may have been adaptive in our evolutionary prehistory, they sometimes cause prob­lems—­even serious prob­lems—in modern society, especially when it comes to accepting and even rationalizing cases of injustice.

6  A Theory of System Justification

Psychologists have demonstrated repeatedly that many thought pro­cesses are motivated (or goal directed), and that we are often unaware of the true influences on our thinking and judgment. For the purposes of this book, t­ here are three major ways in which ­human cognition is goal directed. It is self-­serving, as when we convince ourselves that we are superior to other p ­ eople; it is group serving, as when we convince ourselves that the groups we belong to are superior to other groups; and it is system serving, as when we convince ourselves that the societal status quo is superior to alternative structures. A consequence of ­these biases is that “most p ­ eople claim that their social hierarchy is natu­ral and just, while t­ hose of other socie­ties are based on false and ridicu­lous criteria” (Harari, 2015, p. 136). In other words, we defend and justify the social, economic, and po­liti­cal systems that are traditional and familiar to us, the ones that we—­and our friends and ­family members—­depend on for our livelihoods. Throughout this book we use the term system much as Steven Biko (1987) did to refer to “­those operative forces in society—­those institutionalized and uninstitutionalized operative forces in society—­that control your being, guide your behaviour, and generally are an authority over you” (p. 51). Research inspired by system justification theory suggests that ­people are motivated—­not necessarily at a conscious level of awareness—to defend, bolster, and justify existing social, economic, and po­liti­cal institutions and arrangements ­because ­doing so serves fundamental psychological needs. ­People who are e­ ither chronically or temporarily concerned with epistemic, existential, and relational needs to attain certainty, security, and social belongingness are especially likely to embrace system-­justifying ways of thinking. When we pledge allegiance to the flag or the military or other symbols of the social system, we derive a much-­needed (even if illusory) sense of order, meaning, and belongingness. In evolutionary terms, fitness is increased when the individual is a member in good standing of a social system—­perhaps any social system, as long as it provides some mea­sure of certainty, safety, and solidarity. Insofar as ­these are fundamental needs of the h ­ uman species, the individual may choose the “security of living wretchedly” over “the uncertain hope of living as he pleases,” as de la Boétie wrote nearly 500 years ago (2008, p. 44). At the same time, b ­ ecause of our motivation to justify the existing system, some of the beliefs and ideas we hold are quite simply not good for us, and they might even perpetuate our suffering, and in that sense they do not serve our objective interests.

A New “Discourse of Voluntary Servitude”   7

Unfortunately, however, ­those who dare to provoke conflict or challenge established conventions—­such as community activists, journalists, and protestors—­often risk uncertainty and harm, including the possibility of physical punishment (such as being arrested or, in many countries, beaten or imprisoned) and social ostracism. When my colleagues and I analyzed tweets sent during an Occupy Wall Street rally in New York City in 2012, we found hundreds of messages rejecting and disparaging the protestors, including ­these: “If your still apart of Occupy wall st. You ­either have no life, no ability to think for yourself, a wannabe or attention seeker or an idiot”; “#OWS you d ­ on’t represent me nor the rest of this city. GTFO and let us go about our lives”; “The Occupy ­idiots are nothing but stooges—­left brainwashed and ignorant by the liberal infiltration of our educational system” (Langer et al., 2019). Backlash is the kind of phenomenon that cries out for an explanation in terms of motivated system defense. Of course, not every­one is equally disposed to defend and protect the existing regime from threats to the status quo. A ­great many ­people supported Occupy Wall Street, even if ­there ­were far more detractors overall. As with all motives in psy­chol­ogy, the strength of system justification motivation varies according to situational and dispositional f­ actors. Dozens of social psychological experiments demonstrate that ­people are more likely to defend the social system following exposure to criticism of or threat to the social system, especially when it comes from an outsider—­such as a foreign journalist or external ­enemy. More than we realize, perhaps, we are prepared to defend the societal institutions and arrangements on which we depend. ­People are also more accepting of unwelcome social and po­liti­cal outcomes, including restrictions on freedom and equality, when the restrictions are perceived as inevitable or inescapable. Studies show that p ­ eople are more supportive of social systems as diverse as the caste system in India and the cap­i­tal­ist system in Eu­rope and North Amer­i­ca when they are made to feel that ­these systems are traditional and long-­standing, rather than fairly recent historical occurrences. ­People are also more likely to legitimize inequalities in social, economic, and po­liti­cal systems to the extent that they feel especially powerless or dependent on t­ hose systems. ­Those who must feed their families seldom have the luxury of criticizing their bosses or their companies, let alone the economic system as a w ­ hole. In terms of differences among ­people, psychological research reveals that ­people who exhibit lower levels of complex thinking or higher levels of death anxiety or stronger desires to share real­ity with like-­minded ­others tend to

8  A Theory of System Justification

justify existing institutions and arrangements more than o­ thers. In other words, ­people who—­for ­either chronic or temporary reasons—­are especially ­eager to attain subjective states of certainty, closure, safety, security, conformity, and affiliation are especially likely to accept and rationalize the way ­things are and to embrace what con­temporary scholars would recognize as po­liti­cally conservative ways of thinking. In contrast, individuals who enjoy thinking in complex terms, or who are less sensitive to external threats than ­others, or who value uniqueness over conformity, are more likely to criticize the social system and to approve of insurgent movements aimed at changing the status quo. Thus, in addition to a general tendency for ­people to adapt to unwelcome realities, ­there are individual differences in personality as well as situational triggers pertaining to epistemic, existential, and relational motives that increase or decrease the likelihood of participating in system-­ challenging collective action. Another major tenet is that system justification serves the palliative function of making p ­ eople feel better about the societal status quo. The idea is somewhat reminiscent of Marx’s famous quip that religious ideology is the opiate of the masses—­that it placates and palliates. Indeed, ­people who are more religious and more conservative and ­those who regard the socioeconomic system as highly legitimate report feeling happier and more satisfied with their life situations. At the same time, the emotional benefits of system justification come with the cost of decreased potential for social change and remediation of in­equality. We know—­from more than a ­century of writings on “ethnocentrism,” or in-­g roup bias—­that p ­ eople frequently ­favor their own groups over other groups. Research provides some indication that in-­group favoritism may enhance self-­esteem, but it can also contribute to subtle (and not so subtle) forms of prejudice, hostility, and discrimination. ­These are impor­tant facts about intergroup relations, but they are facts that apply more broadly to members of advantaged groups than to disadvantaged groups. This is ­because—­for members of advantaged groups—­system justification (the desire to maintain the status quo) is consistent with self and group justification motives to maintain and enhance individual and collective self-­esteem, respectively. For members of advantaged groups, system justification is positively associated with self-­esteem, in-­group favoritism, and psychological well-­being. For members of disadvantaged groups, however, system justification conflicts with self and group justification motives. For t­ hese p ­ eople, system justification is associated with lower self-­esteem, less favoritism of their own

A New “Discourse of Voluntary Servitude”   9

group, and poorer long-­term psychological well-­being—­measured in terms of depression, anxiety, neuroticism, ambivalence, and stigma internalization. At the same time, members of disadvantaged groups sometimes do experience the palliative effects of system justification. It seems that system justification operates both as a threat to the well-­being of members of disadvantaged groups and as a way of coping with that threat. System justification theory was originally proposed in 1994 to explain why disadvantaged individuals and groups buy into negative ste­reo­t ypes and evaluations of themselves and accept their lower rank in status hierarchies. Since then, the scope of the theory was subsequently expanded to account for a much wider range of outcomes, including appraisals of fairness, justice, legitimacy, deservingness, and entitlement; spontaneous and deliberate social judgments about individuals, groups, and social systems; as well as the contents of certain po­liti­cal and religious ideologies. System justification pro­ cesses also play a key role in socially shared belief systems that sustain war, vio­lence, and terrorism (e.g., Bar-­Tal, 2013; Hedges, 2002; Jost et al., 2015; Kruglanski et al., 2014). An expert in conflict resolution, Daniel Bar-­Tal points out that when it comes to intergroup conflict The reasons provided as justifications . . . ​can be . . . ​drawn from historical, national, theological, cultural, or economic spheres, and they are frequently embodied in national or ethnic ideology, which plays a vital role in the society’s life. Thus, the epistemic base of reasons and justifications provides a crucial foundation for continued successful coping with the rival. Conversely, negation of goals or a lack of faith in their justice, however slight, can lead to a weakened resolve with regard to the willingness to mobilize, strug­gle, and sacrifice. (Bar-­Tal, 2013, p. 177)

For better or worse, making war would be impossible if it could not be legitimized in ideological terms that motivate the voluntary participation of soldiers and taxpayers. And, ­a fter prolonged periods of conflict—as in Northern Ireland or the M ­ iddle East—­making peace might likewise require strong ideological legitimation, as well as a delegitimation of the war-­making ideology that preceded it. In a nutshell, then, a theory of system justification helps to explain how and why p ­ eople accept and tolerate, and often vindicate, all of the t­ hings they do (and the ­things that are done to them and on behalf of them) in a wide variety of social, economic, and po­liti­cal contexts. According to Osborne and colleagues (2019b), roughly 3,000 articles mentioning the term system

350 300 250 200 150 100 50 0

1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017

Papers published mentioing system justification

10  A Theory of System Justification

Publication year Source: Adapted (with permission) from Osborne and colleagues (2019b).

Figure 1.1 ​Number of social scientific journal articles mentioning system justification by publication year.

justification have been published in sociology and psy­chol­ogy over the past 25 years, with the number increasing steadily from one year to the next (Figure 1.1). In the chapters to come, we w ­ ill explore many of ­these contributions to system justification theory—­focusing especially on the empirical findings that support and illustrate the major tenets of the theory—in much greater detail.

An Overview of This Book The next two chapters of the book delve more deeply into the historical background of ideas that provide the foundation for a system justification approach to the study of ideology, social justice, and intergroup relations. In Chapter 2, we recount the development of theory and research on social justice, integrating insights from philosophy and the social sciences, including experimental social psy­chol­ogy. By maintaining support for existing institutions and practices, system justification motivation can work both for and against social justice. It can promote fair and just ele­ments of society, but it can also block the attainment of social justice by leading ­people to defend, bolster, and justify aspects of the status quo that violate standards of distributive and procedural fairness. In Chapter 3, we further situate system justification theory in the historical context, identifying a wide range of intellectual

A New “Discourse of Voluntary Servitude”   11

precursors in philosophy and social theory, including Marxian and feminist traditions, as well as in social psy­chol­ogy. We also highlight the major postulates of system justification theory—­including the supposition that system justification addresses ­people’s under­lying psychological needs for certainty (epistemic needs), security (existential needs), and affiliation (relational needs). Fi­nally, we discuss several ways in which the theory may be practically useful for improving society. The structure of system justification theory is laid out in chapters 4 through 6. Th ­ ese chapters provide key empirical evidence marshaled in support of the theory, as distinct from other perspectives in social psy­chol­ogy. The strengths and weaknesses of theories that stress self and group justification motives, that is, the tendency for ­people to defend their own interests and actions as well as t­ hose of fellow in-­group members, are explored in Chapter 4. ­Because ­these theories do not account adequately for the consensual nature of many social ste­reo­t ypes, the phenomenon of out-­group favoritism, and the occurrence of false consciousness, we argue that they need to be supplemented with a theory of system justification that helps to explain how and why ­people defend the legitimacy and desirability of overarching social, economic, and po­liti­cal systems on which they depend, even at some cost to themselves and to fellow in-­group members. In Chapter  5 we deepen the analy­sis of how system justification theory builds on and—in some impor­tant ways—­departs from other prominent social psychological theories of intergroup relations and oppression, namely, social identity and social dominance theories. We also review in some detail empirical evidence for eigh­teen hypotheses about the rationalization of the status quo and internalization of in­equality that w ­ ere derived uniquely from a system justification perspective and respond to several potential criticisms and objections. In Chapter  6 we summarize the results from a number of field, survey, and experimental studies suggesting that subjective feelings of powerlessness may—at least ­under some circumstances—­ lead p ­ eople to legitimize economic-­, racial-­, and gender-­based disparities in society as well as authority figures in business and politics. The next three chapters summarize the results of several interrelated research programs that address real-­world applications of system justification theory: ste­reo­t ypes of rich and poor (Chapter 7), attitudes about gender (Chapter  8), and the role of religion in system justification pro­cesses (Chapter 9). In Chapter 7, we focus on the ways in which exposure to specific ste­reo­t ype exemplars of ­people who differ in terms of economic standing (such as poor but happy or rich but dishonest individuals) can serve to

12  A Theory of System Justification

increase ideological support for the societal status quo. In Chapter  8, we review evidence that exposure to benevolent and complementary ste­reo­ types of ­women as warm and communal (but not agentic or assertive) and men as agentic and assertive (but not warm or communal) can lead w ­ omen to increase their support for the social system in general and the gendered division of ­labor in families and society in particular—­and also to engage in more self-­objectification and body surveillance. In Chapter 9 we summarize the results of a large-­scale study based on 7,000 Internet survey respondents (and other samples) suggesting that religious ideology is linked to under­ lying epistemic, existential, and relational needs and that it—­like po­liti­cal conservatism—­provides a means of justifying the existing social order in such a way that prevailing institutions and arrangements are perceived as legitimate and just and therefore worth obeying and preserving. In the next two chapters, we focus on prospects for social change. Chapter 10 starts by locating system justification theory in the tradition of classic social psychological approaches to overcoming re­ sis­ tance to personal and social change. Turning to the real-­world prob­lem of climate change, we examine the roles of po­liti­cal ideology and system justification in motivating skepticism about the quality of scientific evidence for global warming. How can system justification motivation be harnessed on behalf of pro-­environmental initiatives? Maybe by reframing t­ hose initiatives in terms of the patriotic preservation of the American way of life. Chapter 11 integrates models of protest and collective action derived from social identity and system justification perspectives to understand rebellion. When are high and low system justifiers willing—­and, just as importantly, unwilling—to rebel against prevailing social, economic, and po­liti­cal regimes? We examine the role of system justification in support for—­and backlash against—­certain kinds of protest activity, based on evidence from field, survey, and experimental studies conducted in the United States, United Kingdom, Greece, and New Zealand. Fi­nally, in the last chapter of the book we take stock of theoretical and empirical developments in system justification theory over the past twenty-­ five years, addressing a number of remaining questions and criticisms along the way. We also highlight the impor­tant role of working class conservatism and system justification in contributing to certain po­liti­cal outcomes, including the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. The book closes with provocative suggestions for the f­uture of theory and research in philosophy and the social sciences on the complex prob­lems of voluntary servitude, false consciousness, and system justification.


What Is Social Justice?


O C I A L J U S T I C E I S A T E R M that originates in philosophical discourse but is widely used in both ordinary language and social science, often without being clearly defined. We trust the reader to forgive the temerity inherent in offering up a general definition h ­ ere, for the alternative of plodding on in conceptual dusk—if not total darkness—is hardly an attractive option. For the pre­sent purposes, social justice may be said to represent a state of affairs (­whether a­ ctual or ideal) in which (a) benefits and burdens in society are dispersed in accordance with some justifiable allocation princi­ple (or set of princi­ples); (b) procedures, norms, and rules that govern po­liti­cal and other forms of decision-­making protect (rather than violate) the basic rights, liberties, and entitlements of individuals and groups; and (c) ­human beings (and perhaps other species) are treated with dignity and re­ spect not only by authorities but also by other relevant social actors, including fellow citizens (Feinberg, 1973; David Miller, 1999). The three aspects of our definition correspond, at least roughly, to distributive, procedural, and interactional justice, as we use t­ hese terms in this chapter. Social justice, understood in this way, is a property of social systems—or a “predicate of socie­ties” (Frankena, 1962, p. 1)—as suggested also by Arnold Toynbee (1976), who declared that “the best safeguard against fascism is to establish social justice to the maximum pos­si­ble extent.” A just social system, then, is to be contrasted with ­those systems that foster unnecessary or unjustified suffering, exploitation, abuse, tyranny, oppression, prejudice, and discrimination. The foremost prob­lem for scholars and would-be prac­ti­tion­ers of social justice is that widespread disagreements persist, even ­after centuries of debate,


14  A Theory of System Justification

concerning each of the ele­ments incorporated in our definition. What is a truly fair dispersion of benefits and burdens and why? Should resource allocation be based on equity, equality, need, or some other princi­ple? What constitutes an appropriate or reasonable set of rights, liberties, and entitlements? Fi­nally, what does it mean to treat o­ thers with dignity and re­spect? ­These and related questions have been broached by some of the greatest minds in Western civilization, including Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, Rawls, and legions of ­others, but no consensus has emerged. Given this historical context, it may be considered highly ambitious (if not presumptuous) to think that psychological science can contribute something of value to the study of social justice, but we dare to suggest that in the long run it can.

Challenges for the Psychological Study of Social Justice ­Because of the conceptual difficulties we have encountered already, social justice brings into stark relief both the promises and challenges of social science in a way that few other topics do. For one t­ hing, social justice requires one to consider and integrate insights arising from individual, group, and system levels of analy­sis. Students of social justice—­like ­those who dare to confront questions of rationality or truth—­must grapple with the uneasy relationship between the subjective and the objective or, relatedly, descriptive facts about how p ­ eople actually think, feel, and act with re­spect to justice considerations and normative standards about how they o­ ught to behave if their actions are to be considered just. Aristotle captured the dilemma this way: “­People think that acting unjustly depends on them; hence they also think that being just is easy. In fact it is not” (1137a4-6).1 Behaving justly, in other words, involves d ­ oing the right t­ hing for the right reasons, and therefore possesses a subjective dimension that can be studied descriptively and an objective dimension that must be approached normatively.2 Another difficulty is that reasonable (and unreasonable) parties can disagree about what justice entails. Many longstanding, seemingly intractable conflicts involve interpersonal or intergroup disputes over what is considered fair and legitimate. At the same time, it is plainly unsatisfactory to conclude simply that justice (like truth or beauty) is in the eye of the beholder” although it may be tempting to leave it at that. As David Miller (1999) observed, “popu­lar beliefs about social justice may turn out to be defective in vari­ous ways; for instance, they may prove to conceal deep contradictions,

What Is Social Justice?   15

or involve serious factual errors” (p. x).3 Thus, we cannot merely assume that justice consists in what ­people think is just, though (as the phi­los­o­phers know) it may be extraordinarily difficult—­but not, in princi­ple, impossible—to determine what actually is just in any given situation. Why can we not simply interpret the subjective ac­cep­tance of a given state of affairs as objective evidence of its rightness? For one ­thing, ­people sometimes tolerate circumstances that seem obviously unjust to outsiders or that seem unjust in retrospect or from the point of view of normative standards of just treatment. Some cases of toleration of injustice may come from failure to understand the true nature of the social system (to reflect false consciousness).4 Tolerance may suggest the presence of system justification motivation: the desire to exonerate the existing social system and to minimize or overlook its injustices, ­whether petty or ­grand, thereby perpetuating the unjust social system. It is essential for the scholar of social justice to bear in mind at least the possibility that ­there are objective standards of justice, even if specific candidates are bound to be controversial (e.g., see Feinberg, 1973; Hare, 1981; David Miller, 1999; Rawls, 1971). Just as researchers are able to use scientific methods to study the objective ­causes of happiness (subjective well-­being) of individuals, it should be pos­si­ble for social scientists to discover which characteristics of social systems are more and less likely to maximize standards of social justice, such as equity, equality, need, and liberty, and which characteristics lead disproportionately to unjust outcomes such as suffering, exploitation, abuse, prejudice, and oppression. We cannot assume that what exists is what ­ought to be; an objective, scientific approach is needed ­because, as Frankena (1962) pointed out, “even the prevailing moral princi­ples of a society may be unjust or oppressive” (p. 3). U ­ nder t­hese circumstances, system justification motivation w ­ ill obstruct the path to social justice, and researchers cannot afford to rely purely on the subjective perceptions of the citizenry. In reviewing the history of social psychological theory and research on the topic of social justice, we ­shall keep in mind this fundamental truth about our subject m ­ atter, which renders it especially challenging from an empirical perspective: Subjective and objective conceptions of justice often diverge.

Social Justice as a Central Theoretical and Practical Concern of Psy­chol­ogy Not so long ago questions of social justice ­were at the forefront of theoretical and empirical inquiry in social psy­chol­ogy. The ­father of modern

16  A Theory of System Justification

experimental social psy­chol­ogy, Kurt Lewin, promoted the discipline as, among other t­ hings, a scientific means of fostering demo­cratic, egalitarian norms and preventing tyranny and oppression from gaining the upper hand in society. Although he seldom (if ever) couched t­ hese goals in the explicit language of social justice, his applied research programs on overcoming certain forms of prejudice, out-­group hostility, and self-­hatred among Jews— to mention a few of the most salient examples—­clearly reflected a commitment to social justice as well as a scathing critique of authoritarianism and the fascist ideology that had seized the hearts and minds of so many of his fellow citizens in 1930s Germany. In fact, Lewin (1947a) self-­consciously strove to integrate theoretical and applied goals, which he believed could be “accomplished in psy­chol­ogy, as it has been accomplished in physics, if the theorist does not look t­oward applied prob­lems with highbrow aversion or with a fear of social prob­lems” (p. 169). Another prominent social psychologist of the postwar era, Gordon Allport (1968), observed that “practical and humanitarian motives have always played an impor­tant part in the development of social psy­chol­ogy.” Specifically, he wrote that Social psy­chol­ogy began to flourish soon ­after the First World War. This event, followed by the spread of communism, by the g­ reat depression of the ’30’s, by the rise of Hitler, the genocide of the Jews, race riots, the Second World War and its consequent anomie, stimulated all branches of social science. A special challenge fell to social psy­chol­ogy. The question was asked: how is it pos­si­ble to preserve the values of freedom and individual rights ­under conditions of mounting social strain and regimentation? Can science help provide an answer? (p. 4)

Allport’s own work on The Nature of Prejudice (1954)—­and its pre­de­ces­sor, The Authoritarian Personality by Adorno and colleagues (1950)—­sought to employ theories and methods in social psy­chol­ogy to diagnose and ultimately defeat prejudice, intolerance, and other apparent obstacles to social justice. Darkly, it has been suggested on more than one occasion that the individual who exerted the strongest influence over the development of social psy­ chol­ogy in the twentieth ­century was Adolf Hitler. Solomon Asch (1959) insisted that social psychologists study not only the perpetration of injustice but also “the vectors that make it pos­si­ble for persons to think and care and work for ­others” (p. 372). More specifically, he wrote that “it is of considerable consequence for any social psy­chol­ogy to

What Is Social Justice?   17

establish the grounds of concern for the welfare of other persons or groups, and how ­these are related to the concern individuals feel for their own welfare” (p. 368). Such comments presage research programs on altruism, prosocial be­hav­ior, and the so-­called justice motive, that is, the extent to which ­people are motivated to promote fair treatment of o­ thers and not merely by considerations of self-­interest (Lerner, 2003). The point is not that justice and self-­interest are always opposed—­they clearly are not. In fact, the sense of justice may originate in h ­ umans and other primates in the self-­protective desire to ensure that they receive what they deserve (Brosnan, 2006). When members of disadvantaged groups band together to push for civil rights or other improvements in their quality of life, they are fighting on behalf of social justice as well as personal and collective self-­interest. Nevertheless, the purest evidence of a justice motive in h ­ uman beings comes from cases in which p ­ eople are willing to risk or sacrifice their own welfare to ensure that ­others are treated fairly (Lerner, 2003). World War II illustrated far too vividly both the devastating effects of social injustice and the ­human willingness and capacity to defeat it. It should not be surprising, then, that in the aftermath of war issues of social justice ­were central to the study of social psy­chol­ogy and textbooks routinely covered themes such as morality, conscience, crime and punishment, prejudice, authoritarianism, propaganda, war and peace, and the determinants of revolution. However, as was the case with Lewin’s writings, such themes w ­ ere often approached in the absence of an explicit social justice framework, and authors did not often use terms such as justice and fairness. De­cades ­later social justice research became a subfield or area of specialization within social psy­chol­ogy. Before then, considerations of social justice permeated the field as a w ­ hole, albeit tacitly. By the mid-1960s some social psychologists began to have sober second thoughts about Lewin’s vision of humanistic, action-­oriented research aimed at ­human betterment and social justice. William J. McGuire, for instance, admonished his more “applied” colleagues for being “too preoccupied with the Berlin wall, the urban blight, the population bomb, and the plight of the Negro in the South” and quipped that students who wished to solve social prob­lems should consider joining “the law or the ministry” (see McGuire, 1999, p. 42). T ­ oday it is more common than ever to assert that scientists should eschew moral or po­liti­cal advocacy and that researchers should keep their values and convictions regarding social justice to themselves. On this issue, the divide between the new generation of social psychologists and the

18  A Theory of System Justification

likes of Lewin, Allport, and Asch—as well as Leonard Doob, Muzafer Sherif, Morton Deutsch, Herbert Kelman, Stanley Milgram, Melvin Lerner, Henri Tajfel, Alice Eagly, David Sears, Susan Fiske, Daniel Bar-­Tal, Mahzarin Banaji, and o­ thers—is profound. I cannot help but think of the holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” The found­ers’ commitment to social justice as an outcome of social scientific research in the m ­ iddle of the twentieth c­ entury may be attributable, at least in part, to the societal urgency that accompanied the need to defeat fascism in Eu­rope and elsewhere. But, an assiduous interlocutor might ask, do we not face truly urgent prob­lems related to social justice even ­today? What, if anything, should be done about gaping social and economic in­ equality ­under capitalism; the epidemic of sexual harassment and gender disparities; racial profiling in police activity and the criminal justice system; the pervasive mistreatment of sexual minorities all over the world; religious, ethnic, and other forms of seemingly intractable conflicts, including war, terrorism, and torture; the prob­lems posed by global climate change, environmental degradation, and species extinction; and the per­sis­tence of prejudice and the resurgence of right-­w ing authoritarianism in Eu­rope and the Amer­i­cas? Fortunately, social psychologists in the traditions of Lewin and Allport have developed theories and methods for addressing ­these and related questions and, in so ­doing, have helped to push the world ever so slightly in the direction of increased social justice.

