System justification theory (SJT) is a theory within social psychology that proposes people have a motivation to defend and justify the status quo, even when it may be disadvantageous to certain people. People have a psychological need to maintain stability and order in their lives. As such, they are motivated to see the status quo (or prevailing social, economic, and political norms) as good, legitimate, and desirable.
According to system justification theory, people not only want to hold favorable attitudes about themselves (ego-justification) and their own groups (group-justification), but they also want to hold favorable attitudes about the overarching social order (system-justification). In certain instances, system-justification motives override the other two motives, and result in outgroup favoritism and acceptance of inferiority among groups low in status (i.e. groups low on the social, political, and economic hierarchies). Consequences of this theory is that existing social, economic, and political arrangements tend to be preferred, alternatives to the status quo are disparaged, and inequality may be indirectly perpetuated.
- 1 Origins
- 2 Theoretical influences
- 3 Aspects of system justification theory
- 4 Consequences of system justification
- 5 Critiques
- 6 Current research
- 7 See also
- 8 References
Previous social psychological theories that aimed to explain intergroup behavior typically focused on the tendencies for people to have positive attitudes about themselves (ego-justification) and their self-relevant groups (group-justification). In other words, people are motivated to engage in behaviors that allow for them to maintain a high self-esteem and a positive image of their group. System Justification theory proposed that people have an additional motive (system-justification) to defend the social systems (status quo), and that this system-justification motive might overpower self and group interests in some people. Thus, SJT was conceptualized to account for these instances in which people tended to legitimize the prevailing social systems of their society that theorists argued previous social psychological theories could not.
While Social Identity Theory, Cognitive Dissonance Theory, Just-World Hypothesis, Social Dominance Theory, and Marxist-Feminists Theories of Ideologies have heavily influenced System Justification Theory, it has also expanded on these perspectives to include the system-justification motive and behaviors.
Cognitive dissonance theory
One of the most popular and well-known social psychological theories, cognitive dissonance theory explains that people have a need to maintain cognitive consistency in order to retain a positive self-image. System justification theory builds off the cognitive dissonance framework, in that it posits people will justify a social system in order to retain a positive image of that social system, which in turn could actually cause more conflict and dissonance within some people.
Social identity theory
Within social identity theory, when people are presented with intergroup conflict that threatens their social group identities, people will justify behaviors like stereotyping and discrimination against outgroups in order to maintain their positive group image. This is known as ingroup favoritism. System justification theorists argue this framework has not sufficiently addressed instances of outgroup favoritism in disadvantaged groups, and that this might be in part due to the scope of the theory. Therefore system justification theory builds off social identity theory to help account for instances of outgroup favoritism observed in some disadvantaged group members. That is, people with outgroup favoritism will hold more positive images of other groups (outgroups) than the groups they belong to (ingroups).
Social dominance theory
This theory has widely been compared to system justification theory since they are both system justifying theories. Social dominance theory focuses on people’s motive to maintain a positive group image by generally supporting group-based inequality. And people will have a tendency to either uphold or undermine a group-based hierarchy depending on which will lead to a positive group image. While this theory focuses on the group-justification motive, system justification theory differs in that it focuses on the system-justification motive.
Belief in a just world
This theory broadly explains that people are inclined to believe the world is generally fair, and that the outcomes of people’s behavior are subsequently deserved. This theory assumes that this arises from people’s belief they have personal control over their behaviors and outcomes. System justification theory, while keeping the perspective that people are inclined to believe the world is just, does not assume that it arises from the belief of control over people’s actions. Instead, system justification theory utilizes other processes that will lead people to desire the status quo as fair and legitimate.
In order to account for the phenomenon of outgroup favoritism that is a main component of system justification, theorists have derived heavily from the Marxist-feminist theories on the prevailing ideologies as tools to preserve the system. In particular, the concept of false consciousness, in which the dominant group in society believes their dominance to be destined, can help to inform why certain members of disadvantage groups sometimes engage in outgroup favoritism.
Aspects of system justification theory
Rationalization of the status quo
One of the main aspects of system justification theory explains that people are motivated to justify the status quo and view it as stable and desirable. To this extent theorists have provided specific hypothesis in which the rationalization of the status quo can manifest. The first explains that in order to justify the status quo, people will be inclined to make sure their preferences are congruent with the status quo. Therefore in situations where the status quo has yet to be established, or rather certain aspects are not yet known, people will judge events that are more likely as more desirable than events that are less likely.
Another way people rationalize the status quo is through the use of stereotypes. Specifically, when perceiving threats to the predominant system, people will be more inclined to justify the system and the status quo through the utilization of stereotypes. And they will appraise stereotype groups differently depending on their status to further make the status quo seem fair. In other words, when people perceive their group to be of high status (i.e. have higher social and economic standing) they will have stereotypes that are favorable to their group, and less favorable toward low status outgroups. On the other hand, if people perceive their groups to be low status, they will have less favorable stereotypes of their group, and more favorable stereotypes toward high status outgroups. In a recent research study on the connection of system justification beliefs and ambivalent sexism, researchers found that benevolent sexism beliefs related to life satisfaction through system justification. That is, both men and women may be motivated to hold benevolent sexism beliefs because such beliefs may help to promote the notion that the status quo is fair, which in turn can maintain life satisfaction. Among low status or disadvantaged members, theorists hold that they will increase their use of stereotypes and provide explanations (no matter how weak) to rationalize the unequal status differences in groups. They will associate positive characteristics (favorable stereotypes) to high status members and lead low status group members to have more positive feelings about their low status.
