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Social Psychology in the Public Interest

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

System Justification

We have argued throughout this book that people have a strong desire to feel good about themselves and the people they care about, and we have seen much evidence to support this idea. Most people believe that they and their own groups are important, valued, competent, and generally “better than average.” And most people endorse social policies that favor themselves and the groups to which they belong (Bobo, 1983; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999).

If this is the case, then why do people who are of lower socioeconomic status so often support political policies that tax the poor more highly than they tax the rich and that support unequal income distributions that do not favor them? In short, why do people engage in system justification, even when the current state of affairs does not benefit them personally? Social psychologists have provided a number of potential explanations for this puzzling phenomenon.

One factor is that our perceptions of fairness or unfairness are not based on our objective position within the society but rather are more based on our comparison of our own status relative to the other people around us. For instance, poor people may not perceive that they have lower status because they compare their current state of affairs not with rich people but with the people who they are most likely to see every day—other poor people.

This explanation is supported by the fact that factors that increase the likelihood that lower-status individuals will compare themselves with higher-status people tend to reduce system justification beliefs, decrease life satisfaction, and lead to collective action. For instance, the civil rights riots of the 1960s occurred after Blacks had made many gains in the United States. At this time, they may have tended to reject the existing status system because they began to compare themselves with higher-status Whites rather than with other low-status Blacks, and this upward comparison made their relatively lower status seem more illegitimate and unfair (Gurr, 1970).

A second explanation is based on the principles of procedural fairness. Our perceptions of fairness and our satisfaction with our own lives are determined in large part by the culture in which we live. In North America, the culture provides a strong belief in fairness. Most people believe in the procedural fairness of the system itself and thus are willing to believe that systems and authorities are correct and proper and that inequality among groups and individuals is legitimate and even necessary. Furthermore, because believing otherwise would be highly threatening to the self-concept, poor people may be even more likely to believe in the correctness of these inequalities than are those of higher status (Jost, 2011; van der Toorn, Tyler, & Jost, 2011).

To test this hypothesis, John Jost and his colleagues (Jost, Pelham, Sheldon, & Sullivan, 2003) asked over 2,500 U.S. citizens the following question:

Some people earn a lot of money while others do not earn very much at all. In order to get people to work hard, do you think large differences in pay are:

  • Absolutely necessary?
  • Probably necessary?
  • Probably not necessary?
  • Definitely not necessary?

As predicted by the idea that to believe otherwise is to accept that the social situation is unfair, Jost and his colleagues found that poorer people were significantly more likely to think that large differences in pay were necessary and proper (responding “absolutely necessary” or “probably necessary”) than did wealthier people (Figure 12.4). You can see that social psychological principles—in this case, the idea of system justification—can be used to explain what otherwise would seem to be quite unexpected phenomena.

Figure 12.4 System Justification 
Poorer respondents reported finding the income differential between rich and poor more acceptable than did richer participants. Data are from Jost, Pelham, Sheldon, and Sullivan (2003). 

Key Takeaways

  • The individual goals of self-concern and other-concern help explain tendencies to cooperate or compete with others.
  • Both competition and cooperation are common and useful reactions to social interaction dilemmas.
  • The solutions to social dilemmas are more favorable when the outcomes are integrative rather than fixed-sum.
  • Conflict is sometimes realistic, in the sense that the goals of the interacting parties really are incompatible. But in many cases, conflicts are more perceived than realistic.
  • Our reactions to conflict are influenced by harm-based morality beliefs and social fairness norms.
  • Individuals who have low status may nevertheless accept the existing status hierarchy, deciding that they deserve what little they have, a phenomenon known as false consciousness. Individuals with low status who to do not accept the procedural fairness of the system may use social creativity strategies or them may resort to collective action.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Do you think that you or people you know are victims of system justification? How would you know if you or they were?
  2. Discuss an example of a person who is a member of a social group and who you believe has used social creativity strategies in an attempt to improve his or her self-image. What were the strategies, and were they successful?


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