A Typology of Social Justice Concerns The first theory-­driven research in sociology and psy­chol­ogy on the topic of social justice tackled questions of distributive fairness, especially considerations of equity in the allocation of resources. Next came work on procedural justice, which addressed not only outcomes but the decision-­ making rules used to determine ­t hose outcomes. Before too long, a third type of justice was investigated—­namely, interpersonal or interactional justice—to incorporate concerns about informal as well as formal treatment by ­others in everyday life. Fi­nally, although Aristotle anticipated not only distributive but also retributive and restorative justice concerns nearly twenty-­four centuries ago, empirical studies of t­hese latter social justice concerns have only fairly recently taken off in psy­chol­ogy and related disciplines.

What Is Social Justice?   19

Distributive Justice One of the earliest influential accounts of distributive justice—­that is, how to allocate resources fairly and appropriately, especially under conditions of scarcity—­was Aristotle’s. In Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observed that “we call just the ­things that create and preserve happiness and its parts for the citizen community” and inquired about dif­fer­ent types of justice and ways of being just or unjust. According to one prominent interpretation, for Aristotle The hallmark of a just apportionment is equality. In distribution, this consists in maintaining the same ratio of quantified good or burdens to quantified merit for all recipients. In rectification, it consists in restoring the parties to the relative position (schematized as “equality”) they ­were in before one harmed the other. (Broadie, 2002, p. 36)

Interpretational ambiguity arises from the fact that in Attic Greek the same word (isotes) is typically used to mean both justice and equality; the word is best translated as geometrical equality or proportionality (Vlastos, 1962). Thus, Aristotle says that a just distribution is one that is impartial in the sense of “treating equals as equals,” but his conception of distributive justice emphasizes what social scientists ­today would call princi­ples of equity, proportionality, or merit. Aristotle anticipated one of the chief difficulties of justice theories based exclusively on equity or proportionality princi­ples—­namely, that decision makers disagree about which inputs (or merits) should be utilized in determining proportional outcomes (or rewards): The ­matter of distribution “according to merit” also makes this clear, since every­body agrees that what is just in distributions must accord with some kind of merit, but every­body is not talking about the same kind of merit: for demo­crats merit lies in being born a f­ ree person, for oligarchs in wealth or, for some of them, in noble descent, for aristocrats in excellence. (1131a24-29)

Ideological f­ actors influence one’s conception of social justice: this is a central theme of this chapter, and, indeed, this book. That ideology can be said to influence (subjective) justice preferences does not mean, however, that disagreements over what is (objectively) just are tantamount to ideological

20  A Theory of System Justification

conflicts or that disagreements are empirically intractable and ultimately irresolvable. A few other aspects of Aristotle’s theory of justice deserve mention, insofar as they, too, anticipate impor­tant social scientific contributions and controversies. For one ­thing, Aristotle addressed the relationship between what is ­legal and what is just, and he clearly saw a close relationship between them. He wrote, for instance, that ­ eople regard as “unjust” both the person who breaks the law and the P grasping, i.e. unequal-­minded, one; hence, clearly, both the law-­abiding person and the equal-­minded one are just. In that case, the just is what is lawful and what is equal, while the unjust is what is unlawful and what is unequal. (1129a32-1129b1)

Aristotle’s discussion of the individual who is “grasping” or “unequal-­minded” (pleonexia: the tendency to get more for oneself) presages research on individual differences in selfishness and their consequences for justice-­related outcomes. While Aristotle equated justice with acting in an egalitarian (non-­selfish), law-­abiding manner, he recognized that the degree of impartiality (or perhaps universality) required by the law can lead to perverse outcomes if one ignores the particulars of a given case. He argued that a reasonable person may occasionally depart from adhering to what is ­legal (and therefore what is just) in order to arrive at a superior outcome: It is clear, then, what the reasonable is: and that it is just, and better than just in one sense. From this it is also evident who the reasonable person is: the sort who decides on and does t­ hings of this kind, and who is not a stickler for justice in the bad sense but rather tends to take a less strict view of ­things, even though he has the law to back him up—­this is the reasonable person. (1137b33-1138a3)

Thus, justice may be the “mightiest of the excellences” (1129b27-8), but it is not the only excellence. Courage, wisdom, and self-­control ­were also cardinal virtues, along with justice. John Stuart Mill likewise distinguished between justice and other moral princi­ples such as generosity and beneficence. Aristotle recognized the need for retributive (or rectificatory) justice, but by aligning his conception of justice with what is law-­abiding, he ruled out the possibility that acts of vengeance (or vigilante justice) could be considered just, even if they are motivated by a desire for justice.

What Is Social Justice?   21

the socialist tradition The writings of Karl Marx have prob­ably inspired more social justice movements than any other body of lit­er­a­t ure, with the pos­si­ble exceptions of religious texts. Ironically, Marx himself was notoriously suspicious about the meaning and use of the term justice, which (having been to law school) he equated with the concept of jurisprudence. Marx saw justice as an inherently bourgeois (perhaps liberal) concern along the lines of noblesse oblige, and he expressed disdain for the “vulgar socialists” of his era who, in his view, championed empty slogans such as “a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.” He was also skeptical about philosophical attempts to develop abstract or universal conceptions of justice that would transcend specific social and historical circumstances, such as ­those proffered by Kant or Hegel. Thus, most scholars agree that Marx generally eschewed justice-­based arguments in making the case for revolution and the overthrow of the cap­i­tal­ist system (but see Husami, 1980). Instead, Marx appealed to collective self-­interest, as in the famous line from The Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains!” That is, he saw it as obviously in the objective interests of the working class to overthrow the cap­i­ tal­ist system, and he assumed that their material life circumstances would eventually shape workers’ subjective perceptions of the system to accord with new objective realities. In so d ­ oing, Marx may have actually underestimated the prob­lem of false consciousness. Even if Marx himself saw l­ittle revolutionary potential in appeals to social justice, many of his followers have discerned in his writings the seeds of a power­f ul justice-­based critique of capitalism. For instance, Marx argued that capitalism depends for its very existence on surplus value being created through the ­labor pro­cess. No worker is ever paid what his or her work is really worth to the employer, that is, the value of what l­abor produces; other­ wise, ­there would be no profit margin (or profit motive). The worker who wants to survive and provide for his or her f­ amily has no real choice in a cap­i­tal­ist society but to produce wealth for ­those cap­i­tal­ists who control the means of production. Marx clearly denounced this situation as a form of exploitation, and it is one of the reasons he predicted (and longed for) the transition from capitalism to socialism and communism, which he believed would fi­nally put an end to class-­based exploitation. Thus, Marx objected to the stark economic in­equality between social classes that inevitably characterizes the cap­i­tal­ist mode of production on grounds that are basically indistinguishable from

22  A Theory of System Justification

considerations of social justice, as we use the term h ­ ere. At the same time, he worried that certain conceptions of justice would be used to provide ideological cover for the status quo. Marx makes the normative claim in Critique of the Gotha Program that ­under socialism the appropriate princi­ple of distribution w ­ ill be “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs!” As Lerner (1974) and Deutsch (1985) pointed out, taking into account the needs of individuals is a princi­ple of distributive justice that is not necessarily included in other theories of social justice, including Aristotle’s. Schwinger (1986), among o­ thers, has argued that “need considerations are more than a reaction to ­actual deficiencies of resources” (p. 223) and that need functions much like other distributive justice princi­ples, especially in trusting, favorable interpersonal relationships. Similarly, the princi­ple of equality of outcomes (as well as opportunities) across individuals and social classes is valued in many theories of social justice. Scholars often interpret Marx’s demand for a classless society as a call for thoroughgoing egalitarianism with re­spect to distributive outcomes. Marx believed that “with the abolition of class distinctions all social and po­liti­cal in­equality arising from them would dis­appear of itself,” but he was not so naïve as many critics would suggest. He saw clearly that any emergent social system would be “in ­every re­spect, eco­nom­ically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” The status quo leaves its mark. Marx also worried that abstract claims about fairness and equality would be easily exploited by system justifiers—­“the champions of the state of society prevailing at any given time,” including representatives of the government “and every­thing that sticks to it,” which he regarded as the “social organ for the maintenance of the social order.” Marx asked: “Do not the bourgeois assert that the present-­day distribution is ‘fair’? And is it not, in fact, the only ‘fair’ distribution on the basis of the present-­day mode of production? Are economic relations regulated by l­egal conceptions, or do not, on the contrary, ­legal relations arise out of economic ones?” The law, in Marx’s view, is an example of system justification. But as a practical m ­ atter Marx’s condemnation of vulgar or utopian socialists may have led him to underestimate the revolutionary potential of perceptions of social injustice (based on princi­ples of equality or need) and the sense of moral outrage that follows. Social scientific research confirms that anger in response to felt injustice, that is, moral outrage, is in fact one of the most robust predictors of participation in collective action and motivation for social change (e.g., Gurr, 1970; McGarty et al., 2014; van Zomeren et al.,

What Is Social Justice?   23

2008). Although Marx himself was deeply angered by the exploitation of workers in cap­i­tal­ist society, he set out to develop a dispassionate historical analy­sis and therefore said much less about social justice than he might other­wise have done, for better or for worse.

the liberal-­progressive tradition Due at least in part to Marx’s skepticism, the concept of “ ‘social justice’ was more readily embraced by liberals and progressives than by socialists proper,” as David Miller (1999, p. 3) noted. Two major Western liberal traditions are most responsible for scholarly and practical interest in questions of social justice. Sandel (1998) summed up ­these traditions succinctly: “Should justice be founded on utility, as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill argue, or does re­spect for individual rights require a basis for justice in­de­pen­dent of utilitarian considerations, as Kant and Rawls maintain?” (p. 184). Th ­ ese two possibilities are generally referred to as the utilitarian and deontological perspectives, respectively, and we consider each in turn. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory of justice, insofar as it emphasizes the hedonic and moral consequences of vari­ous decisions about how to allocate benefits and burdens in society. The most just outcome or procedure is what­ever results in the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Utilitarian phi­los­o­phers disagree, however, about how to gauge happiness (or well-­being or related phenomena, such as public interest or general good). Bentham took happiness to mean simply plea­sure minus pain, whereas Mill advanced a more robust conception that included notions such as virtue, rationality, and truth. Even ­today, support for the welfare state, which redistributes wealth and other valuable resources in such a way as to reduce the misery of ­those who are worst off without extracting an equivalent amount of suffering from ­those who are better off, is justified or—in the language of Frankena (1962) and Feinberg (1973)—­“ justicized,” that is, shown to be just on largely utilitarian grounds (Sen, 1979). Deontologists hold that determinations of right and wrong depend not only on the consequences of ­human action but also on other considerations, including universal, transcendent justice princi­ples, such as the assumption that it is wrong to kill an innocent, healthy person u ­ nder any circumstances. One of the most celebrated proponents of a deontological approach to justice, Immanuel Kant, argued that objective, universally applicable princi­ples of justice (“categorical imperatives”) can be derived on the basis of abstract ­human reasoning. He proposed, for instance, a “Formula of Humanity,”

24  A Theory of System Justification

which instructs us to “act that you use humanity, ­whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (Sedgwick, 2008, p. 137). Although some reject the notion that universal princi­ples of justice could work in highly disparate cultures and contexts around the world, the Kantian aspiration to develop a rational, objective conception of justice remains an appealing and promising one—as embodied, for instance, in the work of John Rawls. Rawls (1971) proposed that the most just social system is the one that would be chosen by rational decision makers u ­ nder a “veil of ignorance,” that is, without any knowledge of their own status or position within the chosen social system; he referred to this hy­po­thet­i­cal decision-­making situation as “the original position.” Drawing in part on psychological theory and research, including the work of Piaget and Kohlberg, Rawls concluded that u ­ nder t­ hese circumstances rational individuals o­ ught to (and in fact would) choose a social system that, all ­else being equal, (a) minimized in­equality in social and economic outcomes (the equality princi­ple) and (b) maximized the social and economic outcomes of t­ hose who would occupy the worst position in the new system (that is, maximizing the minimum outcome, the maximin princi­ple). Taken together, t­hese two princi­ples imply that some degree of in­equality in society is tolerable, but only to the extent that it ultimately benefits ­those who are relatively disadvantaged, for example, by creating enough wealth that every­one benefits. This conclusion is a hallmark of po­liti­cal liberalism, insofar as it contains a ­limited commitment to egalitarianism (i.e., one that falls short of socialism) and at least some attention to the satisfaction of t­ hose basic needs that are required for ­human welfare. Thus, Rawls’s work constitutes, among other ­things, a normative theory of justice that is meant to be consistent with the laws of psy­chol­ogy. Ultimately, it is a complex philosophical defense of liberalism in the Kantian tradition of developing and enforcing a rational social contract, that is, the consent of the individual to participate in society. One mea­sure of the profundity of Rawls’s (1971) contribution to scholarship on social justice is the sheer number and illustriousness of con­temporary critics it has attracted. It would take us too far astray to delve into the extensive secondary philosophical lit­er­a­t ure, so we ­w ill confine the remainder of our discussion of Rawls’s theory to the empirical research lit­er­a­ture it has generated. In so ­doing, we should be very clear that—as most researchers acknowledge—­empirical studies cannot actually determine what Rawls’s hy­ po­thet­i­cal decision makers ­ought to choose ­under the veil of ignorance or

What Is Social Justice?   25

even what they would choose u ­ nder the constraints he envisioned. Practically speaking, it is impossible to divorce ­actual decision makers from their own personal characteristics, experiences, beliefs, opinions, and so on. Some phi­los­o­phers have suggested that this practical impossibility represents a fatal flaw in Rawls’s theory—­rendering it, if not incoherent, then at least not very useful for determining what justice princi­ples real ­people would prefer. Without dismissing the force of this criticism, we can appreciate that the purpose of the original position is simply to develop an objective conception of social justice by ensuring impartiality in decision making and eliminating all sources of bias, such as self-­serving, group-­serving, and system-­serving motives. Findings from experimental and survey research inspired by Rawls’s theory do speak to the question of what distributive justice princi­ples ­people tend to prefer when ­these sources of bias are at least muted, though not entirely removed. The empirical lit­er­a­ture provides mixed evidence for the notion that ­actual decision makers tend to f­ avor the equality and maximin princi­ples over ­viable alternatives, such as sheer wealth maximization. In some studies, research participants who lack information that would enable them to act on the basis of self-­interest and related motives do indeed evaluate the fairness of vari­ous distributional schemes in ways that are at least somewhat similar to how Rawls theorized they should behave. For instance, a majority of research participants exhibit a preference for maximizing the minimum standard of living in their society. However, some studies show clear departures from what Rawls would have expected. A comprehensive research program summarized by Frohlich and Oppenheimer (1992) revealed that most participants in their experiments, which w ­ ere conducted in the United States, Canada, and Poland, opted for a floor constraint (some safety net) without any ceiling (limitation on maximum income). In other words, respondents preferred a social system that allowed more in­equality than Rawls’s theory would suggest. Although such evidence does not disconfirm Rawls’s (1971) theory of what is (objectively) just, it does suggest that it is difficult for ­actual decision makers to leave ­behind much of their own personal experiences and cultural baggage in order to place themselves b ­ ehind a veil of ignorance. Ideological and social group differences are frequently observed in experiments involving hy­ po­thet­i­cal socie­ties, suggesting that ­people are anchored by the economic realities and justice beliefs that operate in their own socie­ties, even when they are explic­itly instructed to ignore them. In other words, empirical studies of

26  A Theory of System Justification

Rawls’s theory show bona fide attempts to engage in justice-­based reasoning but cannot help but reveal the presence of self, group, and system justification motives, demonstrating the practical difficulty of adopting the veil of ignorance that was intended to exclude t­ hese influences.

modern conservatism and the critique of the liberal-­socialist tradition Most philosophical conceptions of social justice, especially t­hose that emphasize egalitarian and welfare (need-­based) princi­ples, ­were developed historically by theorists of the liberal or socialist left who ­were critical of traditional social, economic, or po­liti­cal arrangements. Social justice is invoked most often by t­ hose who seek to challenge a social system that they regard as intrinsically unjust. David Miller (1999) notes, for example, that “social justice has always been, and must always be, a critical idea, one that challenges us to reform our institutions and practices in the name of greater fairness” (p. x). This explains why the very concept of social justice is often rejected by po­liti­cal conservatives, libertarians, and o­ thers on the right who defend existing institutions and arrangements as—if not always just—at least efficient, natu­ral, or in some other way desirable (Hayek, 1976). In our own time, liberals and leftists are regularly dismissed and derided as social justice warriors. Intellectual historians typically trace the origins of modern po­liti­cal conservatism to Edmund Burke, who famously opposed the French Revolution and encouraged fellow citizens to “look backward to [the authority of] their ancestors” rather than turning to revolution (Burke, 1987, p. 30). Burke and his followers thus rejected liberal and socialist ideas as well as the broader intellectual context of the Scientific Enlightenment in which t­ hose ideas w ­ ere developed. Burke expressed “contempt for all forms of egalitarianism, which struck him as a doctrine that is profoundly at odds with all the evidence of nature and history” (Shapiro, 2003, p. 152). He also emphasized the importance of tradition and favored gradual, incremental reforms over more radical social change b ­ ecause he believed that “conserving an imperfect inherited world from the worse imperfections that h ­ uman beings are capable of contriving is the business of po­liti­cal leadership” (Burke, 1987, p. 152). To this day, po­liti­cal conservatism is aptly characterized in terms of two major princi­ples, namely, traditionalism (or re­sis­tance to social change) and ac­cep­ tance of in­equality or hierarchy.

What Is Social Justice?   27

Jonathan Haidt (2012) has argued that liberals and conservatives possess dif­fer­ent moral foundations, such that liberal morality emphasizes the importance of fairness and the avoidance of harm, whereas conservative morality embraces deference to authority, in-­group loyalty, and the enforcement of purity sanctions. Of course, liberal and conservative value differences do indeed exist, and the latter can be traced back to the writings of Edmund Burke, if not much ­earlier. However, we should question ­whether adherence to tradition, custom, authority, and in-­g roup norms should be considered moral virtues or justice princi­ples rather than ideological commitments. Historically, the glorification of in-­group, authority, and purity concerns has led to authoritarianism and even genocide (Rummel, 1997). This makes them extremely unlikely candidates on normative grounds to be considered moral or justice princi­ples. A stronger case can be made for moderate conservative princi­ples such as merit, deservingness, prosperity, and personal freedom. Ideological disputes arise when ­these conservative values inevitably come into conflict with liberal-­socialist princi­ples such as equality, welfare, and improving the lot of ­those who are worst off in society.

social psychological theories and evidence Princi­ples of Equity, Equality, and Need Prob­ably no theory has been more broadly influential to the empirical study of social justice than the one that arguably came first: equity theory. Aristotle, as we have seen, argued that justice requires proportionality of inputs and outcomes, that is, “equality of ratios” (1131a31). This insight provides the starting point for equity theory, which holds that in rendering judgments about distributive justice, p ­ eople seek to determine w ­ hether t­ here is a proportional relationship between their inputs (e.g., degree of effort, ability, time, training) and the outcomes they receive (e.g., payments and other rewards as well as costs or punishments). To make this determination in practice, ­people typically draw interpersonal comparisons involving similar or relevant ­others or intrapersonal comparisons, that is, relative judgments based on their own prior experiences and expectations. If an individual concludes that the ratio of inputs to outputs in a given case is disproportionate, psychological distress is theorized to ensue; such distress, in turn, is expected to motivate the individual to restore equity (Walster et al., 1973). An impor­tant aspect of equity theory—an aspect that arguably is what makes it a theory of justice rather than simply a theory of

28  A Theory of System Justification

attribution, social judgment, or preferences—is that ­people are hypothesized to dislike being over-­benefited (i.e., rewarded in a disproportionately favorable manner) as well as being under-­benefited. Being under-­benefited is especially aversive ­because it violates both justice and self-­interest. In terms of emotional responses, ­those who are under-­benefited are assumed to feel angry and resentful, whereas ­t hose who are over-­benefited are assumed to feel guilty. It is impor­tant to point out that anger, which is an approach-­ oriented, outward-­directed emotion, is generally associated with protest, whereas guilt is not. Thus we might expect that protest is more likely to follow from being under-­benefited than over-­benefited. Despite the considerable evidence marshaled in support of equity theory, several limitations—­both theoretical and empirical—­have been noted. For one t­ hing, cultural and ideological differences exist in the extent to which ­people prefer equity over other allocation princi­ples, such as equality. Furthermore, the original formulation of the theory does not specify when (and why) ­people ­will respond to inequity by actively changing the circumstances to restore equity in objective terms and when (or why) they ­w ill instead engage in subjective pro­cesses of rationalization. Th ­ ere is some evidence that ­people who are especially interested in preserving social harmony tend to restore perceived equity through rationalization (subjective) rather than protest (objective) means. This is consistent with the notion that psychologically exaggerated perceptions of fairness perpetuate the status quo and delay the onset of changes that would facilitate social justice in practice. A number of authors have pointed out that equity is by no means the only appropriate princi­ple of distributive justice. Lerner (1974) argued that ­people’s conceptions of justice can take vari­ous forms and that dif­fer­ent situations call for dif­fer­ent justice princi­ples. When recipients share a common identity, as in the case of families, the Marxian princi­ple of allocation based on need is much more likely to be ­adopted than when no common identity exists. The idea of dishing out dinner portions to one’s c­ hildren on the basis of their report cards (i.e., merit)—­regardless of their ages, sizes, or appetites—­strikes one as inherently unjust if not absurd. Rather, a need-­based allocation seems far more appropriate. Similarly, circumstances exist in which members of close-­k nit groups prefer norms of equality in dispersing benefits and burdens, presumably b ­ ecause of the value placed on the maintenance of harmonious social relations among members. Of all the putative justice princi­ples, equality has received far and away the most philosophical attention. Demands for equal rights and equal treat-

What Is Social Justice?   29

ment ­under the law have been fundamental ­causes of po­liti­cal revolution and constitution building in Eu­rope and the Amer­i­cas since the time of the Enlightenment. As we have seen, equality is central to the liberal-­socialist tradition, and leftists ­today are distinguished largely by their advocacy for greater social, economic, and po­liti­cal equality (or, more to the point, less in­equality). Although ­earlier generations of conservatives, including Burke, objected to egalitarianism in vari­ous guises, most conservatives t­ oday endorse po­liti­cal equality (e.g., one person, one vote) and equality of opportunity in education and economic domains. But, as Derek Parfit (1998) pointed out, to subscribe to equality as a justice princi­ple also requires being “concerned with ­people’s being equally well off, ” that is, to believe that “it is in itself bad if some ­people are worse off than ­others” (p. 3). Harry Frankfurt (2015) has argued that what r­ eally bothers most egalitarians is not that some have less than o­ thers but that some simply do not have enough to meet their basic needs; this may explain why princi­ples of equality and need are frequently bundled together in liberal-­socialist conceptions of social justice. Any view that privileges equality of outcomes goes too far, according to conservatives, libertarians, and other critics of egalitarianism. Wildavsky (1991), for instance, claimed that radical egalitarianism in the United States has caused a severe drop-­off in academic standards, among other negative outcomes. Given the extent of left-­r ight ideological disagreement, it may seem as if debates concerning specific social justice princi­ples (such as social or economic equality) and their proper implementation ­will be forever mired in controversy. At the same time, debates over individual voting rights, ­women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery, the protection of civil liberties for minorities, and many other historical magnets for po­liti­cal controversy are no longer in contention. In each of t­ hese cases, it has become clear to nearly every­one in Western society what social justice entails, although it took time—as well as po­liti­cal agitation and demo­cratic deliberation. When individuals hold conflicting or competing goals, ­people tend to rely on formal rules—­such as t­ hose codified by the ­legal system—to arrive at the fairest allocation of resources (Lerner, 1974). As a descriptive observation, this idea is broadly consistent with system justification theory, and as a normative foundation it is reminiscent of Aristotle’s assumption that abiding by the law is a crucial aspect of justice. According to Lerner and Deutsch, equity is deemed most fair in situations in which ­people feel both dependent on and nonequivalent to other social actors, as in marketplace environments. Consistent with this notion, research indicates that the importance of equity

30  A Theory of System Justification

considerations (relative to other justice norms) depends on perceptions of social relations, that is, the ways in which ­people see themselves as connected to ­others (or not) when it comes to sharing resources. Far and away the most popu­lar equity princi­ple in common circulation is the princi­ple of merit, that is, the rewarding of individuals on the basis of contributions or entitlements such as ability, effort, motivation, and achievement. Justifications for this princi­ple are frequently utilitarian in nature insofar as they suggest that a meritocratic system creates incentives for productivity that are beneficial to society as a ­whole. David Miller (1999) has suggested that princi­ples of equality and merit are compatible in certain ways and that social justice may require an integration of the two. For one ­thing, equality and merit “stand opposed to a distribution of advantages on the basis of luck” (p. 201). Thus, the cap­i­tal­ist system may be considered just (at least in part) to the extent that outcomes are not attributable to chance (i.e., nepotism or simply being in the right place at the right time). Miller argues, on normative grounds, that the princi­ple of merit should never be used to allocate “­those goods and ser­v ices that ­people regard as necessities, such as health care” (p.  200). On this point, t­here is at least some agreement between subjective and objective conceptions of fairness. Research participants do feel that dif­fer­ent types of resources should be allocated on the basis of dif­fer­ent justice princi­ples and that burdens and necessities should be distributed with regard to considerations of need and equality rather than merit. Justice princi­ples and social systems are not in­de­pen­dent. According to Morton Deutsch’s (1985) crude law of social relations, “the characteristic pro­ cesses and effects elicited by a given type of social relationship also tend to elicit that type of social relationship” (p. 69). For example, competitively structured social systems beget competitive be­hav­ior and cooperatively structured systems beget cooperation. This formulation is consistent with a system justification perspective, insofar as social systems (­whether competitive or cooperative) are regarded as self-­perpetuating b ­ ecause they elicit attitudes and be­hav­ior that reinforce rather than challenge the status quo. Deutsch (1985) argued that the equity princi­ple should be emphasized only in t­hose situations in which “economic productivity is a primary goal” (p. 143), insofar as it often breeds competition and even conflict as social by-­products. In contrast, in the context of social systems that prioritize personal development, communal welfare, and cooperation, the most constructive method of distributing resources is on the basis of need and

What Is Social Justice?   31

equality, consistent with Marxian social theory. Failing to consider the needs of its members, Deutsch argued, would “obviously be disruptive of any group that has a primary concern for the development and welfare of its members” (p. 147). Furthermore, if the goal is to maximize the harmoniousness of social relations, equality is the distributive princi­ple of choice. Distributing resources purely based on equity would disrupt the mutual re­spect required for fostering enjoyable social relationships. The commonly held notion that distributing rewards and punishments equally necessarily results in a loss of efficiency or productivity (­because ­people are rewarded regardless of their effort) is contradicted by studies showing the opposite: egalitarianism enhanced cooperation and, therefore, group per­for­mance (Deutsch, 1985). Research has generally supported the notion that the three princi­ples of equity, equality, and need vary in their applicability and so are differentially valued as a function of contextual ­factors as well as individual differences. However, it is not always clear ­whether this variability in preferences for vari­ous allocation princi­ples is due to justice-­related or instrumental concerns; that is, ­people might prefer one princi­ple over another for reasons that have ­little to do with justice. ­People’s allocations of resources frequently reflect a blend or combination of dif­fer­ent justice princi­ples along with considerations of self-­interest. Furthermore, ­people engage in post hoc rationalizations of certain distributive princi­ples and outcomes that they would not necessarily have chosen ex ante (Diekmann et al., 1997). One of the core ideological differences between liberals and conservatives is the value they place on equal outcomes, so it is not too surprising that justice preferences and judgments are associated with po­liti­cal orientation. In so-­called hy­po­thet­i­cal society paradigms, for instance, liberals generally prefer more egalitarian distributions of wealth that also offer protections for t­ hose in greatest need, whereas conservatives are more likely to prioritize equity, efficiency, and individual merit. ­These differences in justice preferences are consistent with the philosophical differences among socialists, liberals, and conservatives that go back several centuries, as noted previously. Ideological polarization tends to be greatest for judgments of hy­po­thet­i­cal socie­ties containing moderate degrees of meritocracy (Mitchell et al., 1993, 2003). Presumably, this is ­because liberals see the justice glass ­under such circumstances as half-­empty—­emphasizing the role of chance—­whereas conservatives see it as half-­f ull—­emphasizing ability and effort.

32  A Theory of System Justification

Relative Deprivation Theory Unlike the preceding accounts, relative deprivation theory does not specify which princi­ples of distributive justice ­people w ­ ill prefer ­under certain circumstances. Rather, it addresses a more general question about the social and psychological pro­cesses leading to the appraisal of a given situation as ­either just or unjust. In essence, the theory holds that p ­ eople ­w ill experience moral outrage and engage in collective action aimed at changing an unjust status quo if and only if they perceive themselves as relatively deprived (Davies, 1962; Gurr, 1970). Theories that pivot on the concept of relative deprivation are not theories about how to recognize or implement social justice per se; rather, they seek to understand when p ­ eople ­w ill and w ­ ill not perceive social injustice. ­W hether ­people’s subjective perceptions are objectively accurate is simply not addressed. From the perspective of relative deprivation theory, it does not ­matter w ­ hether ­people appeal to equity, equality, or need princi­ples (or no justice princi­ples at all) in formulating and acting on perceptions of relative deprivation. The only ­thing that ­matters is w ­ hether or not they are aggrieved. Relative deprivation theory began with a basic empirical observation: when asked about their degree of satisfaction with the promotion system in the US Army, soldiers’ judgments had very l­ittle to do with current rank, promotion rates, or their a­ ctual likelihood of promotion. Instead, judgments ­were based largely on where the soldiers felt they stood in comparison with fellow soldiers of similar rank. If they w ­ ere worse off than the other soldiers around them, they felt deprived (Stouffer et al., 1949). Thus, soldiers’ feelings of satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) ­were not due to a careful analy­sis of the characteristics of the system itself, but rather depended on social comparison pro­cesses. The central insight of relative deprivation theory, then, is that judgments of fairness and satisfaction (or, conversely, unfairness and dissatisfaction) are seldom derived on the basis of some abstract or absolute standard. Rather, they are the result of an inherently comparative pro­cess in which one’s own situation is contrasted with that of ­others—or, as with regard to equity comparisons, on the basis of intrapersonal comparisons involving one’s own prior states and expectations. James Davies (1962) proposed an influential theory of revolution in which he argued that social and po­liti­cal unrest is most likely to occur when a prolonged period of improvement in living conditions is followed by a brief but painful period of decline, such that the gap between p ­ eople’s subjectively rising expectations and their objectively worsening circumstances becomes

What Is Social Justice?   33

intolerable. This argument sought to reconcile (a) Marx’s claim that abject deprivation would lead members of underprivileged groups (such as the working class) to realize that they have “nothing to lose but their chains” and therefore rebel against the status quo, and (b) Tocqueville’s historical observation that “the most overwhelming oppression often burst[s] into rebellion against the yoke the moment it begins to grow lighter.” Davies interpreted several historical cases—­including Dorr’s Rebellion of 1842 and the Rus­sian Revolution of 1917—as corroborating his theory. Building on this account, Gurr (1970) proposed that a significant gap between p ­ eople’s expectations and their capabilities creates the necessary precondition for po­liti­cal conflict of any kind. In a series of cross-­national studies, he found that both short-­term economic deprivation and long-­term strains (such as discrimination) magnify frustration and increase the eventual likelihood of po­liti­cal rebellion. Walter G. Runciman’s (1966) well-­known distinction between egoistic (individual) and fraternal (group) forms of relative deprivation has borne much fruit in social psychological research. Studies show, for example, that relative deprivation at the group (but not individual) level of analy­sis is a power­ful determinant of prejudice and out-­group hostility. Given the consistency of this result, it seems worthwhile to ask ­whether the converse—­feeling that one’s group is relatively gratified in comparison with another group—is associated with decreased hostility. Unfortunately, the answer is no; rather, group-­based feelings of relative gratification (or perhaps superiority) are also associated with out-­group hostility. It has been suggested that (presumably false) perceptions of relative deprivation—­and the anger elicited by such perceptions—­may explain actions taken by advantaged groups to stop government intervention on behalf of members of objectively disadvantaged groups (Major et al., 2002). When ­those at the top claim injustice and discrimination from below, it is difficult to know ­whether such claims are based sincerely on fairness concerns or are merely strategic ploys to maintain their own advantage, but the distinction is impor­tant. When do perceptions of relative deprivation lead t­ hose who are disadvantaged to try to improve their own or their group’s position—or to participate in collective action more generally? Not too surprisingly, group deprivation contributes more strongly than individual deprivation to collective action, possibly b ­ ecause perceptions of group deprivation are more likely to elicit negative, outward-­d irected emotions such as anger, whereas perceptions of individual deprivation may be associated with more inward-­d irected

34  A Theory of System Justification

emotions, such as depression and anxiety. Although most studies link group (rather than individual) relative deprivation to participation in collective action, some evidence suggests that collective action is most likely to result when both forms of deprivation are experienced. Faye Crosby (1976) proposed that five conditions must be met for feelings of individual relative deprivation to ensue: a person must (1) notice that another person possesses more, (2) desire what the other person has, (3) feel entitled to it, (4) believe that it can realistically be attained, and (5) not feel responsible for his or her own state of deprivation. Reflecting on the results of survey research, Crosby and colleagues (1986) ­later trimmed the list of preconditions to two—­wanting something and feeling that one deserves it. The other three f­actors, they concluded, w ­ ere more distal c­ auses of relative deprivation and their effects w ­ ere hypothesized to be mediated by the two more proximal states of wanting and deserving. Which preconditions are truly necessary to engender feelings of relative deprivation is still largely unknown. Nevertheless, feelings of personal deprivation have been linked to a number of consequential outcomes, including c­ areer disengagement, symptoms of stress among the unemployed, and w ­ omen’s dissatisfaction with ­house­hold divisions of l­ abor. Relative deprivation theorists tend to assume, often tacitly, that members of disadvantaged groups are revolutionaries in waiting and that they w ­ ill fight against the status quo as soon as the full and frustrating extent of their deprivation is made obvious through direct social comparison with ­others or with what might have been. Members of advantaged groups, too, are hypothesized to feel relatively deprived when a­ ctual outcomes fall short of their (even lofty, unrealistic) expectations. Thus, Gurr (1970) concluded that “men are quick to aspire beyond their social means and quick to anger when ­those means prove inadequate, but slow to accept their limitations” (p. 58). The prob­lem is that the evidence fails to corroborate t­ hese very strong claims (Kinder & Sears, 1985). For one t­hing, the perception of relative deprivation does not seem to be a sufficient cause of anger, protest be­hav­ior, or participation in collective action. At the very least, ­people must perceive in­ equality as illegitimate in order to challenge it, but perceptions of illegitimacy are highly contingent on ideological and other f­ actors. As a result, rebellion against the status quo is much rarer than relative deprivation and related theoretical perspectives would imply. Contrary to Gurr’s (1970) supposition that “men are quick to aspire” (p. 58) beyond their means, social psychological research demonstrates that “social comparison biases tend to prevent

What Is Social Justice?   35

awareness of disadvantage, and attribution biases tend to legitimize disadvantage,” as Brenda Major (1994, p. 294) put it. Thus, despite the fact that ­women are dramatically underpaid compared to men and suffer vari­ous other forms of discrimination, most ­women show ­little discontent or resentment concerning their payment and employment status and no overall deficit in satisfaction when compared to men. It is telling that Thomas Pettigrew (2002) ultimately regarded the relative deprivation perspective as “not a fully developed theory itself,” but rather “a key construct that can link dif­fer­ent levels of analy­sis” (p. 353). Neither Stouffer and colleagues (1949) nor their many esteemed successors ­were able to specify the circumstances ­under which drawing upward social comparisons would consistently lead the disadvantaged to participate in collective action aimed at social change (Kinder & Sears, 1985). Collective action is rarer than it should be and does not result simply from the perception that one’s expectancies (or aspirations) have been ­v iolated. Rather, collective action requires the dynamic interplay of a complicated set of social, psychological, and po­liti­cal variables. This theme is one that we ­will return to throughout the book, especially in Chapter 11. Belief in a Just World ­Human beings want adamantly to believe that their efforts and investments ­will be recognized and rewarded: this is the basis for the belief in a just world. To establish a theoretical foundation in developmental psy­chol­ogy for his theory of the justice motive and belief in a just world, Melvin Lerner (1975) proposed that The child (in order to gain better, more secure outcomes) develops a personal contract with the self. The terms of this contract are simply that he / she is willing to do certain ­things, give up certain ­things, on the assumption that a par­tic­u ­lar desired outcome ­w ill ensue. The child designs the child’s goal-­seeking, the adult patterns his / her life around this personal contract, mainly ­because it is to the person’s benefit to develop the psy­chol­ogy of entitlement. P ­ eople want to deserve their outcomes, get what they are entitled to receive. This concern with one’s own deserving, or personal contract, get linked to the commitment to justice—to an insistence that o­ thers get what they deserve—in vari­ous ways . . . ​This psy­ chol­ogy of entitlement provides the inevitable basis of the concern with justice for o­ thers. (p. 13)

36  A Theory of System Justification

In Lerner’s view, ­people want to believe that their delaying personal gratification and participating in civilized society w ­ ill be reciprocated by benefits from society. A natu­ral extension of this personal contract is the motivated belief that ­people’s outcomes (i.e., rewards or punishments) are caused by who they are or what they have done. According to Lerner, p ­ eople cling so strongly to this fundamental delusion that any information contradicting it—­such as children suffering from terminal illness or innocent persons being ­ victimized—­causes psychological distress. To cope with distress, ­people convince themselves that the social world operates according to rules of deservingness, namely, that p ­ eople get what they deserve and deserve what they get. The desire (or motive) to attain justice—­both for oneself and for o­ thers— is thus linked to the ­human need to commit to long-­term goal pursuit. Claudia Dalbert (2002) has argued that the belief in a just world operates as a personal resource that helps ­people cope with unjust events that occur in their daily lives. This, in turn, may help to explain both the prevalence of this belief and its high degree of social desirability. Fifty years of empirical research derived from just world theorizing has supported specific hypotheses. Much of this work has addressed psychological pro­cesses associated with victim derogation, or ascribing negative characteristics to ­people to whom bad ­things happen. For instance, research participants who learn about a ­woman’s suffering and are denied the opportunity to help her directly are more likely to defame her character than are participants who are able to compensate her in some way. Studies of this type suggest that p ­ eople are generally threatened by the presence of injustice and are therefore motivated to restore justice (e.g., through reparations); however, if they are prevented from restoring justice, they ­w ill engage in m ­ ental gymnastics (such as rationalization) to deny or minimize the unjust event. When opportunities to help are blocked, ­people are prone to derogate t­hose who are impoverished, unlucky, and unemployed; t­ hose who are sick with cancer, pneumonia, and HIV; and victims of sexual assault, spousal abuse, and electric shock. The desire to maintain the belief in a just world apparently leads ­people even to derogate themselves for their own misfortune. Conversely, the belief in a just world encourages ­people to praise the beneficiaries of luck and good fortune, including ­those who are power­ful or physically attractive. Experimental research on the belief in a just world has largely focused on victim blaming as the most common behavioral outcome (Hafer & Bègue, 2005). Perhaps this is ­because it seems so paradoxical that the desire for justice would lead p ­ eople to treat ­others so unjustly.5 Relatively l­ittle has been

What Is Social Justice?   37

done to experimentally test other theoretical assumptions of the original theory, to pinpoint the psychological mechanisms involved, or to explore other pos­si­ble means of satisfying the justice motive. Fortunately, t­ here are some exceptions to this generalization. As we ­w ill see in Chapter 7, for example, exposure to complementary ste­reo­types in which an illusion of equality is created by ascribing positive, redeeming characteristics to members of disadvantaged groups and negative, offsetting characteristics to members of advantaged groups also helps to sustain the belief that societal arrangements are fair and just. ­There may be no single theme more commonly enshrined in Western ideology than that of individual deservingness. It figures prominently in characterizations of the belief in a just world (BJW) as well as the Protestant work ethic (PWE) and many other system-­justifying belief systems, including meritocratic ideology and faith in the American Dream. ­People are far more likely to feel that the existing social, economic, or po­liti­cal system is fair and just to the extent that they see recipients of distributive outcomes (e.g., wealth and poverty) as personally deserving of t­ hose outcomes. P ­ eople feel more justified in discriminating against ­t hose who are stigmatized on the basis of characteristics that are seen as personally controllable, such as obesity. Social psychologists have devoted considerable research attention to understanding how notions of deservingness and entitlement are related to pro­cesses of attribution, stereotyping and prejudice, perceptions of discrimination, po­liti­cal ideology, and appraisals of the legitimacy of social systems. Studies show that perceptions of personal causation and deservingness lead p ­ eople to hold more and less favorable attitudes ­toward high-­and low-­status targets, respectively. Endorsement of just world beliefs and system-­justifying ideologies that emphasize deservingness are associated with increased prejudice t­ oward African Americans and obese p ­ eople, among other stigmatized groups (e.g., Crandall, 1994, 1995; Quinn & Crocker, 1999). Espousing po­ liti­cal conservatism, which often leans heavi­ly on assumptions of personal deservingness and individual responsibility, also predicts both implicit and explicit devaluation of ­those who are disadvantaged in society, including African Americans, as we ­w ill see in Chapter 5. Much research, including studies of relative deprivation and social comparison pro­cesses, has explored the ways in which ­people’s perceptions of entitlement relate to issues of social justice. One useful focus has been on the conditions that lead members of disadvantaged or low-­status groups (such as w ­ omen) to develop a depressed sense of entitlement that leads them to be

38  A Theory of System Justification

satisfied with less than ­others receive (Major, 1994). The endorsement of vari­ous ideological belief systems—­especially t­ hose that reinforce notions of meritocracy and deservingness—­have been associated with the tendency for members of low-­status groups to view their own state of disadvantage as legitimate. For example, ­women who score higher on the belief in a just world are less likely to report career-­related discontentment, and ethnic minorities who espouse the belief that it is pos­si­ble to climb the status hierarchy are less likely to view negative outcomes as being due to discrimination or unfairness. In other research, priming members of a low-­status group with meritocratic ideals made them less likely to regard unfair treatment by a higher-­status group member as caused by discrimination (McCoy & Major, 2007).

Procedural, Interactional, Retributive, and Restorative Justice Although the terms social justice and distributive justice are often used interchangeably, phi­los­o­phers and social scientists recognize that justice considerations pertain not merely to the allocation of resources but also to the procedures by which decisions are made. Con­temporary social psychological research has demonstrated that justice appraisals are determined at least as much, if not more, by the perceived fairness of the procedures used than distributive outcomes (Tyler, 2006). Work in this area focuses on the subjective perceptions of fair (versus unfair) treatment, but by describing the social-­structural and other antecedents of such perceptions, researchers are also moving closer to identifying the objective circumstances that foster social justice in a normative sense. Or, conversely: If treating ­people in a specific way uniformly elicits strong, genuine perceptions of injustice, we should consider the possibility that such treatment is in fact unjust. Aggregating across a wide range of situations, ­people prioritize three criteria of procedural justice in particular—­consistency, accuracy, and ethicality. Frankena (1962) observed that “society does not consist merely of the law or the state: it has also a more informal aspect, comprised of its cultural institutions, conventions, moral rules, and moral sanctions.” Thus, he argued, “in order for society to be fully just, it must be just in its informal as well as in its formal aspect” (p. 2). If this is correct, then it is pos­si­ble to speak of social injustice as arising not merely as a consequence of unfair treatment proffered by institutionally sanctioned authority figures such as politicians, judges, police officers, bosses, and teachers, but also on the basis of how citi-

What Is Social Justice?   39

zens tend to treat one another. Prejudice, discrimination, and authoritarianism on the part of ordinary citizens can contribute to a social climate that is undemo­cratic and fundamentally unjust, as Lewin noted with regard to fascist society. Several models of interactional justice have been put forth over the years; few explic­itly address be­hav­ior or circumstances as extreme as t­ hose associated with fascism, but the interactional justice models clearly do involve a broader conception of social justice than do more formal models of distributive or procedural justice. ­People do not just want fair procedures; they want fair treatment in a much broader sense. But what constitutes fair interpersonal treatment? Initial accounts emphasized four aspects of social interaction: re­spect, truthfulness, justification (i.e., the provision of timely, adequate explanations for decisions), and propriety (i.e. sensitivity, appropriateness, and the avoidance of prejudicial treatment). Scholars subsequently nominated additional candidates, such as dignity, the provision of feedback, and consideration of o­ thers’ views. Some authors have suggested that interactional justice comprises two separate constructs: informational justice, which emphasizes communicative aspects such as truthfulness and justification, and interpersonal justice, which guarantees sensitive treatment in terms of re­spect and propriety. Ideally, a complete normative account of social justice w ­ ill incorporate all of ­these interactional concerns. Following acts of clear injustice, individuals, groups, and socie­ties often enact some form of punishment. When apprehended and found guilty, perpetrators are jailed, fined, or in some way reprimanded for their actions. Such punishment schemes are typically seen as reasonable and legitimate by the public at large—­indeed, they are seen as cornerstones of the justice system. But how, specifically, are ­these systems of punishment justified or, more precisely, justicized, that is shown to be just? ­These questions have been investigated most directly by scholars focused on retributive justice concerns, namely, “how p ­ eople who have intentionally committed known, morally wrong actions that ­either directly or indirectly harm ­others, should be punished for their misdeeds” (Carlsmith & Darley, 2008, p. 194). Two broad kinds of justifications for punishment have been offered, both of which originate in the seminal work of moral phi­los­o­phers. Jeremy Bentham argued that punishment, to be justified, must serve some utilitarian purpose; that is, it must benefit society overall—­making social life better or happier in some impor­tant way. How might punishment benefit society? Perhaps the threat or execution of punishment prevents or reduces the number

40  A Theory of System Justification

of ­future acts of injustice. Reducing the incidence of unjust acts benefits society as a ­whole, ­whether through specific deterrence (punishing an offender sufficiently to deter ­his or her future offenses), incapacitation (temporarily or permanently preventing an offender from committing additional offenses, e.g., through incarceration), or general deterrence (punishing offenders so as to deter o­ thers from committing offenses). Kant offered a second, very dif­fer­ent justification for punishment. He argued that punishment was fair insofar as ­people deserve to be punished for immoral be­hav­ior. Punishment balances the scales, so to speak. From this just deserts perspective, the worse the perpetrator’s actions, the harsher the punishment required to restore justice. As Kant said, punishment “should be pronounced over all criminals in proportion to their wickedness.” Unlike the utilitarian approach to punishment, the goal is to harm the offender in proportion to the offense; benefit (or cost) to society as a ­whole is irrelevant. To determine what motivates support for punishment, researchers have pitted utilitarian, deterrence-­related concerns against Kantian notions of just deserts. One conclusion emerges clearly from t­hese studies: P ­ eople are far more attuned to the severity of a crime and its moral significance when assigning punishment than they are to the likelihood of ­either specific or general deterrence. The desire for retribution is motivated by the perceived immorality of unjust be­hav­ior and the consequent moral outrage. P ­ eople actively search for information related to morality when assigning punishment. Moral culpability and seriousness of the offense influence the harshness of recommended punishment, and moral outrage mediates the relationship between the severity of an offense and recommended punishments (Carlsmith & Darley, 2008). The objective determinants of punishment attitudes, which are largely Kantian, and the subjective reasons p ­ eople give in explaining their support for punishment, which lean ­toward utilitarianism, provide a fascinating contrast. This divergence has been observed, for example, in the dramatic context of debates over the use of torture in US military prisons abroad. Although ­people who endorse torture generally say that their opinion is driven by their conviction that torture successfully prevents ­future harm, experimental evidence reveals that support for harsh interrogation tactics is predicted by the perceived moral status of the target and not by information concerning the likely effectiveness of the interrogation pro­cess (e.g., Janoff-Bulman, 2007). System justification motivation also plays a role in popu­lar support for torture, insofar as US citizens deem torture to be more acceptable and jus-

What Is Social Justice?   41

tifiable to the extent that it is seen as part of the societal status quo—­that is, when they are told that the US military has been practicing torture for several de­cades (Crandall et al., 2009). Po­liti­cal conservatives recommend much stricter sentences than liberals for a wide range of criminal activities, with the exception of violations of civil rights and environmental laws (Rossi & Berk, 1997). This work raises the possibility that ­people may be actually motivated (consciously or nonconsciously) to support highly aggressive forms of retribution (such as torture or imprisonment or capital punishment) by one set of justice-­related reasons (e.g., intuitions about fairness and deservingness) or—­what is more worrisome—­non-­justice-­related reasons such as vengeance, authoritarianism, social dominance, or racial prejudice, and yet offer an entirely dif­fer­ent set of justice-­related reasons (e.g., utilitarianism, deterrence) as post hoc rationalizations for punitive action. A far more optimistic image of retributive justice motives comes from theoretical models that emphasize the desire to affirm group or community values or standards. The guiding idea is that unjust actions threaten the assumption that social consensus around justice and morality exists and that meting out punishment is an effective way of affirming shared values. From this perspective, punishment serves to communicate the group’s values and may therefore repair feelings of social identification—­feelings that can be damaged when group members are confronted with an explicit challenge to their values. However, if one’s primary goal in assigning punishment is to reaffirm social values and the consensus of group norms, restorative justice—­ which involves coming up with pro-­social alternatives to traditional forms of punishment—is a more normatively defensible option. In restorative justice sentencing, the vari­ous parties are encouraged to express their feelings, come to an agreement about the harm that has occurred, and decide together what actions should be taken to reestablish a sense of justice. The aim of such programs is to promote healing and justice through open discussion, consensus, and forgiveness. Rather than simply meting out punishment—­punishment can be part of restorative justice outcomes, but it is not generally considered to be necessary—­the agreed upon actions often involve the offender participating in events or activities that are directly related to the restoration of justice (e.g., participation in community ser­vice). When used in an appropriate context, this pro­cess is thought to better help the victim and the broader community feel that justice has been restored and to reintegrate the perpetrator into community life so that he or she ­w ill be more likely to re­spect its norms in the ­future. A well-­k nown

42  A Theory of System Justification

example concerns the truth and reconciliation pro­cess established in South Africa following the abolition of the apartheid system. An impor­tant question may be raised about the overarching goals of restorative mea­sures and ­whether they truly serve the cause of justice. Capehart and Milovanovic (2007) put it this way: The glaring question is “Restore to what?” If, for example, structures and a par­tic­u­lar form of community organ­izations reduce or repress the search for self-­development and actualization, then, the transformative theorists argue, simply to restore relations to this previous state is by itself contributing to the sustaining of reductive or repressive practices. (p. 61)

This prob­lem is by no means ­limited to the study of restorative justice. It should serve as a reminder to always consider the big picture, that is, the overall extent to which the social system that is being created or reinforced by the implementation of specific princi­ples or mechanisms—­allegedly in the name of distributive, procedural, interactional, retributive, or restorative justice concerns—­actually is just. Too many theories in social science shy away from ­these considerations, allegedly in the name of objectivity but actually in ser­v ice of the status quo.

Obstacles to the Attainment of Social Justice Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Adorno and colleagues (1950) identified a personality syndrome they regarded as a threat not merely to social justice but to democracy itself: the authoritarian personality. Specifically, they proposed that economic frustration and harsh child-­rearing tactics, among other dynamics, lead certain individuals (including a majority of individuals in some circumstances, such as Nazi Germany) to develop fascist (or protofascist) tendencies. The catastrophic result is a population containing a disproportionate share of citizens gravitating ­toward rigid, prejudicial ways of thinking and extreme forms of prejudice and intolerance ­toward o­ thers, especially t­hose who are considered deviants or con­ve­nient scapegoats. Subsequent research has confirmed that highly threatening circumstances increase levels of authoritarianism in the general population. Bob Altemeyer (1981) updated the classic theory of authoritarianism to emphasize three major characteristics of the disposition: (1) “a high degree

What Is Social Justice?   43

of submission to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate,” (2) “a general aggressiveness, directed against vari­ous persons, which is perceived to be sanctioned by established authorities,” and (3) “a high degree of adherence to the social conventions which are perceived to be endorsed by society” (p. 148). Scores on the right-­wing authoritarianism (RWA) scale are empirically associated with a wide range of attitudes and be­hav­ iors, including racial prejudice, sexism, homophobia, victim blaming, punishment of deviants, severity of jury sentencing decisions, lack of support for civil liberties and freedoms, and approval of illegal governmental activities such as wiretapping, unconstitutional drug raids, and po­liti­cal harassment and intimidation. In a ­great many dif­fer­ent ways, authoritarianism is an individual difference (personality or dispositional) variable that predicts drastically diminished concerns for social justice. So, too, is social dominance orientation (SDO), as conceptualized and mea­sured by Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto (2001). This construct is intended to gauge individual differences in “general support for the domination of certain socially constructed groups over other socially constructed groups,” w ­ hether on the basis of “race, sex, religion, social class, region, skin color, clan, caste, lineage, tribe, minimal groups, or any other group distinction that the ­human mind is capable of creating” (p. 61). Support for social dominance is ­really composed of two subfactors, namely, the desire for group-­based dominance and a generalized opposition to equality (Jost & Thompson, 2000; Kugler et al., 2014). Both of ­these attitudes are potential obstacles to the attainment of social justice. When combined in a statistical model, respondents’ scores on RWA and SDO scales account for more than half of the observed variation in prejudice and ethnocentrism (Altemeyer, 1998). But is it r­ eally unjust to be driven by desires for in-­group superiority and a hierarchical social system? Perhaps the most succinct and compelling explanation for why social dominance poses an inherent threat to social justice comes from Michael Walzer (1983), who observed that The critique of dominance and domination points ­toward an open-­ended distributive princi­ple. No social good x should be distributed to men and w ­ omen who possess some other good y merely b­ ecause they possess y and without regard to the meaning of x. This is a princi­ple that has prob­ably been reiterated, at one time or another, for e­ very y that has ever been dominant. But it has not often been stated in general terms. (p. 20)

44  A Theory of System Justification

According to Walzer, it is unjust for individuals to disproportionately receive benefits or burdens simply b ­ ecause of some (presumably irrelevant) characteristic, such as belonging to a dominant or subordinated group. This would violate basic notions of deservingness, including princi­ples of equity and merit, as well as what Jane Mansbridge (2005) characterized as the “logic of formal justice”—­the prescription to “treat every­one equally u ­ nless you can give relevant reasons for unequal treatment” (p.  337). Sidanius and Pratto (2001) point out that it is a regrettable if not reprehensible fact about our social system (and, indeed the world at large) that—at least in part b­ ecause of their social group memberships—­some individuals possess a “disproportionately large share of positive social value,” including “such ­things as po­liti­cal authority and power, good and plentiful food, splendid homes, the best available health care, wealth, and high social status,” whereas ­others “possess a disproportionately large share of negative social value, including such t­ hings as low power and social status, high-­risk and low-­status occupations, relatively poor health care, poor food, modest or miserable homes, and severe negative sanctions (e.g., prison and death sentences)” (pp. 31–32).

System Justification: The Palliative Function of Ideology It would be difficult to find a more astute justice theorist or a bigger authority on ethical be­hav­ior in the entire history of Western civilization than Aristotle. And yet aspects of his belief system strike con­temporary audiences as anomalous and obviously wrongheaded, possibly even immoral. Prob­ably the most obvious example is his spirited defense of the institution of slavery as practiced by so many of his fellow Athenian citizens (e.g., see Lippmann, 1922, pp. 96–98). How could such a brilliant ethical mind possibly find itself arguing that such a brutal, exploitative institution as slavery was not only necessary but also just? It was not the case that no one in ancient Greece had ever raised moral objections about slavery. Several phi­los­o­phers who w ­ ere contemporaries (or pre­de­ces­sors) of Aristotle had criticized the practice, but Aristotle rejected or refuted ­those criticisms. The answer, it would appear, has a lot to do with system justification. Richard Kraut (2002) writes No doubt, Aristotle believed that slavery was justified in part ­because that was a con­ve­nient tenet for him to hold. Had he come to the opposite conclusion, he would have been forced to announce to the Greek world that its po­liti­cal institutions, which he greatly valued (however much he also

What Is Social Justice?   45 criticized them), rested on resources that could not be justly acquired or used. The all too h ­ uman tendency to avoid upheavals of thought and revolutions in social practice certainly played a role h ­ ere. But . . . ​in order for Aristotle to have arrived at the sincere conviction that slavery was just, his social world had to pre­sent itself to him in a way that supported that thesis. (p. 279)

A combination of social, cognitive, and motivational ­factors apparently led Aristotle to the conclusion that some individuals are natu­ral slaves by virtue of their childlike helplessness and ­others are natu­ral masters by virtue of their rational faculties. Thus, he argued that both slaves and masters benefited from the institution of slavery. As a result of ­these beliefs, Aristotle and his fellow Athenians w ­ ere able to feel better about their own society and to rationalize away any guilt, cognitive dissonance, or negative emotion that they might have other­w ise experienced. To make ­matters worse, ­because of Aristotle’s philosophical stature, his arguments w ­ ere resurrected in sixteenth-­century Spain to justify the enslavement of indigenous p ­ eople in the New World. If Aristotle himself was tempted to excuse the injustices inherent in the social system he knew and loved, what hope is ­there for the rest of us to avoid a similar fate, at least with re­spect to some subset of social issues? According to system justification theory, all of us are motivated—to varying degrees, as a function of both dispositional and situational ­factors—to rationalize away the moral and other failures of our social, economic, and po­liti­cal institutions and to derogate alternatives to the status quo. Thus, despite the fact that most Americans espouse egalitarian ideals and acknowledge substantial income in­equality in society, surveys show that a majority of US respondents continue to judge the economic system to be fair and legitimate. In the context of a chapter on social justice, it is worth pointing out that, according to a 2017 report of the Institute for Policy Studies, the Forbes 400 list of Amer­i­ca’s wealthiest billionaires own more wealth than the bottom 64 ­percent of the population (204 million ­people) combined. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find any justice princi­ple (e.g., equity, equality, need) that would justicize this degree of economic in­equality. In fact, this degree of in­equality has arisen not ­because anyone believes it to be fair but b ­ ecause of impersonal market forces ­under the cap­i­tal­ist system that most citizens accept—­implicitly or explic­itly—as legitimate (Bénabou, 2008).

46  A Theory of System Justification

Nevertheless, it has been argued that system-­justifying attitudes reflect a moral motivation to protect society and that “the benefits of justifying the system are not just palliative, they are meaning-­providing and can often be impor­tant for h ­ uman flourishing” (Haidt & Graham, 2009, p. 391). Without disputing that system justification contributes to social stability and carries with it a number of social and psychological benefits for the individual, certain social groups, and perhaps society as a ­whole, it is impor­tant to point out that it is neither moral nor immoral in and of itself. System justification can indeed inspire ­people to celebrate and vindicate truly just institutions and practices. Nevertheless, as we ­w ill see throughout this book, it is often an obstacle to the attainment of social justice b ­ ecause the very same motivation can lead us—as it appears to have led Aristotle—to venerate t­ hose features of the social system, including customs, traditions, and practices, that should, on normative grounds, be overthrown.

Conclusion In this chapter we have proceeded on the assumption that few subjects in the w ­ hole of the social and behavioral sciences are as difficult or as impor­ tant to investigate empirically as the subject of social justice. As usual, John Stuart Mill (1910) diagnosed the prob­lem trenchantly, even if he could not offer a solution to the prob­lem that would satisfy the demands of his most serious philosophical adversaries: Not only have dif­fer­ent nations and individuals dif­fer­ent notions of justice, but, in the mind of one and the same individual, justice is not some one rule, princi­ple, or maxim, but many, which do not always coincide in their dictates . . . (p. 51)

We may grant this impor­tant point without abandoning the enterprise altogether. Indeed, many topics that fascinate social scientists—­such as motivation, self-­regulation, social influence, rationality, happiness, culture, and po­liti­cal ideology—­have no single determinant or ­simple solution to the prob­lems they highlight. Each of ­these phenomena is likewise beset by complex determination, subjective ambivalence, and the tension arising from conflicting forces that are internal and external to the individual. When we study social justice, as when we study t­ hese other indispensable topics, we must look not for one answer but for several (Walzer, 1983). That is, the most compelling normative theory (or metatheory) of social justice may well

What Is Social Justice?   47

combine ele­ments of utilitarian and deontological approaches and reconcile multiple, potentially conflicting justice princi­ples—­such as equity, equality, need, merit, and liberty—in some hierarchical structure that weights such princi­ples differentially as a function of contextual variables and local contingencies. In any case, normative questions about social justice are too impor­tant to leave entirely to phi­los­o­phers, ­lawyers, and experts in other, largely nonempirical fields, as if withholding scientific data from the conversation serves anyone well. It is common but unhelpful when empiricists cling to an outmoded fact / value dichotomy, which is one of the more unfortunate remnants of the logical positivist legacy in philosophies of language and science. For one ­thing, empirical research has a crucial role to play in clearing away common misconceptions—­including erroneous assumptions, ste­reo­ types, and misunderstandings about the c­ auses of ­human be­hav­ior—­and thereby updating and elevating public discourse about ­matters of social justice and morality (Blasi & Jost, 2006). Over time, scientific findings have the capacity to change culturally prevalent repre­sen­ta­tions of f­ree ­w ill, responsibility, and so on, and t­hese changes w ­ ill eventually manifest themselves in ­legal transformations. Furthermore, phi­los­o­phers such as Owen Flanagan (1991) and Kwame Anthony Appiah (2008) strive to develop normative theories of justice that are consistent with what is known about ­human psy­chol­ogy. L ­ egal authorities, too, have a vested interest in prescribing laws that are psychologically realistic in the sense that most citizens w ­ ill be able to follow them. Nevertheless, social scientists frequently suggest that they cannot help to determine what is actually just and that they must confine their efforts to offering purely descriptive or subjectivist accounts of what ­people think is fair. This approach to the prob­lem, which E. E. Sampson (1983) referred to as “truncated subjectivism” (p. 146), is understandable in terms of scholarly prudence, but it may be overly modest about what social science has to offer. We would do well to recall that cognitive psychologists and other scientists have contributed mightily to refining normative theories of rationality as well as formerly philosophical (and even metaphysical) treatments of epistemological questions since Quine. In recent years, phi­los­o­phers have incorporated evidence from social and personality psy­chol­ogy in evaluating Aristotelian and other normative (as well as descriptive) theories of ethics, virtue, and moral character. We see no reason to assume that social scientific research ­will be any less useful in forging the kinds of normative conceptions

48  A Theory of System Justification

of justice and injustice that have traditionally been the bread and butter of moral philosophy and ­legal scholarship. This returns us to the ­grand ambitions with which we began this chapter. Kurt Lewin (1948) argued that the objectives of science and social justice ­were in fact highly compatible: To believe in reason means to believe in democracy, b ­ ecause it grants to the reasoning partners a status of equality. It is therefore not an accident that not u ­ ntil the rise of democracy at the time of the American and French Revolutions was the goddess of “reason” enthroned in modern society. And again, it is not an accident that the first act of modern Fascism in ­every country has been officially and vigorously to dethrone this goddess and instead to make emotions and obedience the all-­r uling princi­ples in education and life from kindergarten to death. I am persuaded that scientific sociology and social psy­chol­ogy based on an intimate combination of experiments and empirical theory can do as much, or more, for ­human betterment as the natu­ral sciences have done. However, the development of such a realistic, nonmystical social science and the possibility of its fruitful application presuppose the existence of a society which believes in reason. (p. 83)

Thus, Lewin was unapologetic—­some have said heroic—­about the use of social science to serve the ends of social justice and, in so d ­ oing, to improve society. The evidence reviewed in this chapter reveals that considerable pro­ gress ­toward this most ambitious goal has been achieved. At the same time, the jury is still out on ­whether theory and evidence from social psy­chol­ogy can offer unique, indispensable insights that—­when combined with ­those gathered from philosophy, law, history, anthropology, sociology, economics, orga­nizational be­hav­ior, po­liti­cal science, and other disciplines—­w ill allow us to attain the highest degree of social justice in practice and to overcome its most stubborn, pernicious, and recurrent obstacles. We follow Lewin in supposing, however optimistically, that they can. In the next chapter we begin to spell out the ways in which a theory of system justification—as inspired by Lewin and many ­others—is poised to make such a contribution.


Intellectual Precursors, Major Postulates, and Practical Relevance of System Justification Theory


participate in an astonishing number and diversity of relationships, groups, networks, and social systems. Even in solitude, our thoughts, feelings, and actions reflect social norms, expectations, and the ties that bind. But what do we do when ­these relationships carry within them ele­ments of in­equality, exploitation, and social injustice? Resistance—if not out-­and-­out rebellion—­would seem to be the most obvious or appropriate response to such situations, but its occurrence is far rarer than most would expect, as we saw in the last chapter. The infrequency of protest, collective action, and other convincing attempts to reshape social systems to make them more congenial to group interests, including majority group interests, was—­throughout the twentieth ­century—­a much studied, albeit not well understood, phenomenon in philosophy and the social sciences. As we w ­ ill see in this chapter, authors from a multiplicity of theoretical traditions have concluded that ­people, including members of disadvantaged groups, frequently acquiesce in the social order and, in so ­doing, violate their own objective social interests. However, the acquiescence of t­ hose who are disadvantaged by the status quo was not adequately explained or connected to a comprehensive analy­sis of thought and (in)action. More often than not, it was simply attributed to the passive ac­cep­tance of dominant ideology. Almost without exception, scholars failed to consider the possibility that most individuals—­and not just OST INDIV IDUA LS


50  A Theory of System Justification

t­ hose at the top—­have a psychological interest or motivation to uphold the legitimacy of the social system. This is precisely what system justification theory proposes: To varying degrees (based on dispositional and situational f­actors), ­people are motivated—­ whether consciously or nonconsciously—to defend, bolster, and justify aspects of existing social, economic, and po­liti­cal arrangements. System justification theory is a self-­ conscious attempt to explain why ­ people so frequently adapt themselves to the societal status quo, rather than pushing for change and social betterment, as so many other theories in social science would portend. System justification theory integrates insights garnered from dif­fer­ent philosophical and scientific perspectives on false consciousness and po­liti­cal acquiescence and therefore to function as a kind of umbrella theory. In this chapter, we review the historical and intellectual origins of the theory, focusing on major influences and theoretical precursors. In addition, we summarize the basic tenets (or postulates) of system justification theory in its current state of development. Fi­nally, we consider a few of the theory’s practical implications for society.

Historical Origins and Intellectual Precursors Certain historical and intellectual influences—­some within the disciplinary bound­aries of social psy­chol­ogy and some without—­played truly major roles in stimulating our thinking about how and why ­people provide ideological support for the status quo, even when it conflicts with their own personal or group interests. That the thinkers who proved most essential to our thinking have prob­ably never been grouped together before speaks strongly in ­favor of Jorge Luis Borges’s (1999) observation that “­every writer creates his precursors” (p. 365). The only common denominator—­other than social science in general—to be found in the writings of Marx, Engels, Gramsci, Lukács, Lewin, Allport, Berger and Luckmann, Tajfel, Moscovici, Festinger, Lerner, Deutsch, Elster, MacKinnon, Kelman, Eagly, Fiske, Sidanius, Jackman, and Major may be their putative connection to the theoretical construct I have dubbed system justification. In fact, I discovered some of ­these thinkers only ­after the original assumptions of system justification theory had already been laid out; their insights, in other words, w ­ ere folded into the theory as it developed conceptually as well as empirically.

Precursors, Postulates, and Relevance   51

Approaches to Dominant Ideology and False Consciousness The concept of system justification is based loosely on the concept of false consciousness, which is itself rooted in the early humanistic, so­cio­log­i­cal work of Karl Marx, especially The German Ideology and other works of the 1840s and 1850s. Marx and Engels argued that ideas favoring dominant groups in society prevail ­because ­these groups control the cultural and institutional means by which ideas are spread. The net result, they claimed, is that through the ideological machinations of elites (including phi­los­o­phers, such as the Young Hegelians), “men and their circumstances appear upside-­ down as in a camera obscura.” Social and po­liti­cal realities are systematically inverted and therefore distorted. Engels applied the term false consciousness in a letter written several years ­after Marx’s death: “Ideology is a pro­cess carried out by the so-­called thinker with consciousness, but with a false consciousness. The real driving forces that move him remain unknown to him; other­w ise it would not be an ideological pro­cess.” Marx believed that the working classes would eventually see through ­t hese ideological illusions and overthrow the cap­i­tal­ist system. From the perspective of rational self-­interest, Marx emphatically assumed that the poor had “nothing to lose but their chains.” However, his expectation that the oppressed would recognize and take action against the sources of their oppression may have been overly optimistic, considering vari­ous social and psychological obstacles to social change, including denial, rationalization, and other system justification tendencies. To explain why revolutions against capitalism—­a nd other arguably exploitative systems—­d id not occur in many heavi­ly industrialized nations, l­ater theorists, most notably Gramsci, Lukács, Fromm, Marcuse, Runciman, Cunningham, and MacKinnon, further developed the analy­sis of dominant ideology, cultural hegemony, and false consciousness. Each of ­these constructs, but especially the last one, anticipated the phenomena explored by system justification theorists. However, the concept of system justification was intended to ground t­ hese so­cio­log­i­cal constructs in psychological science and to capture the pro­cess rather than simply the outcome (or product) of ideological activity. Appendix A.1 summarizes major contributions to the system justification perspective made by vari­ous theorists with re­spect to the study of dominant ideology and false consciousness. Antonio Gramsci, the Marxian social theorist who was imprisoned unto death u ­ nder Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy, took seriously Marx’s notion

52  A Theory of System Justification

that a “popu­lar conviction often has the same energy as a material force.” More specifically, Gramsci (1971) sought to understand “the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the g­ reat masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group” (p. 12). His analy­sis stressed the role of social influence and persuasion and distinguished between active (spontaneous) and passive forms of support for the social system. Gramsci also recognized the potentially progressive or revolutionary role of ideology, that is, its ability to or­ga­nize members of disadvantaged groups, to enable them to “acquire consciousness of their position,” and to motivate what he (and other Marxists) regarded as a necessary strug­gle (p. 377). At the same time, Gramsci clearly perceived the ideological advantages possessed by t­ hose who side with the status quo: The existing social order is presented as a stable, harmoniously coordinated system, and the ­g reat mass of ­people hesitate and lose heart when they think of what a radical change might bring. . . . ​They can only imagine the pre­sent being torn to pieces, and fail to perceive the new order which is pos­si­ble, and which would be better or­ga­nized, more vital than the old one. (Fiori, 1970, pp. 106–107)

As far as we know, the first expression of the term system-­justifying beliefs occurs just once in a book by Kluegel and Smith (1986) titled Beliefs about In­equality, which combines so­cio­log­i­cal theory in the Gramscian tradition with an analy­sis of public opinion data. In passing, the authors refer to “certain Marxist theories that assume working-­c lass ­people ­w ill come to recognize the contradictions between their self-­interests and their system-­ justifying beliefs” (p. 15). Kluegel and Smith w ­ ere also apparently the first to demonstrate empirically that certain ideological beliefs are associated with emotional benefits, including a subjective sense of control, even among poor ­people. This notion, which is tacit in Marx’s provocative claim that religious ideology is the “opium of the masses” and Lerner’s (1980) formulation of the belief in a just world, inspired theoretical and empirical investigations of the palliative function of system-­justifying beliefs and ideologies. György Lukács, who was sometimes in the good graces of the Communist authorities in Hungary but often was not, was in any case better positioned than Gramsci to explore the concept of false consciousness. Importantly, Lukács (1971) recognized the necessity of distinguishing between subjective (or perceived) and objective (or a­ ctual) class interests:

Precursors, Postulates, and Relevance   53 By relating consciousness to the w ­ hole of society it becomes pos­si­ble to infer the thoughts and feelings which men would have in a par­tic­u­lar situation if they w ­ ere able to assess both it and the interests arising from it in their impact on immediate action and on the w ­ hole structure of society. (p. 59)

Lukács also followed Marx in advocating an empirical, social scientific analy­sis of ideology and false consciousness, eschewing dogmatic, polemical, and purely speculative philosophical approaches—although his critics feel he did not go far enough in this direction. Jon Elster (1982) explic­itly advocated a scientific approach to Marxian hypotheses about the social functions of ideological beliefs. This was part of a broader movement known as analytical Marxism (or, more colloquially, “Non-­ Bullshit” Marxism), which sought to develop and test empirically falsifiable claims derived from Marxian theory on such topics as social class, exploitation, ­labor, value, and ideology. Elster incorporated the work of experimental social psychologists to advance a number of hypotheses that reformulated Marxian ideas in unabashedly psychological terms, including the following two statements, which influenced the formulation of system justification theory along explic­itly cognitive-motivational lines: [­There is a] tendency of the oppressed and exploited classes in a society to believe in the justice of the social order that oppresses them. This belief, perhaps, is mainly due to distortion, i.e., to such affective mechanisms as rationalization. But t­ here is also an ele­ment of illusion, of bias stemming from purely cognitive sources. (p. 131) The interest of the upper class is better served by the lower classes spontaneously inventing an ideology justifying their inferior status. This ideology, while stemming from the interest of the lower classes in the sense of leading to dissonance reduction, is contrary to their interest b ­ ecause of a tendency to overshoot, resulting in excessive rather than in proper meekness. (p. 142)

Thus, Elster argued that individuals’ “ideological adaptation to their state of submission was endogenous, and not only did not require, but would have been incompatible with, deliberate ideological manipulation by the rulers” (p. 124). Catharine MacKinnon (1989) shrewdly critiqued Marxism from the perspective of feminism and critiqued feminism from the perspective of Marxism. The result was an insightful analy­sis of the social and po­liti­cal significance of consciousness-­raising activity, not only with re­spect to members of

54  A Theory of System Justification

the working class but with re­spect to members of subjugated groups in general, including ­women. She argued that “no ­woman escapes the meaning of being a ­woman within a gendered social system” and that “male power becomes self-­enforcing” to the extent that w ­ omen internalize sexist norms and standards (p. 99). MacKinnon’s analy­sis comported with that of Bem and Bem (1970), who pointed out that sexist ideology can operate insidiously at a presumably nonconscious level of awareness. The notion that ­people are si­mul­ta­neously embedded (and therefore psychologically invested) in multiple social systems and institutions, including capitalism, patriarchy, nuclear families, and work organ­izations, is a crucial insight that inspired the attempt to develop a general theory of system justification. The theoretical goal is not merely to explain the unique effects of any single system or institution (e.g., capitalism or patriarchy), but rather to identify general mechanisms or pro­cesses that play out in a wide variety of social systems (ranging from families to society as aw ­ hole) on the thoughts, feelings, and be­hav­iors of individuals and groups. In an effort to synthesize vari­ous socialist-­feminist approaches to the study of dominant ideology and false consciousness, Jost (1995) proposed the following definition of false consciousness: “the holding of false or inaccurate beliefs that are contrary to one’s own social interest and which thereby contribute to the maintenance of the disadvantaged position of the self or the group” (p. 400).1 A lit­er­a­t ure review suggested the existence of at least six dif­fer­ent types of false consciousness beliefs: (1) denial of injustice or exploitation, (2) fatalism about prospects for social change, (3) rationalization of social roles, (4) false attribution of blame, (5) identification with the oppressor, and (6) re­sis­tance to social change. Many authors, especially t­ hose influenced by postmodernist philosophy, have rejected the concept of false consciousness on the grounds that it is difficult (or even impossible) to distinguish between true and false statements in the social and po­liti­cal world. Without conceding this highly skeptical epistemological claim, we recognize that it may be a pragmatic advantage that the concept of system justification sidesteps the issue of w ­ hether beliefs and ideologies that sustain social systems are (wholly or partially) true or false. The focus, rather, is on their motivational bases and system-­maintaining consequences.

Stereotyping, Prejudice, and the Internalization of Inferiority From the start, system justification theory reflected an effort to unify the analy­sis of dominant ideology and false consciousness with social psycho-

Precursors, Postulates, and Relevance   55

logical research on stereotyping, prejudice, and the internalization of inferiority. Neither Kurt Lewin nor Gordon Allport could be considered Marxists, but both appreciated the deep extent to which hierarchical social systems impinge upon the thoughts, feelings, and be­hav­iors of the individual (Appendix A.2). Lewin (1948), for instance, noted that “self-­hatred is a phenomenon which has its parallel in many underprivileged groups” (p. 186), including Jews and African Americans. As a field theorist, he clearly saw the prob­lem in contextual, environmental (i.e., system-­level) terms, writing that “Jewish self-­hatred ­w ill die out only when a­ ctual equality of status with the non-­Jew is achieved” (p. 198). Allport (1954), too, identified the prob­lem of internalization of inferiority and argued that, above all, ste­reo­t ypes serve a “rationalizing and justifying function” (p. 196). The German social theorist Norbert Elias distinguished between established and outsider groups in a wide range of social and cultural contexts and noted that “groups in an outsider position mea­sure themselves with the yardstick of their oppressors” (Elias & Scotson, 1994, p. 26). Anti-­colonial theorists such as Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, and Steven Biko concurred. Henri Tajfel (1981) elaborated a group-­based version of Allport’s (1954) argument that a ste­reo­t ype’s “function is to justify (rationalize) our conduct in relation to that category” (p. 191). Tajfel noted that ste­reo­types justify “actions, committed or planned, against outgroups” (p.  156), but ­stopped short of recognizing the system-­justifying (as opposed to group-­justifying) functions of stereotyping and prejudice. However, he did see a correlation between perceptions of the social system and intergroup attitudes: Where social-­structural differences in the distribution of resources have been institutionalized, legitimized, and justified through a consensually accepted status system (or at least a status system that is sufficiently firm and pervasive to prevent the creation of cognitive alternatives to it), the result has been less and not more ethnocentrism in the dif­fer­ent status groups. (Tajfel & Turner, 1986, p. 12)

It was Solomon Asch (1959), rather than Tajfel, who appreciated that this state of affairs—in which cognitive alternatives to the status quo are squeezed out—is highly typical: Each social order confronts its members with a selected portion of physical and social data. The most decisive feature of this selectivity is that it pre­sents conditions lacking in perceptible alternatives. ­There is no alternative to the language of one’s group, to the kinship relations it practices, to

56  A Theory of System Justification the diet that nourishes it, to the arts it supports. The field of the individual is, especially in a relatively closed society, in large mea­sure circumscribed by what is included in the given cultural setting. ­These conditions produce a kind of socially generated real­ity, which is as much part of the environment as topography and climate . . . ​From the psychological standpoint the significant feature of ­these conditions is their monopolistic character, or the absence of known alternatives. (p. 380)

Researchers have subsequently explored the consequences of a presumed lack of ideological alternatives to the status quo, including the phenomenon of out-­group favoritism among members of disadvantaged groups, which Jost and Banaji (1994) regarded as a pos­si­ble manifestation of false consciousness. System justification theory was developed to illuminate the social psychological pro­cesses whereby social systems are “institutionalized, legitimized, and justified,” that is, the ways in which p ­ eople who occupy quite dif­fer­ent statuses or positions in society nevertheless find reasons to embrace the status quo with an enthusiasm that may seem puzzling in retrospect or when viewed from historical distance. System justification theory is intended to capture socially shared or collective pro­cesses of norm construction as in the Eu­ro­pean traditions of Sherif (1936), Lewin (1947a), Tajfel (1981), and Moscovici (1988), as well as individual pro­cesses of justification and rationalization in the North American traditions of Allport (1954), Festinger (1957), Asch (1959), Hardin and Higgins (1996), and McGuire (1999)—­and to bring t­ hese two parallel traditions together.

The Tolerance of Social Injustice Social historians, including Chal­mers Johnson, Howard Zinn, and Barrington Moore Jr., have often observed that social stability and ac­cep­tance of injustice are far more common than protest and rebellion (Appendix A.3). The question, as noted in the last chapter, is why. Whereas sociologists, po­ liti­cal scientists, and many laypeople assume that unjust social ­orders are necessarily maintained by force or the threat of force, psychologists since at least the advent of Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory have realized that p ­ eople are capable of rationalizing even their own suffering. Deutsch (1985), for instance, integrated Anna Freud’s ideas about “identification with the aggressor” with Lewin’s (1948) account of “group self-­hatred” to explain why it is so difficult to “awaken the sense of injustice.” Social justice researchers have often developed psychological theories of why p ­ eople tolerate

Precursors, Postulates, and Relevance   57

injustice and deprivation; pro­cesses of denial, rationalization, and social comparison have all been implicated. As Brenda Major (1994) noted, “One of the more intriguing phenomena of social justice is that ­people tend to legitimate the status quo, even when it is disadvantageous to the self ” (p. 309). Lerner’s (1980) account of the belief in a just world first postulated a sweeping motivational tendency to believe that the social world is orderly, ­ uman propredictable, and above all just. Lerner pondered the oft-­noted h pensity to imbue social regularities (what “is”) with an “­ought” quality. He wrote: “­People want to and have to believe they live in a just world so that they can go about their daily lives with a sense of trust, hope, and confidence in their f­ uture” (p. 14; see also Laurin et al., 2012). ­There are, however, significant differences between just world and system justification perspectives. Lerner theorized that the justice motive would lead ­people first to attempt to help innocent victims and to rectify injustice. Only when they are prevented from ­doing so did Lerner think that ­people would engage in denial, rationalization, and victim-­blaming strategies to maintain the belief in a just world. System justification theory, by contrast, holds that ­people are motivated to exaggerate the fairness and desirability of existing social, economic, and po­liti­cal institutions and arrangements; such tendencies are assumed to be antithetical to the genuine desire to attain social justice in practice. According to system justification theory, ­people may blame victims and defend the system even when opportunities to rectify injustice are potentially available and—in a departure from cognitive dissonance theory—­even when they bear no personal responsibility for aversive outcomes. A revealing example is conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly’s blatantly system-­justifying reaction to the unfortunate victims of a terrible hurricane that struck New Orleans in 2005: The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina should be taught in e­ very American school. If you ­don’t get educated, if you ­don’t develop a skill and force yourself to work hard, you’ll most likely be poor and sooner or l­ater you’ll be waiting on a symbolic rooftop waiting for help, and chances are that it ­won’t be forthcoming.

Institutional Legitimation of the Social Order Whereas psychologists tend to emphasize the role of individual thoughts, feelings, and be­hav­iors in the perpetuation of the status quo, sociologists generally focus on the ways in which the social order accrues legitimacy by

58  A Theory of System Justification

fostering social stability through cultural and ideological as well as coercive pro­cesses of social control (Appendix A.4). For instance, Berger and Luckmann (1991) in The Social Construction of Real­ity noted that “institutions, once formed, have a tendency to persist” (p. 99). To a considerable extent, this is ­because p ­ eople accept social real­ity—­the shared assumptions and understandings that are encountered in childhood and afterward—as “taken for granted.” This idea is more fully developed in Hardin and Higgins’s (1996) shared real­ity theory and Bar-­Tal’s (2000) analy­sis of the role of socially shared belief systems in the maintenance and resolution of group conflict. Legitimacy is often the default assumption when p ­ eople think and speak about the status quo; consequently, delegitimation is a pro­cess that typically requires some degree of ideological effort. From the perspective of system justification theory, the individual’s need for “cohesion” (or epistemic coherence) gratifies the needs of the social system for legitimacy—­and vice versa. The phi­los­o­pher Jürgen Habermas (1975) also addressed the “need for legitimation” of social systems such as the nation-­state and the ways in which “social systems adapt inner [­human] nature to society with the help of normative structures” (p. 9). In a semi-­Marxian vein, Habermas noted that social systems experience “legitimation crises” and that “value consensus” is attained only when certain social conflicts are sufficiently repressed or kept out of sight. To the extent this achieves social integration, value consensus is inherently ideological in the classic Marxian sense and requires some form of justification, such as that offered by conservative ideology (Habermas, 1989; Jost et al., 2003b; Moscovici, 1988). Pierre Bourdieu (1986) was likewise concerned with how relations of dominance and submission in society are sustained over time. In addition to formal mechanisms, such as the law, Bourdieu noted that “the most successful ideological effects are t­hose which . . . ​ask no more than complicitous silence” (p. 188). Thus, it is pos­si­ble to lend legitimacy to the status quo simply by g­ oing along with it, that is, by appearing not to challenge it. What ­these vari­ous so­cio­log­i­cal perspectives contribute to system justification theory is that it is remarkably easy for social systems to enjoy legitimacy and therefore stability by winning the apparent—if not always the ­actual—­consent of the majority of the populace. To the extent that p ­ eople consciously or nonconsciously adapt themselves to social systems that affect them, they cannot help but reinforce them. Vaclav Havel (1991), the first president of the Czech Republic, made a similar set of observations about Communist society in the late twentieth c­ entury:

Precursors, Postulates, and Relevance   59 In the post-­totalitarian system [the line of conflict] runs de facto through each person, for every­one in his own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system. What we understand by the system is not, therefore, a social order imposed by one group upon another, but rather something which permeates an entire society and is a f­ actor in shaping it . . . (p. 144)

Whereas other perspectives in social psy­chol­ogy, especially social identity and social dominance theories, tend to assume that the social order is imposed by one group upon another, system justification theory takes seriously Havel’s observation that individuals are active—as well as passive—­ participants in the justification of the societal status quo, so that “every­one in his own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system.” Although Mary Jackman (1994) rejected the concept of false consciousness and assumed that social actors, including the disadvantaged, are motivated by self-­interest, she astutely recounted the ways in which ideology is used as a “weapon” to ensure “social control” by “rationalizing the current order.” In analyzing historical cases as diverse as the enslavement of Africans in the Old and New Worlds and the role of w ­ omen ­under patriarchy, Jackman shows how social stability results from a kind of collaboration between members of dominant and subordinate groups. She notes that flattering treatment, including benevolent paternalism—as exemplified by men’s polite but chauvinistic tendency to place ­women on a pedestal (Glick & Fiske, 2001)—­helps to gain compliance. The notion that even flattering ste­reo­types of disadvantaged group members can be used to justify the status quo by ostensibly compensating for their state of disadvantage and creating an illusion of equality was picked up and demonstrated experimentally in subsequent research on system justification theory, as we w ­ ill see in l­ater chapters.

Conservatism, Authoritarianism, and Social Dominance Writing in 1899, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen sought to understand the so­cio­log­i­cal and psychological bases of conservative ideology (Appendix A.5). Specifically, Veblen saw “an instinctive revulsion at any departure from the accepted way of ­doing and of looking at ­things—­a revulsion common to all men and only to be overcome by stress of circumstances” (p. 199). Half a ­century ­later, Adorno and colleagues (1950) identified political-­economic conservatism with

60  A Theory of System Justification An attachment, on the surface at least, to “­things as they are,” to the prevailing social organ­ization and ways. Related to the idea that “what is, is right,” is a tendency to idealize existing authority and to regard the “American way” as working very well. Social prob­lems tend ­either to be ignored or to be attributed to extraneous influences rather than to defects intrinsic in the existing social structure. One way of rationalizing chronic prob­lems is to make them “natu­ral” . . . ​Or, as a prominent ultra-­conservative radio commentator observed recently: “­There is nothing wrong with our American system. It is as good as it ever was, but we must do all we can in the New Year to get rid of the charlatans, fakers, and agitators who are responsible for so many prob­lems.” It is clear from the other speeches of this commentator that his “charlatans” are for the most part leaders of the ­labor movement or of liberal po­liti­cal groupings—­men who, in his eyes, threaten the existing order . . . (pp. 153–154)

Adorno and his colleagues associated extremely conservative—or what they termed “pseudo-­conservative”—­outlooks with a propensity to follow authoritarian, even potentially fascistic opinion leaders. Astonishingly, their observations are no less relevant ­today than they w ­ ere seventy years ago. Erich Fromm, like Adorno and Habermas, had been a member of the Frankfurt School, which endeavored to merge Marx and Freud to develop a deeper psychological basis for Marxian social theory. In Beyond the Chains of Illusion, Fromm (1962) perceived that both Marx and Freud in their own ways w ­ ere battling against religious and other ideological sources of illusion that kept ­people from fulfilling their potential. Fromm (1994) also suggested in Escape from Freedom that most—if not all—­human beings possess a fear of personal autonomy that makes them susceptible to authoritarian manipulation. The po­liti­cal scientist Robert Lane (1962) provided a kindred psychodynamic analy­sis of working-­class conservatives, many of whom ­were thought to harbor an unconscious fear of equality. In a statement that foreshadows several key assumptions of system justification theory, Lane wrote The greater the strain on a person’s self-­esteem implied by a relatively low status in an open society, the greater the necessity to explain this status as “natu­ral” and “proper” in the social order. Lower status ­people generally find it less punishing to think of themselves as correctly placed by a just society than to think of themselves as exploited, or victimized by an unjust society. (p. 79)

Precursors, Postulates, and Relevance   61

The onetime director of the London Institute of Race Relations, Philip Mason (1971) observed that psychological dependence often results from relations of domination and subordination. He noted that members of dominant groups frequently persuade subordinates to protect them from both internal and external threats to their hegemony. This is facilitated by fostering a sense of dependence and inevitability among subordinates. We ­w ill return to this idea in Chapter 6. Although I did not learn about social dominance theory ­until the starting assumptions of system justification theory had already been developed, the work of Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto (2001) has long served as an inspiration and a foil. Both theories emphasize the ways in which ideologies and other belief systems serve to imbue the existing social order with legitimacy. They also concur that “most of the activities of subordinates can be characterized as cooperative rather than subversive to the system of group-­based domination” and that “subordinates’ high level of both passive and active cooperation with their own oppression . . . ​provides systems of group-­based hierarchy with their remarkable degrees of resiliency, robustness, and stability” (p. 44). However, system justification theory does not assume, as social dominance theory does, that natu­ral se­ lection pressures have created a strong, potentially insurmountable preference for unequal over equal social relations in h ­ uman beings. Rather, system justification theory suggests that ­people are motivated and psychologically equipped to accept and justify a wide range of social systems, including t­hose that are predicated on egalitarianism (e.g., Flannery & Marcus, 2012).

Major Postulates and Illustrative Evidence System justification theory cheerfully adheres to two basic laws of psy­ chol­ogy identified by my erstwhile dissertation advisor, William  J. McGuire (1980): “first, that basically every­body is the same; and second, that every­body is fundamentally dif­fer­ent” (p.  180). Likewise, every­one engages in system justification to some degree, but not at all in the same way or in the same domains. That is, ­people in general are motivated—­often nonconsciously—to defend, justify, and bolster aspects of the status quo, including existing social, economic, and po­liti­cal institutions and arrangements. This is the first postulate of system justification theory identified by Jost and van der Toorn (2012, p. 335).

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Nine Major Postulates of System Justification Theory

I. ­People are motivated (often nonconsciously, without deliberate intention or awareness) to defend, justify, and bolster aspects of the status quo, including existing social, economic, and po­liti­cal institutions and arrangements.

The general cognitive-­motivational pro­cess of system justification is similar for members of advantaged and disadvantaged groups. Indeed, legitimation of the status quo has been observed among the rich and poor, men and w ­ omen, old and young, sexual majorities and minorities, as well as ­people of diverse national, ethnolinguistic, and racial backgrounds, as we ­w ill see throughout this book. Members of advantaged and disadvantaged groups often internalize rather than reject existing hierarchies, favoring the advantaged over the disadvantaged on implicit and sometimes even explicit mea­ sures, as we ­w ill see in the next chapter. At the same time, the strength of system justification motivation and its expression are expected to vary according to situational and dispositional ­factors. This is the second postulate of system justification theory:

II. As is the case with all other motives in ­human psy­chol­ogy, the strength of system justification motivation and its expression are expected to vary according to situational (contextual) and dispositional (individual difference) ­factors.

To date, we have discovered at least four contextual triggers of system justification. The one that has received the most research attention is exposure to system criticism, challenge, or threat. Appendix  A.6 summarizes the results of thirty-­eight experiments published between 2005 and 2017 showing that exposure to threats directed at the social system can heighten the intensity of system-­justifying responses, including (but not ­limited to) the increased use of ste­reo­t ypes to rationalize social, sexual, and economic disparities. This theoretical logic may help to explain why—­following the terrorist attacks of September  11, 2001—­Americans exhibited dramatic surges in nationalism, patriotism, and support for governmental institutions and authorities, such as the police, military, Congress, and the president (Figure 3.1). The third postulate specifies other contextual moderators of system justification. ­People tend to be more tolerant of undesirable social and po­l iti­cal

Precursors, Postulates, and Relevance   63 100 90 80 70 60 50 40 30 20 10 0 Pre-9/11 Bush Congress Trust in Govt. (Intl.)

Post-9/11 Military Police Trust in Govt. (Domestic)

Source: Gallup Organ­ization.

Figure 3.1 ​Support for system authorities before and a­ fter 9 / 11.

outcomes—­such as restrictions on freedoms and disadvantageous forms of in­equality—­when these are perceived as inevitable or inescapable (Kay et al., 2002; Laurin et al., 2012). To take just one example, American citizens—­ Democrats and Republicans alike—evaluated President Donald Trump’s election more favorably one week a­ fter his inauguration, in comparison with the previous week (Laurin, 2018). Likewise, when ­people feel that restrictive emigration policies prevent them from leaving their country, they are more likely to justify existing inequalities in that country (Laurin et  al., 2010). Another moderator seems to be the perceived longevity of the social system. One study demonstrated, for instance, that ­people ­were more supportive of the caste system in India—­and the cap­i­tal­ist system in the United States and the United Kingdom—­when they ­were made to feel that the system was long-­standing and traditional, as opposed to fairly recent in ­human history (Blanchar & Eidelman, 2013). A number of studies suggest that p ­ eople are more likely to justify social, economic, and po­liti­cal systems when they are feeling especially powerless

64  A Theory of System Justification

or dependent. In one program of research, which we w ­ ill describe in detail in Chapter 6, perceived dependence on educational authorities, the government, and police was found to be positively associated with institutional trust, confidence, and voluntary deference. Using experimental methods, we demonstrated that ­people who w ­ ere randomly assigned to a high (versus low) dependence condition judged their outcomes to be more favorable, despite the fact that their outcomes w ­ ere identical in the two conditions; this effect was mediated by perceptions of system legitimacy. Subsequent work revealed that feelings of powerlessness or dependence can foster system justification in a variety of social and po­liti­cal settings, including the legitimation of racial disparities in incarceration rates, the unequal distribution of wealth in society, and the gender wage gap—­even when system-­challenging explanations for in­equality (such as discrimination) ­were made cognitively available.

III. System justification motivation is activated or increased when (a) the system is criticized, challenged, or threatened; (b) the system is perceived as inevitable or inescapable; (c) the system is perceived as traditional or longstanding; or (d) the individual feels powerless or dependent on the system (and its authorities).

The fourth postulate came ­later than most of the o­ thers. System justification is now theorized to satisfy—at least subjectively, if not objectively—­ basic epistemic needs for consistency, certainty, and meaning; existential needs to manage threat and insecurity; and relational needs to coordinate social relationships and achieve shared real­ity with ­others. It follows that dispositional and situational variability in such needs should affect the strength of system justification motivation. Consistent with this formulation, meta-­analytic reviews confirm that uncertainty avoidance, intolerance of ambiguity (personal needs for order, structure, and closure), perceptions of a dangerous world, and death anxiety are positively associated with an affinity for po­liti­cally conservative, system-­justifying (as opposed to progressive, system-­challenging) ideology. Conversely, cognitive complexity, openness to new experiences, and the motivation to prolong cognitive closure are negatively associated with conservatism and other forms of system justification (Jost, 2017a).

IV. System justification addresses basic epistemic motives to reduce uncertainty, existential motives to reduce threat, and relational motives to reduce social discord. Situational and dispositional variability

Precursors, Postulates, and Relevance   65

in ­these under­lying needs ­w ill affect the strength of system justification motivation. Consistent with a motivational (or goal systems) approach to system justification, t­ here are several pos­si­ble means by which the social system can be justified, such as direct endorsement of certain ideologies, the legitimation of institutions and authorities, denial or minimization of system prob­lems or shortcomings, and rationalization. This is the fifth postulate. The sheer multiplicity of forms that system justification can take ­w ill be on full display in the coming chapters. In the context of intergroup relations, for instance, the system justification goal is often satisfied through pro­cesses of stereotyping, including the endorsement of complementary ste­ reo­ t ypes that foster an illusion of equality in society. ­People might also embrace a number of preexisting ideologies or belief systems to bolster the societal status quo. ­These include the Protestant work ethic, belief in a just world, meritocratic ideology, fair market ideology, economic system justification, power distance, benevolent sexism, social dominance orientation, right-­w ing authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, and po­liti­cal conservatism (see Appendix  A.7 for definitions and illustrative references). What t­ hese belief systems have in common is that they explain social, economic, or po­liti­cal outcomes in a manner that maintains the subjective legitimacy of the status quo. Endorsing system-­justifying belief systems should satisfy epistemic, existential, and relational needs to a greater extent than belief systems that are openly critical, contemptuous, or challenging of the status quo, such as Marxism, feminism, anarchy, and other revolutionary ideologies. The variety of system-­justifying belief systems indicates that the needs they satisfy permeate individuals’ social relationships, ­family dynamics, and work lives, as well as their attitudes about society, religion, politics, economics, business, and the law.

V. ­There are several pos­si­ble means by which the system can be justified, including direct endorsement of certain ideologies, the legitimation of institutions and authorities, denial or minimization of system prob­lems or shortcomings, complementary stereotyping, and rationalization.

Some long-­term psychological consequences of system justification are believed to be opposite for members of advantaged and disadvantaged

66  A Theory of System Justification

groups, as detailed in the sixth and seven postulates. For members of advantaged groups, ­the perception of being on top of society is consonant with the holding of positive attitudes ­toward their own group and themselves. That is, system justification is congruent with self and group justification motives; it is positively associated with self-­esteem, in-­group favoritism, and psychological well-­being (Jost et al., 2001).

VI. For members of advantaged groups (or ­those who are favored by the status quo), system justification is consistent with self and group justification motives, and is therefore positively associated with self-­esteem, in-­group favoritism, and long-­term psychological well-­being.

Members of disadvantaged groups, on the other hand, are faced with a potential conflict between their need to justify the social system and potentially competing motives to enhance their own self-­esteem and the status of their in-­group. For them, system justification conflicts with self and group justification motives; it is negatively associated with self-­esteem, in-­group favoritism, and long-­term psychological well-­being. Specifically, the more that the disadvantaged endorse the legitimacy of the overarching system, the more they experience ambivalence t­oward the in-­g roup and display out-­g roup favoritism, and the more they suffer in terms of subjective well-­ being—as indexed by levels of self-­esteem, neuroticism, depression, and generalized anxiety (e.g., Bahamondes-­Correa, 2016; Jost & Thompson, 2000; Quinn & Crocker, 1999).

VII. For members of disadvantaged groups (or ­those who are disfavored by the status quo), system justification conflicts with self and group justification motives, and is therefore negatively associated with self-­esteem, in-­g roup favoritism, and long-­term psychological well-­being.

At the same time, system justification appears to serve a short-­term palliative function for members of advantaged and disadvantaged groups alike. That is, the endorsement of system-­justifying beliefs and ideologies is associated with increased positive affect, decreased negative affect, and satisfaction with the status quo. This is the eighth postulate. For example, the endorsement of meritocratic ideology is associated with increased life sat-

Precursors, Postulates, and Relevance   67

isfaction and contentment—­among the poor as well as the rich (Jost et al., 2003c; Kluegel & Smith, 1986; Napier & Jost, 2008b; Wakslak et al., 2007). VIII. System justification serves a palliative function. The endorsement of system-­justifying beliefs and ideologies is associated in the short term with increased positive affect and decreased negative affect for members of advantaged and disadvantaged groups alike. To the extent that system justification makes p ­ eople feel better about the status quo, it undermines their desire for change and their willingness to participate in collective action aimed at improving society. However, the theory predicts that ­people ­w ill be more open to social change ­under certain circumstances, which we w ­ ill explore in the final chapters of this book.

IX. Although system justification motivation typically leads ­people to resist social change (and to perceive it as potentially threatening to the status quo), p ­ eople are more willing to embrace change when it is perceived as (a) inevitable or extremely likely to occur,  or (b) congruent with the preservation of at least some aspects of the social system  or its ideals.

Practical Relevance According to Robert Lynd (1939), “the role of the social sciences is to be troublesome, to disconnect the habitual arrangements by which we manage to live along, and to demonstrate the possibility of change in more adequate directions” (pp. 181–182). Conceived of in this way, a primary task of the social scientist is to overcome his or her system-­justifying tendencies and to see society as it ­really is, so that genuine prob­lems can be recognized and, ultimately, resolved. As Lynd anticipated, “the role of such a constructive troublemaker is scarcely inviting,” presumably b ­ ecause it requires confronting and questioning the system-­justifying assumptions of ­others. System justification theorists—­and, to a much more serious extent, many of the historical pre­de­ces­sors of the theory—­have faced higher-­than-­usual levels of criticism. Perhaps this is not accidental. From the perspective of system justification theory, one would expect defensive, even aggressive,

68  A Theory of System Justification

reactions to the suggestion that societal arrangements are not as fair or legitimate or desirable as most ­people wish to believe. As the Tunisian writer Albert Memmi (1968) pointed out, “­people are always accused of exaggeration when they describe injustices to t­ hose who do not want to hear about them” (p. 19). This brings us to an impor­tant practical insight of system justification theory, namely, that p ­ eople are wont to ignore, deny, minimize, rationalize, or dismiss criticisms or putative deficiencies of the status quo, even if the deficiencies—­such as the prob­lems posed by anthropogenic climate change—­are grounded in scientific evidence. We ­w ill touch on many other practical implications of system justification theory throughout the book. ­These include consequences for intergroup relations involving status or power differences, the pernicious effects of relatively subtle forms of sexism and stereotyping, and the per­sis­tence of implicit and explicit prejudice. System justification theory also has implications for more overtly po­liti­cal be­hav­ior, including voting preferences, trust and evaluations of system leaders and representatives, and the psychological advantages conferred by incumbency status and po­l iti­cally conservative ideology. System justification theory has helped to elucidate the effects of public policies such as restricted immigration and to explain an ever-­widening range of consequential outcomes, including religious commitment, romantic preferences, academic per­for­mance, willingness to help the disadvantaged, and skepticism about climate change. In the spirit of McGuire’s (1999) divergent theorizing, one hopes that by applying system justification theory to more and more domains, an increasingly refined set of scientifically and practically significant conclusions ­w ill emerge.

Conclusion In this chapter, we have traced the historical development of system justification theory, which offers a unique social psychological framework for understanding why so many p ­ eople believe—­even when confronted with disconfirming evidence—­that existing social, economic, and po­liti­cal systems are good, fair, legitimate, desirable, and right. We have identified nine major postulates of the theory and discussed how the theory builds on and extends the work of phi­los­o­phers, historians, sociologists, psychologists, and po­liti­cal scientists. By positing that system justification is a motivated, goal-­ directed pro­cess for most ­people at least some of the time, we have offered a distinctive psychological perspective that helps to explain, among other

Precursors, Postulates, and Relevance   69

t­hings, the perceived legitimacy and stability of social systems and hierarchical arrangements as well as the rarity of protest and rebellion. In what follows we ­w ill continue to explore the mediating and moderating variables that help to explain why and when p ­ eople are motivated to defend, bolster, and maintain the societal status quo—­and when they are not. One can only hope that ­future research ­will speak even more directly to the ways in which re­sis­tance to change and po­liti­cal acquiescence can be transformed into an open, restless, critical, constructive search for forms of social organ­ization that are better, truer, freer, more sustainable, and more just. Such are the ­grand pretensions of a theory that has been simmering for at least a ­century and a half—­indeed, since the advent of social science itself. In the next chapter we w ­ ill delve more deeply into the concept of false consciousness and consider the implications of taking it seriously when it comes to stereotyping, prejudice, and intergroup relations.


Stereotyping and the Production of False Consciousness


 H E C O N C E P T O F J U S T I F I C A T I O N —in

the sense of an idea being used to provide legitimacy or support for another idea or some form of be­hav­ior—­has played a prominent role in social psychological theorizing. The notion that p ­ eople ­will justify some states of affairs, to themselves and to ­others, has been explicit or implicit in theories of psychoanalysis, social comparison, cognitive dissonance, self-­perception, attribution, self-­ presentation, ­human reasoning, social identification, self-­affirmation, and the belief in a just world. Empirical research has demonstrated that ­people seek explanations, justifications, or rationalizations for, among other ­things • ​their own thoughts, feelings, and be­hav­iors; • ​their own social status or position; • ​their own aggressive, exploitative, or discriminatory be­hav­iors; • ​the social status, position, or prestige of ­others; • ​the aggressive, exploitative, or discriminatory actions of fellow group members; and • ​prevailing social, economic, and po­l iti­cal events and circumstances. Indeed, social psy­chol­ogy may be thought of, in many ways, as the scientific home for the study of justification and rationalization. We point out the extensive attention to this theme in order to note its relative absence in theory and research on social stereotyping throughout the twentieth century. In this chapter, we review work on self and group justification and build on them to propose a third level of justification, which we term system 70

Stereotyping and the Production of False Consciousness   71

justification. Ste­reo­t ypes that are used to protect one’s own position or be­ hav­ior serve a self-­justifying function. Ste­reo­types that protect not just the individual ego but the status or conduct of the social group as a ­whole are group-­justifying. While both of ­these functions were recognized in early social psychological theorizing, they fail to account for impor­tant aspects of stereotyping. Chief among ­these are (a) the phenomenon of negative stereotyping of the self or the in-­group, and (b) the degree to which ste­reo­t ypes are widely shared across individuals and social groups. To address ­these issues, we propose that the concept of system justification is necessary to account adequately for the social functions of stereotyping. System justification refers to the social and psychological pro­cess by which existing social arrangements are legitimized, even at the expense of personal and group interests. System justification focuses on how social ste­reo­ types emerge and are used to explain and justify existing states of affairs, such as social or economic systems, status or power hierarchies, distributions of resources, and divisions of social roles. Ste­reo­t ypes are widespread beliefs about the characteristics of social groups, and they are hypothesized to arise in any social system characterized by the separation of ­people into roles, classes, positions, or statuses ­because such arrangements must be explained and perceived as justifiable by t­hose who participate in them. The point was made well by the historian Paul Spickard (1992): Calling vari­ous African p ­ eoples all one racial group and associating that group with evil, sin, laziness, bestiality, sexuality, and irresponsibility made it easier for White slave o­ wners to rationalize holding their fellow h ­ umans in bondage, whipping them, selling them, separating their families, and working them to death. The function of the one-­drop rule was to solidify the barrier between Black and White, to make sure that no one who might possibly be identified as Black also became identified as White. For a mixed person, then, ac­cep­tance of the one-­drop rule means internalizing the oppression of the dominant group, buying into the system of racial domination. (p. 15)

Throughout ­human history social ste­reo­t ypes have been wielded, often ruthlessly, in an ideological attempt to legitimize even the most horrific of social systems and the practices sanctioned by those systems.

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The Concept of False Consciousness Central to this discussion is the Marxian concept of false consciousness, which has been used to describe the effects of ideological domination. The main idea is that dominant groups in society are capable of spreading ideas that serve to justify inequalities of status, power, and wealth through institutional control over education, religion, media, culture, and economic systems. Consequently, t­ hose ideas that f­ avor dominant groups tend to prevail in society. As Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology, “the class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of m ­ ental production.” Cognition, on this view, is always subject to large-­scale social, economic, and po­liti­cal forces such as the domination of some groups by ­others. The po­liti­cal consciousness of disadvantaged ­peoples was theorized to be false to some degree, that is, reflective of the dominant group’s interests rather than their own interests. Marx and Engels argued that in history p ­ eople “have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ­ought to be,” and the call was sounded to “liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, the dogmas, the imaginary beings ­under the yoke of which they are pining away.” At the same time, however, Marx’s ­later views may have been overly optimistic about the abilities of oppressed ­people to recognize and take action against the sources of their oppression. By predicting that subordinate groups in society would soon recognize the illegitimacy of their subordination and rise up to overthrow the system, Marx may have underestimated the extent to which social psychological mechanisms allow p ­ eople to adapt to po­liti­cal systems that thwart their own interests. Thus, the concept of false consciousness was developed more fully only l­ater by socialist scholars seeking to explain, in part, why revolution was not forthcoming (Meyerson, 1991). In the late twentieth ­century, the study of false consciousness was revitalized by the fruits of conceptual analy­sis and feminist theory. Analytic phi­ los­o­phers such as Gerald Cohen, Jon Elster, Allen Wood, and Terry Ea­ gleton applied greater conceptual rigor to the concepts of Marxism, which had been criticized for their lack of precision and alleged unfalsifiability. The analytical approach makes direct connections from Marxian concepts to psychological and so­cio­log­i­cal phenomena such as biased or heuristic thinking, cognitive dissonance reduction, defection in the prisoner’s dilemma situation, and the expression of class consciousness, providing a philosoph-

Stereotyping and the Production of False Consciousness   73

ical basis for the social psychological study of false consciousness (Elster, 1982). Thus, Erik Olin Wright and colleagues (1992) argued that “Marxism should, without embarrassment, subject itself to the conventional standards of social science and analytical philosophy” (p. 5). The guiding assumptions of analytical Marxism—­that propositions derived from Marx’s method should be subjected to empirical confrontation and that complete explanations should make reference to psychological states of individual actors—­brought the work of Marx closer to con­temporary social and po­liti­cal psy­chol­ogy than ever before. Feminist scholars have invoked false consciousness to understand theoretical and practical prob­lems concerning the psychological effects of rape, incest, domestic vio­lence, and pornography. In par­tic­u­lar, they have attempted to explain why it is so difficult for victims of sexual and physical abuse to terminate abusive relationships and to avoid blaming themselves for the abuse—and why females as a group seem relatively unaware of their status as an oppressed group. The ways in which girls and ­women are socialized to reject their own natu­ral responses to events involving sexism and in­equality and to adopt instead the norms of a patriarchal society have become research topics for feminist social science. A primary goal of feminist politics, correspondingly, is to awaken (or reawaken) a sense of self-­respect and an awareness of injustice, thereby overriding harmful beliefs learned through sexist socialization practices. Catharine MacKinnon (1989) argued that feminist theory distinguishes itself from Marxism by placing a higher premium on the role of consciousness raising, although issues of consciousness have been identified as central to Western Marxist theory since World War I. In any case, the merging of socialist and feminist viewpoints resulted in renewed attention to social psychological aspects of oppression and domination, most especially the ways in which victims can be made “to invest in their own unhappiness” (Ea­gleton, 1991, p. xiii). In the pre­sent context, the concept of false consciousness helps to identify inaccurate beliefs held by subordinates that perpetuate their social, economic, or sexual domination. A consciousness is false when it reinforces in­equality or injustice by leading members of a subordinated group to believe that they are inferior, deserving of their plight, or incapable of taking action against the c­ auses of their subordination. At the most general level, false consciousness refers to the “harbouring of false beliefs that sustain one’s own oppression” (Cunningham, 1987, p. 255). Examples include denying that injustice or disadvantage occurs, believing that social change is impossible

74  A Theory of System Justification

or undesirable, making false attributions about the ­causes of po­liti­cal suffering, and adopting the norms of one’s oppressor. The clearest cases of false consciousness must satisfy, through empirical observation, two in­de­pen­dent criteria (Cunningham, 1987; Meyerson, 1991). First, the belief must be false in the epistemological sense of being contrary to fact. Second, it must be false in the sense of failing to reflect one’s genuine social interests—or what Lukács (1971) referred to as the “ascribed consciousness” of the lower class: “the thoughts and feelings which men would have in a par­tic­u­lar situation if they w ­ ere able to assess both it and the interests arising from it” (p. 51). Taking the two components together, then, we define false consciousness as the holding of false or inaccurate beliefs that are contrary to one’s objective social interests and that contribute to the maintenance of the disadvantaged position of the self or the group. Specific examples might include “accommodation to material insecurity or deprivation” (Parkin, 1971, p. 90), developing “needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice” (Marcuse, 1964, p. 5), deriving a “kind of comfort from believing that [one’s] sufferings are unavoidable or deserved” (Wood, 1988, p. 359), and thinking that “what­ever rank is held by individuals in the social order represents their intrinsic worth” (McMurtry, 1978, p. 149). Beliefs associated with false consciousness may be thought of as social and po­liti­cal heuristics. Like cognitive heuristics, they may be based on useful assumptions or princi­ples, but they are often extended beyond contexts of utility and result in judgments or be­hav­iors that are costly to the individual and to society. This is not to say that all instances of false consciousness originate from a kernel of truth, only that normal, pervasive cognitive and motivational pro­cesses may be implicated in the justification of oppressive social relations. Mepham (1972) argued that “the effective dissemination of ideas is only pos­si­ble . . . ​to the extent that [they] . . . ​do have a sufficient degree of effectiveness both in rendering social real­ity intelligible and in guiding practice within it for them to be apparently acceptable” (p. 12). In the case of sociopo­liti­cal heuristics associated with false consciousness, the costs are not necessarily mea­sured against positive cognitive outcomes such as rationality, although they might be (Elster, 1982), but against positive social and po­liti­cal outcomes such as the achievement of genuine life satisfaction, equality of opportunity, freedom from oppression, recognition of injustice, and participation in progressive social change. One might attempt to classify va­r i­et­ ies of false consciousness in many ways. No rigorous or consensual taxonomy exists for the type of beliefs

Stereotyping and the Production of False Consciousness   75

that qualify for false consciousness, and writings on the subject have tended to be rather piecemeal and incomplete. Frank Cunningham (1987) suggested two main types of false consciousness: fatalism and the false identification of blame. While t­ hese seem to satisfy the definitional criteria for false consciousness, they are not likely to be exhaustive. A more complete picture emerges by adding to ­these the categories of failure to perceive injustice and disadvantage, justification of social roles and statuses, identification with the oppressor, and re­sis­tance to change (Jost, 1995). Beliefs of ­these types are po­liti­cally harmful for their adherents insofar as they increase the likelihood of acquiescence to other­w ise unacceptable conditions or circumstances. Of course, ­these types of false consciousness are not mutually exclusive in practice. ­People often deny that an injustice occurs, and this may make them more likely to blame themselves or to believe that protest is undesirable, and so on. Nevertheless, it may be useful to distinguish among the dif­fer­ent types of illusory beliefs that are capable of stifling constructive po­liti­cal change. The purpose of this chapter is to address the relationship between social stereotyping and false consciousness. ­After identifying the contributions and limitations of the self and group justification approaches, we review preliminary support for the system justification view. From experimental social psy­chol­ogy we select evidence to demonstrate that individuals generate beliefs about themselves and ste­reo­t ypes about social groups in such a way that existing social situations are justified. Consistent with the notion that ste­ reo­t ypes (and other social judgments) can operate implicitly, we discuss the possibility that stereotypic justifications may enable existing ideologies to be exercised without the awareness of perceivers or targets.

The Self Justification Approach Walter Lipp­mann (1922) is generally credited with importing the term ste­ reo­type into the social sciences. He emphasized the cognitive functions of simplification and categorization that are served by the ste­reo­t ype, but he also posited a motivational function: ­ ere is another reason, besides economy of effort, why we so often hold Th to our ste­reo­t ypes when we might pursue a more disinterested vision. The systems of ste­reo­t ypes may be the core of our personal tradition, the defenses of our position in society. (p. 95, emphasis added)

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Lipp­mann argued that individuals ste­reo­t ype b ­ ecause it justifies their personal status or conduct in relation to o­ thers. This assumption that ste­reo­ types serve to justify the be­hav­ior of individuals figured prominently in the early social psychological lit­er­a­ture. Katz and Braly (1935) wrote that “group prejudices are rationalizations by which the individual maintains his self-­esteem and advances his economic and other interests” (p. 182). Gordon Allport (1954) argued that the main function of the ste­reo­t ype is “to justify (rationalize) our conduct in relation to” other social categories (p. 191). What is common to all of ­these accounts—­and, we argue, partially responsible for their limitations—is the suggestion that stereotyping is employed for purely exploitative purposes and, in par­tic­u­lar, as a personal defense or rationalization of exploitation. That social ste­reo­t ypes serve self justification functions strongly influenced researchers adopting a so-­called functional approach, especially t­ hose influenced by psychoanalytic perspectives on stereotyping and prejudice (Adorno et  al., 1950; Smith et  al., 1956). Following Anna Freud, among o­ thers, ­these writers proposed that stereotyping served as a defense mechanism whereby internal conflicts w ­ ere projected onto societal scapegoats. Although some accounts—­including the work on authoritarianism by Adorno and colleagues—­reconciled the Freudian view with so­cio­log­i­cal approaches, the ego-­defensive hypothesis of stereotyping was criticized for its “far-­reaching lack of interest in the influence of the social environment on the individual” (Bettelheim & Janowitz, 1964, p. 50). The function of ego justification, however alluring, failed to produce satisfactory empirical evidence and was rejected along with social psy­chol­ogy’s rejection of psychoanalysis more generally, even before modern alternatives to conceptualizing attitude and ste­reo­t ype function became available. While researchers in subsequent de­cades returned to the study of the functions of attitudes—­and, to a lesser extent, of stereotypes—self justification remains among the least studied of the functions. Nevertheless, occasional observations support Lipp­mann’s hypothesis that ste­reo­t ypes are used by the advantaged as “defenses of [their] position in society.” For instance, the probability of stereotyping poor p ­ eople as lazy and therefore deserving of their plight is correlated positively with one’s socioeconomic status, suggesting that ­those occupying high positions in society justify themselves by derogating ­others who are less fortunate. In addition, aggressive actors may justify their own be­hav­ior through stereotypic pro­cesses of dehumanization and delegitimation, denying their

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victims fully h ­ uman status, as when soldiers refer to the e­ nemy as savages or animals, perhaps even cockroaches, so they feel justified in exterminating them (e.g., Bar-­Tal, 2013). Functional theorists of attitudes have stressed ste­ reo­t ypers’ motivational gains in justifying their own status and be­hav­ior. Marxian theorists also have suggested that self justification may be “required to explain how ­people doggedly sustain such superficial and antihuman views as racism and sexism” (Cunningham, 1987, p. 259; see also Adorno et  al., 1950). By contrast, a system justification view of stereotyping suggests that the ascription of role-­specific traits arises not exclusively through individual motivations to defend self-­ interest (or self-­ esteem) but from broader information pro­cessing goals in an ideological environment. The self justification hypothesis is incomplete in several ways. First, and perhaps most importantly from our standpoint, ego-­defensiveness cannot account for the many documented cases of negative self-­stereotyping whereby disadvantaged group members subscribe to stigmatizing ste­reo­t ypes about their own group and about themselves. While methodological critiques ­were raised against Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark’s classic doll studies, which purported to show group self-­hatred, negative self-­stereotyping among many low-­status groups whose opportunities for effective collective advancement are severely ­limited is widely observed, even ubiquitous, in con­temporary research. Negative self-­stereotyping exhausts the explanatory capacities of self justification theories, given that it hardly seems self-­serving to derogate oneself (or one’s group) on stereotypic dimensions. A second, related weakness of self justification approaches is that ­people often apply ste­reo­t ypes in the absence of any personal be­hav­ior or status requiring justification. For instance, many subscribe to negative ste­reo­types of groups with whom they have never interacted and therefore would have no conduct to rationalize. Likewise, disadvantaged groups frequently hold negative ste­reo­t ypes of one another—­a lthough neither is in a relative position of high status that would seem to require defense, as in cases of working-­ class racism. Thirdly, ste­reo­t ypes are characterized by consensuality: they are typically shared by very large segments of society. For instance, Blacks and Latinxs hold roughly the same ste­reo­t ypes of one another that Whites have of them. If the contents of ste­reo­types arise through purely individual pro­cesses of self justification, why would they be so uniformly shared, when individuals differ widely in individual be­hav­ior and group position? We ­w ill return to

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this issue of consensuality in our discussion of the group justification approach to stereotyping.

The Group Justification Approach Henri Tajfel (1981) is well known for having argued that social stereotyping ­ought to be considered in the context of group interests and social identification pro­cesses. Ste­reo­t ypes serve to justify actions—­whether “committed or planned”—of the in-­group (one’s own group) against out-­groups (groups to which one does not belong). Thus, Tajfel expanded the self justification hypothesis to the level of intergroup relations, an endeavor that began with Allport (1954) and o­ thers. Similar group-­based functions for ste­reo­t ypes ­were proposed ­under rubrics such as social integration and social adjustment (Smith et al., 1956)—­terms that w ­ ere meant to emphasize the degree to which the in-­group consolidates itself to distinguish itself from other groups. The work of Tajfel and colleagues on social identity theory initiated a second wave of attention to the justification function of ste­reo­t ypes, culminating in the insight that ste­reo­t ypes serve intergroup functions of rationalizing or justifying the in-­group’s treatment of the out-­group. In-­group members are expected to employ negative ste­reo­types of out-­groups to draw comparative social judgments that benefit the in-­group relative to the out-­ group. Social identity theory is sometimes referred to as a “conflict theory” ­because it assumes that groups in society compete with one another for symbolic and material resources and that they develop ste­reo­types of other groups in an effort to justify their competition (Hogg & Abrams, 1988). Experiments show that groups use ste­reo­t ypes to differentiate themselves positively from other groups, but the evidence is not as strong as one might expect. Nevertheless, it is widely assumed that p ­ eople are strongly motivated to hold more favorable ste­reo­t ypes of in-­groups than out-­groups. By expanding the concept of ego justification from protection of the self to include protection of the extended self (or social group), the group justification view overcomes several difficulties that stymied ­earlier perspectives. For instance, group justification explains that an individual may subscribe to certain ste­reo­t ypes not necessarily to justify some personal conduct or social position, but as a way of defending the actions of ­others with whom he or she shares a social identification. Thus ­people could hold ste­reo­t ypes of groups they as individuals have never encountered, but that other members of their group have encountered. Social identity theory’s emphasis on

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competition between groups also helps to explain why disadvantaged groups would promulgate negative ste­reo­t ypes of one another. Although neither group could be said to occupy a privileged position in need of defense or justification, as the self justification view would assume, both groups may make psychological gains by comparing themselves favorably to other groups that are near in status to them. Ste­reo­t ypes emerge within the context of intergroup be­hav­ior, which also helps explain why ste­reo­t ype contents are more uniform than would be predicted by self justification alone. According to Michael Hogg and Dominic Abrams (1988), the “sharedness is due to a social pro­cess of social influence which c­ auses conformity to group norms” (p. 75). Thus, social identity theory suggests that ste­reo­t ypes are consensual b ­ ecause all members of the social group are expected to follow them so as to establish collective justifications for intergroup be­hav­ior. However, this does not explain why ste­reo­t ypes are consensual across groups—­why members of dif­fer­ent social groups often possess the same ste­reo­t ypes of a certain group, despite the fact that their intergroup relationships are not the same. For example, men and ­women subscribe to very similar gender ste­reo­t ypes, and Whites, Blacks, and Latinxs possess similar racial ste­reo­t ypes. One of the earliest and most dramatic conclusions of social psychological research was that ste­reo­t ypes of specific nationalities are widely shared by dif­fer­ent groups, even across cultures. ­There is also considerable cross-­cultural generality when it comes to ste­reo­t ypes about men and ­women. While social identity theory does accommodate the phenomenon of self-­ stereotyping, defined as the tendency of an individual to categorize himself or herself in terms of group membership and adopt ste­reo­t ypes of that group, it does not adequately account for the phenomenon of negative self-­ stereotyping. For example, ­women in one study used terms such as “irrational,” “passive,” and “incompetent” to describe their own gender group (Broverman et al., 1972). Students from Manchester University rated the typical Oxford University student to be more “hard-­working,” “self-­assured,” “articulate,” and “intellectually-­minded” than the typical Manchester student (Spears & Manstead, 1989). Even if group differences such as t­ hese w ­ ere determined to be objectively accurate in some meaningful sense, one might still expect p ­ eople to resist such information and to defend the in-­group “at all costs” (Hogg and Abrams, 1988, p. 76). In a meta-­analytic review of seventy-­seven tests of the hypothesis that ad hoc groups created in the laboratory would evaluate the in-­g roup more

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favorably than the out-­group, a statistically reliable but moderately sized tendency to f­avor the in-­group was indeed observed (Mullen et al., 1992). However, 85 ­percent of the members of low-­status groups in ­these experiments made trait evaluations that favored higher-­status out-­groups, whereas none of the high-­status groups showed out-­group favoritism. Social identity theorists often underestimate the degree to which low-­status group members express preferences for higher-­status out-­groups, possibly reflecting a kind of false consciousness. Over the years, several authors have observed that social identity theory fails to account adequately for the phenomenon of out-­group favoritism. Hinkle and Brown (1990), for instance, argued that “out-­group favouritism per se does not fit with [social identity theory’s] view that groupmembers create and maintain positive social identities by engaging in in-­g roup favouring pro­cesses of intergroup comparison” (p. 49). Social identity theory alone does not possess a satisfying account of phenomena such as negative stereotyping of the in-­group or favoring the out-­group, although related issues certainly have been discussed, most notably by Tajfel (1981) himself. At times, proponents of the social identity perspective clearly suggest that the individual is motivated to form positive ste­reo­t ypes of the in-­group, but at other times they suggest that ste­reo­t ypes of the in-­group should reflect the group’s position in society, ­whether positive or negative. For example, Hogg and Abrams (1988) wrote that “­there is a vested interest in preserving the evaluative superiority of the in-­group at all costs” (p. 76), whereas Hogg and Turner (1987) argued that “the precise form taken by the self-­stereotyping [ethnocentric, ambivalent, or deprecatory] ­w ill only be predictable from knowledge of the relations” between the groups (p. 31). This theoretical ambiguity may be traced to social identity theory’s on-­again / off-­again relationship to concepts such as ideology and false consciousness. Even if social identity theory is not incompatible with phenomena such as negative self-­ stereotyping and out-­group favoritism, it does not provide a mechanism to account for them in the way that a need for positive social comparison accounts for positive stereotyping of the in-­group and negative stereotyping of out-­groups. Social identity theorists seek to resolve the conflict between the group justification motive and the occurrence of out-­group favoritism among disadvantaged groups in two ways. They suggest that the most impor­tant f­ actors are (1) the perceived legitimacy and stability of the social system (Tajfel & Turner, 1986) and (2) the extent to which group members are able to con-

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ceive of cognitive alternatives to the current state of affairs (Tajfel, 1981). When the existing social order and negative images of the in-­group are seen as both legitimate and unlikely to change, disadvantaged groups may internalize harmful ste­reo­t ypes of themselves. However, when the social order and prevailing ste­reo­t ypes are perceived as unfair or open to change, in-­group favoritism should prevail once again and negative stereotyping of the in-­ group should dissipate. But it is also impor­tant to explain the consensuality of ste­reo­t ypes, that is, the fact that ste­reo­t ype contents are widely shared across group bound­aries. When high-­status groups are ste­reo­typed positively on some dimensions, members of disadvantaged groups should be motivated to find alternative dimensions of comparison on which to express in-­group favoritism (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Thus, Manchester students acknowledged the consensually accepted superiority of Oxford students on dimensions such as “hard-­working” and “intellectually-­minded,” but they evaluated in-­group Manchester students more positively on traits such as “practically-­minded,” “easygoing,” and “aware of trends in ­music and fashion” (Spears & Manstead, 1989). The system justification approach would ­counter that the complementary traits on which subordinate groups positively differentiate themselves often reinforce the status quo—as research by Julia Becker (2012) shows—­promulgating ste­ reo­t ypes whereby disadvantaged groups are seen by themselves and o­ thers as accommodating or content (“easygoing”) or unconcerned with achievement (“interested in ­music and fashion”). Furthermore, perceptions of the legitimacy and stability of the status quo (and the validity of social ste­reo­t ypes) may very well be symptoms—or consequences—of what we call system justification. We argue that justification of the societal status quo sometimes outweighs the individual’s defense of personal and group interests. Negative stereotyping of the in-­group seems to serve the function of justifying an unequal state of affairs, even at the expense of individual and collective self-­interest. For this reason and o­ thers, we postulate a third system-­justifying function for the ste­reo­t ype that is consistent with the concept of false consciousness and is supported by theory and evidence from experimental social psy­chol­ogy.

The System Justification Approach In the early twenty-­first ­century, psy­chol­ogy has embraced a third view of justification whereby ste­reo­types are recognized as serving ideological

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functions in addition to—or, frequently, in opposition to—­t heir motivational function of defending personal or collective self-­interest. The ste­ reo­type function of system justification does not replace self and group justification functions, but complements them to account for ignored or unexplained phenomena. Individuals ­will sometimes adopt a system-­justifying stance, embracing beliefs and attitudes that preserve an existing state of social, economic, or po­liti­cal affairs. This third justification motive can account for out-­group favoritism, negative self-­stereotyping, and the consensuality of ste­reo­t ypes, three phenomena not adequately explained by processes of self and group justification. We do not claim that system justification accounts for the formation and maintenance of all social stereotypes—­only that many ste­reo­t ypes serve for their adherents the function of preserving the legitimacy and stability of the status quo. Ste­reo­types, in other words, serve ideological functions. In par­tic­u­lar, they can justify the exploitation of certain groups by ­others and can justify the poverty or powerlessness of some groups and the success of o­ thers in ways that make t­ hese differences seem legitimate and even natu­ral. A large body of social psychological research finds that “one of the most commonly observed characteristics of social existence is that p ­ eople imbue social regularities with an ‘­ought’ quality” (Lerner, 1980, p.  10; see also Kay et  al., 2009b). Based on theories and evidence pertaining to self-­perception, attribution, cognitive conservatism, the division of social roles, behavioral confirmation, and the belief in a just world, we propose that social ste­reo­ types are used to justify the existing social system and the positions and actions of oneself and o­ thers. This notion, as we have said, is not new. To the extent that the ideas of the dominant tend to become the ideas of the dominated, as Marx and Engels pointed out, system-­justifying ste­reo­ types may be advanced even by t­ hose who stand to lose from them. The system justification approach addresses false consciousness more directly than self or group justification approaches. System justification stipulates that ­under certain conditions p ­ eople w ­ ill defend, bolster, and justify the status quo, and this is not reducible to the desire to justify their own interests or the interests of fellow in-­group members. Social dominance theorists have drawn attention to similar ideological pro­cesses as legitimizing myths—­ including stereotypes—­that serve to justify the oppression of some groups by ­others (Sidanius & Pratto, 2001). The evolutionary assumptions of social dominance theory lead its proponents to conclude that hierarchy and oppression are inevitable (Sidanius & Pratto, 1993). A system justification approach,

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on the other hand, suggests ways of changing the social and po­liti­cal conditions that give rise to false consciousness (Cunningham, 1987; Jost, 1995; MacKinnon, 1989). System justification is the social psychological pro­cess whereby an individual perceives, understands, and explains an existing situation or arrangement in a way that legitimizes and maintains the status quo. Unlike ego and group justification assumptions of self-­interest motivation, system justification is a pro­cess by which existing social, economic, and po­liti­cal arrangements are preserved in spite of the evident harm they entail for disadvantaged individuals and groups. This emphasis on the production of false consciousness contrasts the system justification view most sharply with other views. A theory of this scope should explain, among other t­ hings, negative in-­g roup stereotyping among disadvantaged groups and the societal (and even cross-­societal) consensuality of many social ste­reo­t ypes.

Evidence for Social Stereotyping as System Justification Social psy­chol­ogy has often demonstrated that ­people develop ideas about themselves and ­others on the basis of some structural arrangement (such as a division of social roles or responsibilities) or outcome (such as a l­egal verdict or victimization by assault). P ­ eople often ascribe to themselves and ­others traits that are consonant with their experience, w ­ hether positive or negative, rather than question the order or legitimacy of the system that produced such an arrangement or outcome. Th ­ ese tendencies t­ oward system justification occur even when p ­ eople know that the arrangements or outcomes w ­ ere doled out arbitrarily and result in negative consequences for them. Stereotyping in such circumstances may result in false consciousness, the holding of “false beliefs that sustain one’s own oppression” (Cunningham, 1987, p. 255). For example, random assignment in an experimental situation has one individual play the role of contestant and another play the role of questioner; historical events led Africans to serve as slaves and Eu­ro­pe­ans to serve as masters; and evolutionary events led female mammals, but not males, to bear offspring. As a consequence of the distribution of roles, in the experiment, the questioner, contestant, and observer all perceive the (randomly assigned) questioner as more knowledgeable; assignment to the role of slave leads master and slave to view the slave as childlike and subservient; and w ­ omen and men alike see w ­ omen as nurturing and men as in­de­pen­dent or autonomous. Once events produce certain social arrangements, w ­ hether by historical

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fiat or h ­ uman intention, the resulting arrangements tend to be explained and justified, often in inherent terms (Hussak & Cimpian, 2015), simply ­because they exist. Stereotyping, as it operates in such contexts, appears to be a psychological vehicle for system justification. ­ ere is a broad term, intended to cover a wide vaThe concept of system h riety of social structures. They include social arrangements such as dyadic relationships, families, social groups, organ­izations, institutions, governments, economies, and the state of nature. System justification refers to the social psychological pro­cess whereby prevailing conditions—­whether social, cultural, sexual, economic, ­legal, or political—­are accepted, explained, and justified simply b ­ ecause they exist. As Philip Mason (1971) wrote in Patterns of Dominance, the disadvantaged often come to “believe that the system is part of the order of nature and that t­ hings w ­ ill always be like this” (p. 11). According to system justification theory, ste­reo­t ypes are often used to fulfill this ideological function. Experimental social psy­chol­ogy is our focus, but work in many other disciplines is relevant. System justification operates with re­spect to any structure involving in­equality in the division of roles or distribution of outcomes, ­because in­equality between individuals or groups must be justified to be accepted as legitimate and consensually maintained (Bénabou, 2008; Flannery & Marcus, 2012; Mansbridge, 2005). System justification theory is well suited to account for demonstrations that ste­reo­t ypes based on social class are pervasive and consensually shared. ­People infer stereotypic attributes directly from information about status or position, apparently to justify differences or distinctions in status or position (Jost, 2001). Thus, ste­reo­t ypes of the working class as lazy, stupid, or irresponsible serve the ideological function of rationalizing their economic plight. Similarities between ste­reo­t ypes of the lower class and t­ hose of African Americans have led some to suggest that racial ste­reo­t ypes are often inferred on the basis of economic disadvantage, a point that is consistent with system justification theory. Social ste­reo­types can emerge to explain or justify existing divisions of ­labor, as demonstrated in experiments by Alice Eagly and com­pany. In one set of studies, for instance, p ­ eople described w ­ omen as “communal” and men as “agentic” simply b ­ ecause ­these ste­reo­t ypes ­were congruent with their assumptions that w ­ omen ­were more likely to be “homemakers,” whereas men ­were more likely to be “employees” (Eagly & Steffen, 1984). Male homemakers ­were judged to be as communal as female homemakers and more communal than females whose occupation was left unspecified, whereas

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female employees ­were seen as more agentic than male employees and males whose occupation was unspecified. Furthermore, part-­time female employees ­were ste­reo­t yped as more communal and less agentic than full-­time female employees, and part-­time male employees w ­ ere ste­reo­t yped as less agentic than full-­time male employees (Eagly & Steffen, 1986). Thus “the proximal cause of gender ste­reo­t ypes is the differing distributions of ­women and men into social roles” (Eagly & Steffen, 1984, p. 752), b ­ ecause ­people’s ste­reo­ types ­were driven by their beliefs about the targets’ occupational roles. Gender stereotyping may therefore arise from efforts to explain and justify why men and w ­ omen often occupy dif­fer­ent social roles (Jackman, 1994). Hoffman and Hurst (1990) similarly argued that gender ste­reo­t ypes “originate in an attempt to rationalize the division of l­ abor by attributing to each sex t­ hose qualities deemed necessary for per­for­mance of the assigned functions” (pp. 206–207). By asking research participants to complete trait ratings of two hy­po­thet­i­cal groups, Orinthians and Ackmians, whose occupations ­were characterized as “child raisers” and “city workers,” respectively, they demonstrated that p ­ eople spontaneously ste­reo­t ype groups in ways that justify their division into separate roles in society. Specifically, child raisers ­were judged to be more patient, kind, and understanding than city workers, who w ­ ere judged to be more self-­confident and forceful. Moreover, stereotyping was more pronounced when participants ­were explic­itly asked to explain why the groups occupied dif­fer­ent roles, lending support to the notion that ste­reo­t ypes are created by a need to justify existing arrangements. A second experiment replicated the basic finding with re­spect to two other social roles, namely, “business persons” and “academics”—­who ­were ste­reo­ typed as “extraverted / ambitious” and “introverted / intellectual,” respectively. ­Because participants in t­ hese studies w ­ ere judging hy­po­thet­i­cal groups they had never encountered, they had no personal or group conduct in need of justification. Nevertheless, they ascribed traits to each of the groups in such a way that the existing state of affairs was reinforced. Hoffman and Hurst argued that gender ste­reo­t ypes “are largely an attempt to rationalize, justify, or explain the sexual division of l­abor” (p. 199), a conclusion that forms the basis of our system justification approach. ­People’s ste­reo­t ypes may help to bring about divisions of ­labor that are congruent with the ste­reo­t ypes. In one study, Skrypnek and Snyder (1982) demonstrated that female research participants who w ­ ere believed by ­others to be male chose to perform ste­reo­t ypically masculine tasks, such as fixing a light switch or attaching bait to a fishing hook, whereas females who ­were

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believed to be female opted for more feminine tasks, such as decorating a birthday cake or ironing a shirt. Taking all of ­these studies together, gender ste­reo­t ypes appear to both reflect and reproduce the division of social roles. The system justification perspective holds that ste­reo­t ypes are post hoc rationalizations of social and po­liti­cal systems. Th ­ ese systems lead ­people to ste­reo­t ype themselves and ­others in ways that serve to legitimize ­peoples’ statuses, roles, and other consequences of the social, economic, and po­liti­cal system. ­People may ascribe traits to themselves and ­others in such a way that the status or role they occupy is justified. Lee Ross and colleagues (1977) demonstrated the ease with which a social situation creates justification for beliefs about the self and o­ thers. Th ­ ese researchers randomly assigned participants to play e­ ither the role of contestant or questioner in a variant of the TV game show Jeopardy, which tests players’ general knowledge. The experiment revealed that ­people attributed greater knowledge to questioners than contestants, despite the fact that assignment to t­ hese roles was explic­itly random. ­These false attributions of knowledge persisted even when participants judged their own abilities: p ­ eople described themselves as less knowledgeable when they w ­ ere assigned to the contestant (versus questioner) role. The authors acknowledged the relevance of their findings for what we refer to as false consciousness: [­People] are apt to underestimate the extent to which seemingly positive attributes of the power­f ul simply reflect the advantages of social control. Indeed, this distortion in social judgment could provide a particularly insidious brake upon social mobility, whereby the disadvantaged and powerless overestimate the capabilities of the power­f ul who, in turn, inappropriately deem members of their own caste well-­suited to their par­ tic­u­lar leadership tasks. (p. 494)

An unfortunate consequence of this pro­cess is that the power­f ul w ­ ill be ste­reo­t yped, even by the powerless, in such a way that their success is seen as meritorious; meanwhile, the powerless ­w ill be ste­reo­t yped (and self-­ stereotyped) in such a way that their plight is regarded as well deserved. The pro­cess may be self-­perpetuating insofar as p ­ eople who are ste­reo­t yped may adopt social roles that are consistent with the expectations o­ thers have of them (Geis, 1993). ­People may also form negative ideas about themselves to make sense of social real­ity, according to research on the belief in a just world. Lerner (1980)

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argued that p ­ eople are motivated to subscribe to a “fundamental delusion” in which p ­ eople “get what they deserve and deserve what they get” b­ ecause it is only in such a world that ­people can exert control over their own life outcomes. Belief in a just world helps account for self-­blame among victims of trauma and vio­lence, which is analogous to negative self-­stereotyping among the disadvantaged, by postulating that victims would rather blame themselves for their plight than to admit that the world in which they live is capricious and unfair (Janoff-­Bulman, 1992; Miller & Porter, 1983). Consistent with the notion that ­people engage in blaming the self or the in-­g roup for negative consequences in order to maintain their belief that ­people get what they deserve, one study revealed that ­women as well as men blamed female victims of physical assault more than male victims (Howard, 1984). Th ­ ese results are difficult to account for in terms of ego-­or group-­ defensive motives. In t­hese situations, p ­ eople are more liable to justify a system that condones terrifying outcomes than to maintain the innocence of its victims, even when the victims are members of the in-­g roup. Cunningham (1987) considered false blame to be one of the main types of false consciousness. From perspectives such as Marxism and feminism, it is indeed false for members of disadvantaged groups to blame themselves or each other for their exploitation and abuse (MacKinnon, 1989). Just world theory is compatible with the Marxian / feminist view of stereotyping as ideology insofar as both views hold that attributions about groups of ­people sustain the apparent integrity and legitimacy of the social world, even at the expense of personal and group interests. The difference, perhaps, is that Lerner (1980) sees the belief in a just world as a natu­ral, universal h ­ uman motivation, whereas critical social theorists might interpret the need for ideological justification as a requirement of particularly exploitative systems such as feudalism, slavery, totalitarianism, capitalism, and patriarchy. We would expect, on the basis of system justification theory, that the tendency to legitimize the status quo ­w ill vary widely according to personal, social, cultural, historical, economic, and po­liti­cal contexts. Although not directly related to stereotyping, Tom Tyler (2006) has sought to understand why p ­ eople exhibit loyalty and deference to ­legal and po­liti­cal institutions even when such institutions produce unfavorable outcomes for them. We see this prob­lem as analogous to why p ­ eople subscribe to ste­reo­ types that justify the existing system of social arrangements at the psychological expense of the self and the group. For instance, ­people appear to be satisfied with procedural systems as long as they are provided with an

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opportunity to participate in the process—­even when their participation has no effect on relevant outcomes (Jost & Kay, 2010; Tyler, 2006). Tyler and McGraw (1986) made explicit the connection to false consciousness, concluding that “the disadvantaged are led to focus upon aspects of their situation that are in­effec­tive in inducing a sense of injustice and, hence, lead to po­liti­cal quiescence” (p. 126). Tony Greenwald (1980) reviewed considerable evidence for cognitive conservatism, a general psychological tendency to maintain one’s own preexisting systems of belief at the expense of accuracy in information pro­cessing. He argued that ­people resist changing their attitudes and beliefs by selectively attending to and generating attitude-­congruent information and misremembering past experiences to confirm current perceptions. Decision-­making researchers, too, have long observed a status quo bias such that ­people express preferences for the current state of affairs, what­ever it is, even if new or dif­ fer­ent options would be more desirable (e.g., Eidelman & Crandall, 2012; Kahneman, Knetsch, & Thaler, 1991; Moshinsky & Bar-­Hillel 2010). We suggest that cognitive conservatism, status quo bias, and the tendency to prefer inaction over action may all contribute to system justification, insofar as maintaining the legitimacy of existing social arrangements would obviate the need for attitudinal or behavioral change. While Greenwald sees only an analogy between the practices of conservative, authoritarian systems of government and the cognitive inclination to resist change, we suggest a more direct link: po­liti­cal systems that seek to preserve the status quo at all costs may very well produce citizens whose minds work to preserve the status quo at all costs. Theoretical and empirical work on implicit social cognition may help to explain how and why p ­ eople harbor beliefs, associations, and ste­reo­t ypes that harm them (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013). Findings from this research area advance our understanding of stereotyping and false consciousness in at least two ways. First and foremost, they demonstrate that prior exposure—­ especially repeated exposure—to stereotype-­related information can influence judgments and actions even when perceivers are unaware of the influence. Prob­ably the targets (subjects) of ste­reo­t ypes as well as the stereotyping perceivers are unaware of the operation of some ste­reo­t ypes. If so, implicit stereotyping would inhibit members of disadvantaged groups from engaging in vari­ous self-­protective (i.e., ego-­justifying) strategies. Targets who are unaware that a ste­reo­t ypical judgment has occurred are unlikely to attribute that judgment to prejudice or discrimination. Nevertheless, the effects of

Stereotyping and the Production of False Consciousness   89

nonconsciously registered ste­reo­t ypical judgments may influence affect, cognition, and be­hav­ior. System justification—­especially when it conflicts with personal or group interest—­may be more likely to operate and, indeed, be more insidious when it operates outside of conscious awareness. A second way in which research on implicit social cognition may contribute to an understanding of false consciousness is by documenting dissociations between consciously and nonconsciously held beliefs. For example, even ­people who explic­itly reject prejudicial attitudes are influenced by previously seen racial primes when they are instructed to judge the aggressiveness of a target person (Devine, 1989). Evidence of implicit bias pre­sents a challenge for views of stereotyping that are based exclusively on self and group justification perspectives ­because it reveals that many biases transcend specific group memberships and operate even in the absence of explicit prejudice (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013). While our aim has been to highlight the importance of system justification, we recognize that p ­ eople do not always—­consciously or nonconsciously—­ subscribe to beliefs that reinforce the societal status quo. That is, we do not claim that system justification always takes place, or that false consciousness is unavoidable in the face of in­equality. We do think, however, that for many years social and behavioral scientists have underappreciated the extent to which p ­ eople persist in justifying and rationalizing social systems that disadvantage them. In order for system justification theory to be empirically useful, it is necessary to identify conditions that elicit system-­justifying responses—as opposed to self-­or group-­justifying responses. One eliciting condition is the absence of a critical form of oppositional consciousness (e.g., Gurin et al., 1980; Mansbridge & Morris, 2001). Relatedly, isolating members of disadvantaged groups from one another or other­w ise ensuring that group identification is low may increase levels of system justification. The relationship between group identification and group consciousness stands in need of further clarification, as does the question of w ­ hether attaining group consciousness—in contrast to false consciousness—­requires that one advance negative ste­reo­t ypes about out-­groups. A third issue involves a somewhat dif­fer­ent use of the term consciousness. We have already proposed that system justification may occur more frequently or more intensely when judgments are made implicitly or outside of conscious awareness. By focusing attention explic­itly on the legitimacy of existing social arrangements, it may be pos­si­ble to mitigate the consequences of system justification, as researchers

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have found with re­spect to social stereotyping. This suggests the importance not only of “consciousness-­raising” but also of “ unconsciousness-­raising” (see Rudman, 2004).

Implications of System Justification for Ste­reo­type Content In subsequent chapters we will develop more fully the many implications and predictions of system justification theory for the pro­cess of stereotyping and the contents of social ste­reo­t ypes. As impor­tant as it is to elucidate the specific social psychological mechanisms involved in system justification, thus far we have only pointed out that the phenomenon occurs. The scope of this chapter prohibits a more detailed analy­sis of the ways in which system-­ justifying ste­reo­t ypes are developed and spread, but we w ­ ill have quite a bit more to say about stereotyping in Chapters 7 and 8. In the meantime, it seems worthwhile to list some of the major consequences of bringing a system justification perspective to bear on the contents of social ste­reo­types. ­These include the possibilities that contents of ste­reo­t ypes are derived from prevailing systems of social arrangements, that changes to the existing system of arrangements ­will produce changes in the contents of ste­reo­t ypes, that ste­reo­ types of subordinate groups may be similar across dif­fer­ent systems, and that their contents need not originate from a kernel of truth. In addition, we propose that system-­justifying ste­reo­types of disadvantaged groups need not be unfavorable and t­ hose of advantaged groups need not be favorable. All of ­these implications are offered as hypotheses, and we w ­ ill return to them throughout the book. The system justification view assumes that specific contents of ste­reo­t ypes may be predicted on the basis of objective, material ­factors such as the group’s social status or position in society. Tajfel (1981) quoted Robert LeVine, who made the following challenge: “Describe to me the economic intergroup situation, and I ­shall predict the content of the ste­reo­t ypes” (p. 224). Our own position ­here is not one of economic reductionism ­because it is necessary to understand inequalities due to race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, and other noneconomic characteristics. Nevertheless, we concur that social ste­reo­t ypes arise from objective, material f­actors such as divisions of ­labor and social practices—­rather than ideas that are seen as prior to or in­ de­pen­dent of material forces in society (MacKinnon, 1989). Once in place, ste­reo­t ypes may reproduce the same old state of affairs by eliciting behavioral confirmation by ste­reo­t yped actors. That is, members of disadvantaged groups may begin to act in ways that confirm o­ thers’ negative

Stereotyping and the Production of False Consciousness   91

expectations of them, thereby increasing the likelihood that their own state of disadvantage ­will persist (e.g., Skrypnek & Snyder, 1982). Over time, targets of ste­reo­t ypes may learn to deliver what is expected of them, and this is one mechanism by which ste­reo­t ypes perpetuate their group’s occupation of a disadvantaged status, position, or social role (Geis, 1993). A second implication of the system justification approach that follows from the first is that a most expedient way of changing ste­reo­types is to change the real­ity of social circumstances, an assumption that is even more basic to our view than to social identity theory. We take evidence that ste­ reo­types change in accordance with alterations in the social structure of relations between groups (e.g., Haslam et al., 1992) to be consistent with the perspective taken ­here, namely, that ste­reo­t ypes rationalize systems of social, economic, and po­liti­cal relations. In many ways, our thesis is reminiscent of one advanced by Campbell and LeVine (1968), whose merging of cognitive dissonance theory and anthropological evidence led them to propose that changes in the social system of relations between groups would lead to corresponding changes in group labels and ste­reo­t ypes. A third implication of system justification is that the ste­reo­t ype contents of dif­fer­ent but also disadvantaged groups may be more similar than would be predicted on the basis of self or group justification. Therefore, a somewhat surprising consequence of the system justification approach is that dif­ fer­ent groups across cultures should share essentially the same ste­reo­t ype contents if they occupy the same relative status positions in their respective socie­ties. In fact, Tajfel (1970) made just this observation: I remember presenting some years ago to students in Oxford a set of adjectives mentioned to me at the time . . . ​as typical of the Slovene characterizations of immigrant Bosnians. When the students ­were asked where ­these descriptions came from and to whom they applied, the unan­i­mous guess was that they w ­ ere the ste­reo­t ypes used about coloured immigrants in E ­ ngland. (p. 130)

Our system justification view would predict certain commonalities among the ste­reo­t ypes of dif­fer­ent groups that occupy similar statuses in socie­ties ­because the ideological justifications needed for ­t hese specific situations would be much the same. To make a similar point, Kate Millet (1970) considered the similarities between ste­reo­t ypes of Blacks and w ­ omen and concluded that Common opinion associates the same traits with both: inferior intelligence, an instinctual or sensual gratification, an emotional nature both primitive

92  A Theory of System Justification and childlike, an i­magined prowess in or affinity for sexuality, a contentment with their own lot which is in accord with a proof of its appropriateness, a wily habit of deceit, and concealment of feeling. (p. 57)

We have thus arrived at a peculiar possibility: research on the contents of ste­reo­t ypes may turn out to be characterized not so much by “tremendous variations in the specific forms which prejudice assumes”—as Katz & Braly (1935, p. 183) reasonably expected—as by regularities in ste­reo­t ypical contents pertaining to dif­fer­ent groups that emerge b ­ ecause they hold similar positions in terms of status and power in their respective socie­ties (e.g., Cichocka et al., 2015; Jost et al., 2005). The system justification approach also offers the prospect that the contents of social ste­reo­t ypes may be predicted as well as described. A fourth implication of system justification is that ste­reo­t ypes need not arise from a kernel of truth, as psychologists and laypeople alike have often assumed. We disagree with the view that ­every ste­reo­type must originate on the basis of some valid observation of differences between groups. Insofar as ste­reo­t ypes arise to justify some system of social, economic, or po­liti­cal arrangements, they may arise out of false as well as true consciousness; the justification used may bear ­little or no relation to a­ ctual characteristics of the group. This was the case in the experiments conducted by Hoffman and Hurst (1990), who showed that ste­reo­types about child raisers and city workers developed not from observed differences in attributes or be­hav­iors, but from a rationalization of the division of social roles. Some take demonstrations of the self-­f ulfilling nature of stereotypic expectancies as supporting the kernel of truth position. The idea h ­ ere is that ste­reo­t ypes that w ­ ere false to begin with may acquire a kind of accuracy ­because ste­reo­t yped targets conform to o­ thers’ expectations of them (Geis, 1993). If this is what is meant by the kernel of truth view, then it is compatible with system justification theory. We agree that some genuine group differences may emerge through pro­cesses of behavioral confirmation or material deprivation, but their validity is specious indeed. The system justification view does not assume that disadvantaged groups ­w ill be ste­reo­t yped in negative terms, only that they ­w ill be ste­reo­t yped in ways that justify their occupation of a par­tic­u­lar status or role, as we ­w ill see in Chapter 7. For instance, Blacks in Brazil may be ste­reo­t yped as “faithful” and “­humble” ­because ­these attributes justify their use as servants for Whites (Saunders, 1972). Eagly and Mladinic (1994) have suggested that ste­reo­t ypes

Stereotyping and the Production of False Consciousness   93

of ­women are actually more favorable than ste­reo­t ypes of men. While evidence for the favorability of female ste­reo­t ypes is undoubtedly impor­tant, it is difficult to rule out demand characteristics associated with ­people’s unwillingness to express unpop­u ­lar negative attitudes about stigmatized groups. Furthermore, some ­people may hold racist or sexist beliefs that are aversive to them and therefore are expressed only indirectly (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2004). In addition, ­people’s explic­itly avowed ste­reo­typical beliefs may bear l­ittle or no relation to their implicit attitudes about out-­ group members (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013). In Chapter  8 we consider the possibility, in any case, that seemingly benevolent ste­reo­t ypes of w ­ omen may contribute to the perpetuation of w ­ omen’s disadvantaged position in society. Just as system justification theory does not assume that underprivileged groups w ­ ill be ste­reo­t yped negatively, neither does it assume that privileged groups ­w ill always be ste­reo­t yped in positive terms. Dominant groups ­w ill occasionally evaluate subordinate groups more favorably than their own group in an effort to lend legitimacy to the status quo, although the evidence for out-­group favoritism among high-­status groups is very weak in the experimental lit­er­a­ture on intergroup relations. Nevertheless, men and ­women hold ste­reo­t ypes of men that include undesirable traits such as aggressive, selfish, competitive, and hostile (Eagly & Mladinic, 1994; Fiske et al., 2002). According to system justification theory, even negative ste­reo­t ypes of dominant groups may serve the function of system justification, as long as they indicate that the group is somehow well suited for its status or role. Thus, men’s relative success in a competitive social or economic system may be justified by attributing to them a large endowment of competitive qualities.

Conclusion We have argued that system justification may override motives to defend and justify the positions or actions of the self or group, thus leading to (a) negative stereotyping of the self or in-­group and (b) a high degree of social consensus when it comes to ste­reo­t ypes. A thorough review of the evidence indicates that p ­ eople w ­ ill make sense of existing states of affairs by assigning attributes to the self and ­others that are consonant with the roles or positions occupied by individuals and groups. Ste­reo­types appear to serve a system justification function for their adherents such that prevailing systems of social, economic, and po­liti­cal arrangements are justified and reproduced.

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By acknowledging the importance of stereotyping as system justification, we can fi­nally begin to empirically address the social psychological mechanisms and pro­cesses involved in the production of false consciousness. In the next chapter we deepen this analy­sis, generating eigh­teen hypotheses about rationalization of the status quo and internalization of inferiority and summarizing evidence bearing on each of ­these hypotheses.


The Psy­chol­ogy of System Justification Eigh­teen Hypotheses about Rationalization of the Status Quo, Internalization of Inferiority, and Potential Conflicts among Self, Group, and System Justification Motives


­H E R E I S A C L U S T E R of related theories that are so prevalent in social science they strike the con­temporary reader as self-­evidently true. Although ­these theories are by no means indistinguishable, they share a set of common features, including the tenets that groups serve their own interests, develop beliefs and ideologies to justify ­those interests, and have strong preferences for members of their own kind, that they are hostile and prejudicial t­ oward outsiders and conflict-­seeking whenever it helps to advance their partisan interests and particularistic identities. For the sake of classification—­and to contrast them with our own approach—we refer to ­these as group justification theories. They hold that p ­ eople are driven by ethnocentric motives to build in-­group solidarity and defend the interests and identities of fellow in-­group members against t­ hose of out-­group members. Such theories may contain one or more of the following specific assumptions:

• ​Similar ­others are always preferred to dissimilar ­others; • ​Intergroup be­hav­ior is driven primarily by ethnocentrism and in-­ group favoritism; • ​Prejudice is, by definition, a form of hostility directed at out-­group members; 95

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• ​Intergroup relations in society are inherently competitive, contested, and conflict-­ridden; • ​Prejudice, discrimination, and oppression are inevitable outcomes of intergroup relations; • ​Members of dominant groups invariably strive to impose their hegemonic w ­ ill on members of subordinated groups; • ​Members of subordinated groups may first seek to escape the implications of group membership by exercising individual exit and mobility options; when ­these are deemed impossible, they seek out identity-­ enhancement strategies of re­sis­tance and competition; • ​Po­liti­cal ideology is merely a reflection of individual and collective self-­interest and / or social class position; and • ​A strong sense of injustice is easily triggered by perceptions of deprivation or violations of fairness norms. In the social scientific imagination, it is as if the advantaged are relentlessly cashing in on their dominance and the disadvantaged are proud revolutionaries-­ in-­waiting. Both groups are self-­interested and overt conflicts of interest are endemic. With re­spect to perceptions of the social system, the overarching assumption is that “dominant group members are motivated to maintain the status quo and so to perceive it as legitimate, whereas subordinate group members are motivated to enhance their social identity and act ­toward change, perceiving the status quo as illegitimate” (DeMoulin et al., 2009, p. 13). We question ­these common, almost ubiquitous assumptions and make a case for a somewhat dif­fer­ent perspective. We challenge ­these conventionally accepted princi­ples not ­because we claim that they are generally unhelpful or incorrect, but ­because the many notable exceptions and deviations are instructive, revealing, and impor­tant for creative theory building. The received view is a good story, but it is not the w ­ hole story. It must be supplemented with an alternative perspective that takes the exceptions seriously. In this chapter, we further develop a theory of system justification, defined again as the social and psychological pro­cess by which existing social, economic, and po­liti­cal arrangements are legitimized, even at the expense of personal and group interest. We review research stimulated by a system justification perspective on intergroup relations, focusing especially on the ideological basis of implicit and explicit intergroup attitudes. But first we consider the evidence that has been accumulating against the received view of intergroup relations.

The Psychology of System Justification   97

Accumulation of Evidence against the Received View In recent years, evidence against the listed propositions has been accumulating, and a number of commentators have begun to express dissatisfaction with pieces of the received view. Mary Jackman (1994), for instance, railed against conflict theories of intergroup relations and the conception of prejudice as “irrational antagonism.” She suggested that, from a system maintenance perspective, ­there is far more to be gained by members of dominant groups fostering cooperative, even affectionate, relationships with their subordinates. Her historical and survey research shows that dominants and subordinates are highly averse to conflict and antagonism and often develop collaborative relationships, even within the context of dramatically inegalitarian institutions such as slavery. Peter Glick and Susan Fiske (2001) similarly criticized Allport’s (1954) popu­lar definition of prejudice as antipathy for failing to explain benevolent forms of sexism. They demonstrated that seemingly favorable attitudes ­toward ­women can help to sustain gender in­ equality and discriminatory systems and should therefore be considered prejudicial, even though such attitudes are highly appealing to many w ­ omen (Kilianski & Rudman, 1998). The weight of evidence is also mounting against the notion that in-­group bias is a default feature of intergroup relations and that members of low-­status groups employ a repertoire of identity-­enhancement strategies to avoid feelings of inferiority. To take just one example from the public opinion lit­er­a­ ture, Sniderman and Piazza (1995) observed that African Americans generally accepted unfavorable ste­reo­t ypes of their own group as lazy, irresponsible, and violent; they endorsed t­ hese ste­reo­t ypes even more strongly than Eu­ro­pean Americans did. Experimental and field studies have likewise demonstrated that members of disadvantaged groups often hold ambivalent, conflicted attitudes about their own group memberships and surprisingly favorable attitudes t­oward more advantaged groups. In-­group favoritism and out-­group derogation may be relatively common, but they are by no means the only reactions that p ­ eople have to social groups, especially in the context of hierarchical social systems. Dale T. Miller (1999) has shown that self-­interest is a product of social and cultural norms rather than a universal fact about ­human motivation. Group memberships have much weaker effects on social attitudes than observers assume (Miller & Ratner, 1998) and t­ here is a relatively weak correspondence between indicators of self-­interest—­such as income, social class,

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and demographic group membership—­ and po­ liti­ cal attitudes (Sears & Funk, 1991). Even on policies of economic redistribution, low-­income groups are scarcely more likely than high-­income groups to support such policies, although they would clearly benefit from them (Gilens, 1999; Graetz & Shapiro, 2005). In defiance of much so­cio­log­i­cal theory, urban ethnographic work reveals that “ghetto dwellers are neither the passive victims of nor the heroic resisters against cap­i­tal­ist or racist exploitation” (Newman, 2002, p. 1586). Evidence against the received view has been accumulating, and most of it is more consistent with a system justification perspective that stresses adaptation to and rationalization of the societal status quo than with purely identity-­based or interest-­based motives. Like all researchers of intergroup relations, we have been influenced im­ mensely by theories of social identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1986) and social dominance (Sidanius & Pratto, 2001). From our perspective, however, t­hese approaches hew too closely to conventional assumptions of self-­interest, homophily, in-­group bias, out-­group antipathy, and intergroup conflict. In the case of social identity theory, Tajfel absorbed much of this framework from Albert O. Hirschman’s (1970) rational choice analy­sis of exit versus loyalty. Other aspects may have resulted from the overgeneralization of results from the minimal group paradigm based on ad hoc, artificial groups created in the laboratory to explain very dif­fer­ent phenomena involving entrenched inequalities between groups. With regard to social dominance theory, self-­ interest assumptions are derived from a reading of evolutionary biology in which (a) ethnocentrism among ­humans is determined by inclusive fitness as an extension of “ge­ne­tic selfishness” and (b) “co­ali­tional psy­chol­ogy” makes ­human males prone to engage in warfare and other forms of gang-­like vio­ lence to expropriate social and economic resources from other groups (Sidanius & Kurzban, 2013). To the ­limited extent that ­these theories address the role of ideological orientations t­oward the social system (as opposed to specific intergroup attitudes), they regard the social order as something imposed by one group and resisted by another. This is their strength ­because ­there is considerable heuristic value in making such an assumption, but it is also their weakness. The image of intergroup relations that results is overly self-­interested and insufficiently ideological; t­ hese two criticisms are not contradictory b ­ ecause ideology is motivated by many ­factors other than self-­interest (Jost et al., 2003b). Theories of social identity and social dominance fail to explain why psychological responses to the societal status quo sometimes involve active bolstering

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and system justification pro­cesses, especially among po­liti­cally conservative members of disadvantaged groups (Jost, 2017b). That is, hierarchy is maintained not only through mechanisms of in-­group favoritism and out-­group derogation exercised by members of dominant groups, but also by the complicity of members of subordinated groups, many of whom perpetuate in­ equality through mechanisms such as out-­group favoritism. To illustrate the one-­sided emphasis on ethnocentric in-­group favoritism (and the corresponding neglect of out-­g roup favoritism), we have listed a number of books on social identity and intergroup relations in ­Table 5.1, comparing the number of index entries for in-­group and out-­group bias (and related topics). For twenty-­eight books published between 1981 and 2012, ­there ­were six times as many entries for in-­group favoritism (659) as for out-­ group favoritism (109). This one-­sidedness is not accidental. Theories of intergroup relations have developed much more elaborate concepts to explain ethnocentrism and the motivation to foster positive group distinctiveness than the tendencies to justify the status quo and internalize status hierarchies. Framing theories around concepts of identification and dominance dictates a focus on difference, conflict, and the advancement of parochial group interests. The neglect of system-­justifying pro­cesses is ironic b ­ ecause the historical rec­ord reveals far more acquiescence on the part of disadvantaged group members than identity-­based competition and revolt. Howard Zinn (2002), for example, noted that Society’s tendency is to maintain what has been. Rebellion is only an occasional reaction to suffering in ­human history; we have infinitely more instances of forbearance to exploitation, and submission to authority, than we have examples of revolt. Mea­sure the number of peasant insurrections against the centuries of serfdom in Europe—­the millennia of landlordism in the East; match the number of slave revolts in Amer­i­ca with the rec­ord of t­ hose millions who went through their lifetimes of toil without outward protest. What we should be most concerned about is not some natu­ral tendency ­towards violent uprising, but rather the inclination of ­people, faced with an overwhelming environment, to submit to it. (pp. 16–17)

A theory of system justification is therefore needed to account for empirical evidence pertaining to the c­ auses, consequences, and depth of the individual’s psychological investment in the existing social order, especially when that investment contradicts his or her own self-­interest.

100  A Theory of System Justification T ­ able 5.1 Number of subject index entries in books on social identification and intergroup relations referring to in-­group favoritism versus out-­group favoritism and their synonyms, 1981–2012 Book (Year) J. C. Turner & H. Giles (1981), Intergroup Behaviour J. C. Turner et al. (1987), Rediscovering the Social Group R. Brown (1988), Group Pro­cesses (1st ed.) M. Hogg & D. Abrams (1988), Social Identifications D. Abrams & M. Hogg (1990), Social Identity Theory D. Mackie & D. Hamilton (1993), Affect, Cognition, and Stereotyping J. P. Leyens et al. (1994), Ste­reo­types and Social Cognition P. Oakes et al. (1994), Stereotyping and Social Real­ity D. Taylor & F. Moghaddam (1994), Theories of Intergroup Relations R. Brown (1995), Prejudice (1st ed.) W. P. Robinson (1996), Social Groups and Identities W. Stephan & C. Stephan (1996), Intergroup Relations C. McGarty & S. A. Haslam (1997), Message of Social Psy­chol­ogy R. Spears et al. (1997), Social Psy­chol­ogy of Stereotyping and Group Life C. Sedikides et al. (1998), Intergroup Cognition and Intergroup Be­hav­ior R. Brown (2000), Group Pro­cesses (2nd ed.) C. Stangor (2000), Ste­reo­types and Prejudice (Essential Readings) M. Hogg & D. Abrams (2001), Intergroup Relations (Key Readings)

In-­group bias / favoritism

Out-­group bias / favoritism





39 7

0 5











17 10

8 5















The Psychology of System Justification   101 T ­ able 5.1 (Continued) Book (Year) A. Eagly et al. (2004), Social Psy­chol­ogy of Group Identity and Social Conflict D. Schneider (2004), Psy­chol­ogy of Stereotyping R. Brown & D. Capozza (2006), Social Identities S. Moulin et al. (2009), Intergroup Misunderstandings S. Otten et al. (2009), Intergroup Relations R. Brown (2010), Prejudice (2nd ed.) T. Postmes & B. Branscombe (2010), Rediscovering Social Identity (Key Readings) R. Kramer et al. (2011), Social Cognition, Social Identity, and Intergroup Relations L. Tropp & R. Mallett (2011), Moving Beyond Prejudice Reduction S. Dashtipour (2012), Social Identity in Question TOTAL: AVERAGE PER BOOK:

In-­group bias / favoritism

Out-­group bias / favoritism





















659 23.5

109 3.9

Note: Each entry (count) refers to a page on which one or more of the search terms within each category was listed in the glossary or index or other­wise referenced. For in-­group bias / favoritism, search terms included ­those two combinations as well as the following (and close) synonyms: ethnocentrism, in-­group enhancement / preferences / ​ positivity, positive evaluation(s) of in-­group, intergroup bias / discrimination, as well as out-­group discrimination / derogation / devaluation / dehumanization /​ hostility /  enmity / rejection. For out-­g roup bias / favoritism, search terms included ­t hose combinations as well as the following (and close) synonyms: out-­group enhancement /  preferences / positivity, positive evaluation(s) of out-­g roup, in-­group derogation /  devaluation / hostility / rejection, as well as internal colonization, (group) self-­hatred, internalization of inferiority, inferioritization, inferiority anxiety / complex(es), domination, subordination, false / class consciousness, status quo (rationalization), and system justification. Pages ­were only counted if the text matched the terms (as we intended them). For instance, some entries for out-­group bias actually referred to in-­group (versus out-­group) bias.

102  A Theory of System Justification

We argue that ­there is a general—­but by no means insurmountable—­ system justification motive to defend and justify the societal status quo and bolster the legitimacy of the social order. This motivation is not unique to members of dominant groups ­because they are not the only ones who possess under­lying epistemic, existential, and relational needs that are addressed by system justification. We see the system justification motive as comparable—in terms of strength and social significance—to widely documented motives to defend and justify the interests and esteem of the self-­ concept and the social group. We expand previous theoretical notions and argue that ­people do want to hold favorable attitudes about themselves and their own groups, but they also want to hold relatively favorable attitudes about the social, economic, and po­liti­cal systems on which they depend.

Self, Group, and System Justification Motives In the first chapter we distinguished among three dif­fer­ent justification tendencies or motives that have the potential to be in conflict or contradiction with one another for members of disadvantaged groups. The first is self (or ego) justification, which describes the need to develop and maintain a favorable self-­image and to feel valid, justified, and legitimate as an individual actor. The second is group justification, which is the primary focus of social identity theory; it refers to the desire to develop and maintain favorable images of one’s own group and to defend and justify the actions of fellow in-­group members. The third is system justification, which captures social and psychological tendencies to imbue the status quo with legitimacy and see it as good, fair, natu­ral, desirable, and stable. Within this theoretical framework, the disadvantaged are unlikely to participate in collective action for social change ­unless the strength of self and / or group justification motives (and other opposing forces) overcomes the strength of the system justification motive. ­Because system justification theory distinguishes clearly among the three motives of self, group, and system justification, it is the only theory that directly addresses the social and psychological antecedents and consequences of support for the status quo, especially among disadvantaged groups. B ­ ecause social identity theory locates all social be­hav­ior on a continuum ranging from interpersonal to intergroup be­hav­ior, it has contributed much to our understanding of the first two motives (self and group justification) and the relations between them, but it has done very ­little to advance our understanding of system justification pro­cesses over the past thirty or forty years. Tajfel and

The Psychology of System Justification   103

Turner (1986) hint that ­people may find it difficult to imagine cognitive alternatives, but they do not explain the origins of this difficulty, nor does such an assumption follow from other tenets of social identity theory. Social dominance theory has addressed the second and third motives (group and system justification), but in such a way that they are often conflated with one another. Jost and Thompson (2000) demonstrated that some items from the SDO scale load onto a group-­based dominance f­ actor, whereas ­others load onto a separate opposition to equality ­factor (see also Kugler et al., 2010). ­Because of conceptual and empirical ambiguities, some have interpreted social dominance as a form of group justification, whereas ­others have treated it as synonymous with system justification. Paul Sniderman and colleagues (2000), for example, concluded that “the job of the social dominance mea­sure” is to “assess the strength of the desire of some to enjoy the benefits of dominance over o­ thers,” and they are not alone in this group-justifying interpretation. Over time, the definition of SDO has shifted and become more compatible with a system justification perspective. Sidanius and colleagues (2001), for instance, described the concept as a “general desire for unequal relations among social groups, regardless of w ­ hether this means in-­group domination or in-­group subordination” (p. 312); this renders it much closer to system justification than group justification. Consistent with this interpretation, Overbeck and colleagues (2004) observed that high SDO members of low-­ status groups a­ dopted system-­justifying styles of acquiescence rather than group-­justifying styles of re­sis­tance to the status quo. As part of an ongoing effort to specify and, ultimately, formalize the major tenets of system justification theory, we generated a fairly large number of hypotheses. Th ­ ese hypotheses cover pro­cesses of rationalization and internalization—­including stereotyping, out-­group favoritism, and depressed entitlement—as well as relations among self, group, and system justification motives and their consequences for attitudinal ambivalence, self-­esteem, and subjective well-­being. The fact that each of t­ hese hypotheses has received at least some support indicates that a system justification perspective adds something of distinct value to the social sciences. Our review of empirical research is or­ga­nized around eigh­teen hypotheses, which are listed in Appendix B.1, but in this chapter we do not devote equal space to each. Instead, we focus on ­those issues that (a) are most relevant to intergroup relations and po­liti­cal psy­chol­ogy, and (b) distinguish a system justification perspective from theories of social identity and social

104  A Theory of System Justification

dominance. The themes we stress in this chapter are rationalization of the status quo, internalization of inferiority, and potential conflicts among self, group, and system justification motives.

Rationalization of the Status Quo According to system justification theory, the h ­ uman capacity for rationalization lends a strong mea­sure of legitimacy and stability to the social system. The poet W. H. Auden wrote in 1939 that ­ ere is a merciful mechanism in the ­human mind that prevents one from Th knowing how unhappy one is. One only realizes it if the unhappiness passes, and then one won­ders how on earth one was ever able to stand it. If the factory workers once got out of factory life for six months, ­there would be a revolution such as the world has never seen. (p. 402)

­ eople have a remarkable capacity to accommodate unwelcome outcomes, P and this helps to explain why authorities are as successful as they are at maintaining consent—­and why transformative social change is so rare. Rationalization is understood to play a fundamental role in many areas of social psy­chol­ogy, especially cognitive dissonance reduction, but for the most part researchers have focused on cases in which (a) ­people are personally responsible for the outcomes they justify, and (b) rationalization occurs post hoc, that is, only ­after a choice or be­hav­ior has occurred. Bill McGuire and Claire McGuire (1991) argued, in addition, for the existence of sour grapes and sweet lemon types of rationalizations, so that ­people devalue anticipated events as their apparent likelihood decreases and enhance the subjective value of anticipated events as their likelihood increases. Kay and colleagues (2002) distinguished a system justification perspective on rationalization from self and group justification perspectives by investigating the hypothesis that H1. ­People ­w ill rationalize the (anticipated) status quo by judging likely events to be more desirable than unlikely events, (a) even in the absence of personal responsibility, (b) w ­ hether t­ hose events are initially defined as attractive or unattractive, and (c) especially when motivational involvement is high rather than low.

One week prior to the fateful US presidential contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000, we administered a survey to 288 adult respondents in which we (a) manipulated the perceived likelihood that one (or the other)

The Psychology of System Justification   105 Desirability ratings of a Bush presidency


Bush desirability ratings

8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 43/51





Perceived likelihood of a Bush victory Desirability ratings of a Gore presidency

9 Gore desirability ratings

8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 43/51





Perceived likelihood of a Gore victory Republicans



Figure 5.1 ​Desirability ratings of Bush and Gore presidencies versus perceived likelihoods of a Bush or Gore presidency.

candidate would win, and (b) mea­sured the subjective desirability of each outcome. Unsurprisingly, Demo­crats preferred Gore and Republicans preferred Bush overall. However, Demo­crats and Republicans rated both candidates as more desirable as the likelihood of their becoming president increased (Figure 5.1). Nonpartisans showed no such rationalization, presumably

106  A Theory of System Justification

­ ecause they ­were not sufficiently invested in the outcome of a Bush–­Gore b election.1 But stakeholders did rationalize the status quo—­even before it became the status quo—­much as Americans increased their support for invading Iraq in 2003 (and their approval of the president’s job per­for­mance and satisfaction with the country’s direction) as soon as President Bush announced the decision to invade. Likewise, Kristin Laurin (2018) demonstrated that p ­ eople rationalized bans on smoking and plastic w ­ ater b ­ ottles as soon as they went into effect and that even Demo­crats began to rationalize the presidency of Donald Trump immediately following his inauguration. ­People also justify the social order by using ste­reo­types to differentiate between high-­and low-­status groups so that in­equality seems natu­ral and appropriate, as discussed in the previous chapter. System justification theory builds on the theme that ­people use ste­reo­types to justify social and economic differences between groups, proposing that H2. P ­ eople w ­ ill use ste­reo­t ypes to rationalize social and economic status differences between groups, so that even the same target group ­w ill be ste­ reo­typed differently depending on ­whether it is perceived to be high or low in social status or standing within the system.

We developed an experimental paradigm in which the perceived socioeconomic success of real-­world groups could be manipulated experimentally, thereby excluding the possibility that differences in ste­reo­t ypes could be attributed to a­ ctual differences between groups (Jost, 2001). Using this paradigm, we led students at the University of Mary­land to believe that alumni from their school ­were ­either more or less socioeco­nom­ically successful than alumni from a rival school, the University of V ­ irginia. When they believed that their own group was more successful than the other group, they exhibited in-­group favoritism on achievement-­related traits of intelligence, competence, and industriousness. When they believed that the other group was more successful, however, they exhibited out-­group favoritism, now declaring that the same group of Mary­land students was less intelligent, less competent, and less hardworking than V ­ irginia students. If ­there is indeed a motive to defend and justify the status quo, ­people should be especially likely to use ste­reo­t ypes and other means to bolster the legitimacy of the prevailing system when it is criticized or threatened (Kay et al., 2005). Thus, we hypothesized that H3. P ­ eople ­w ill defend and justify the social system in response to system criticism or threat by using ste­reo­t ypes to differentiate between higher-­and

The Psychology of System Justification   107 lower-­status groups to a greater degree than when ­there is no system criticism or threat.

We first investigated this possibility in the Israeli context, focusing on ste­reo­ types of higher-­status Ashkenazi Jews of Eu­ro­pean descent and lower-­status Sephardic Jews of M ­ iddle Eastern and African descent (Jost et al., 2005). One of my collaborators, Yephat Kivetz, sampled riders of public trains in Tel Aviv and asked for their beliefs about Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. But first we had them read ­either a high or low system threat message. The former included the following sentences: ­ ese days, many ­people in Israel feel disappointed with the nation’s conTh dition. Many citizens feel that the country has reached a low point in terms of social, economic, and po­liti­cal f­ actors. ­People do not feel as safe and secure as they used to, and t­here is a sense of uncertainty regarding the country’s ­f uture.

In contrast, the low system threat message read as follows: ­ ese days, despite the difficulties the nation is facing, many ­people in Th Israel feel safer and more secure relative to the past. Many citizens feel that the country is relatively stable in terms of social, economic, and security ­factors. ­There is a sense of optimism regarding Israel’s ­f uture and an understanding that this is the only place where Israeli ­people can feel secure.

­ nder conditions of low system threat, both groups of respondents (AshkeU nazim and Sephardim) exhibited mild in-­group favoritism, claiming that their own group was slightly superior in terms of intelligence, ambition, industriousness, responsibility, calmness, open-­mindedness, and valuing education. ­Under conditions of high system threat, Ashkenazi respondents exhibited stronger in-­group favoritism, but Sephardic respondents exhibited out-­group favoritism (Figure 5.2). Much as self-­related and group-­related threats tend to increase in-­group favoritism, exposure to a system-­related threat tends to increase consensually shared stereotyping of high-­and low-­status target groups—­and even self-­stereotyping (see also Laurin et al., 2011). If most ­people are motivated to justify the status quo, they should accept and bolster even meaningless (or “placebic”) explanations for status and power differences between groups. Thus, we hypothesized that H4. Providing explanations (or pseudo-­explanations) for status or power differences between groups ­w ill (a) increase the use of ste­reo­t ypes to ratio-

108  A Theory of System Justification 1.50 1.25

In-group favoritism

1.00 0.75 0.50 0.25 0.00 –0.25 –0.50

Low system threat Ashkenazim

High system threat Sephardim

Source: Adapted from Jost and Hunyady (2003) based on data from Jost et al. (2005). Note: The data are aggregated across the following traits: intelligence, ambition, responsibility, industriousness, calmness, open-­mindedness, and valuing education. Positive scores indicate in-­g roup favoritism and negative scores indicate out-­g roup favoritism. The interaction between group membership and system threat was statistically significant, p