In contrast to ingroup favoritism, which holds that people have a motivation to regard the social groups that they belong in more positively than other groups, outgroup favoritism is when people tend to regard groups they do not belong in more positively than the groups in which they are members. System justification theorists argue that this is an example or manifestation of how some people have unconsciously absorbed existing inequalities. In other words, because people have a tendency to justify the status quo (which usually consists of inequality among groups) and believe that it is fair and legitimate, certain people from low status groups will accept and internalize that inequality.
Criticisms of outgroup have suggested observations of this in disadvantaged group members are simply manifestations of more general demand characteristics or social norms that would imply low status groups to evaluate other groups more positively. In response to this, system justification theorists introduced implicit measures along with the explicit measures of outgroup favoritism. It was found that low status group members still exhibited outgroup favoritism (i.e. preference for other groups) on both implicit and explicit measures, and they displayed higher instances of outgroup favoritism on implicit measures than on explicit measures. In contrast, people from high status groups were found to display ingroup favoritism more on implicit measures.
Thus, it is expected that when motivation to justify the system or status quo increases and it is perceived to be more legitimate, high status group members will also display increased ingroup favoritism, while low status group members will display increased outgroup favoritism. Researchers have also linked political conservatism with system justification, in that conservatism is associated with upholding tradition and resistance to change, which is similar to justifying the status quo (or current state of social, political, and economic norms). Along this vein, system justification theorists hold that high status group members will engage in increased ingroup favoritism the more politically conservative they are, while low status group members will display increased outgroup favoritism the more politically conservative they are.
Research on wage disparities among men and women have found that women often believe they are paid less than men because they do not deserve equal pay. This depressed entitlement was first thought as the manifestation of women internalizing the low status of their gender compared to men. Subsequent research has found depressed entitlement occur across contexts in which gender was not a variable. System justification theorists have suggested that depressed entitlement is another general example of how individuals of low status groups absorb their inferiority in order to justify the status quo. As such, system justification holds that low status group members regardless of context will be more likely to display instances of depressed entitlement than high status group members. And this will be seen more among low status group members for completed work as opposed to work not yet completed.
Ego, group, and system justification motives
As previously stated, people are motivated by the desire for ego-justification and group-justification to view themselves and their group positively (which can manifest through feelings of self-esteem and value). The system-justification motive is people’s desire to view the system or status quo in a favorable light as legitimate and fair. Among high status group members, all three of these motives are congruent with one another. The need to believe the system is just and fair is easy for high status group members because they are the groups benefiting from the system and status quo. Therefore, as the advantaged groups, holding positive regard for the self and group corresponds readily with believing the status quo is legitimate.
In particular, as system justification motives increase for high status group members, ingroup ambivalence will decrease, levels of self-esteem will increase, and depression and neuroticism levels will decrease. For low status groups, the ego-justification and group-justification motives come into conflict with the system-justification motive. If low status group members have a desire to believe the status quo and prevailing system is fair and legitimate, then this would conflict with the motivation of these individuals to maintain positive self and group images. Theorists posit that this conflict of justification motives creates conflicting or mixed attitudes in low status groups as a result of being the disadvantaged group that does not necessarily benefit from the status quo.
As system justification motives increase for low status group members, ingroup ambivalence will increase and occur at stronger levels compared to high status groups, levels of self-esteem will decrease, and depression and neuroticism levels will increase. Moreover, researchers suggest that when ego and group justification motives are particularly decreased, system-justification motives will increase.
Enhanced system justification among the disadvantaged
Based on cognitive dissonance theory that holds people have a need to reduce dissonance and maintain cognitive consistency, system justification theory explains that people are motivated to rationalize and justify instances of inequality in order to preserve and defend the legitimacy of the system. Because people have this need to believe the current prevailing system is legitimate and the way it is for a reason, when presented with instances where this might threaten that, people will respond with more justifications to maintain the legitimacy of the system or status quo. Since high status group members regularly benefit from the prevailing system, they are expected to rarely be presented with examples that would threaten the legitimacy of the system. In contrast, it is expected that low status group members who do not benefit from the system, would be presented more regularly with threats to the legitimacy of the system and status quo. Thus, it is expected for system justification tendencies to increase in societies with more substantial group inequalities, and low status group members will be more inclined than high status group members to provide more intense justifications to rationalize and uphold the prevailing systems and status quo.
Research has found that compensatory stereotypes might lead to increased justification of the status quo. That is, stereotypes that have components that would offset the negative aspects of the stereotypes would allow people to more easily explain or justify the inequality of the prevailing system. One of the more common examples is the compensatory stereotype of “poor but happy” or “rich but miserable.” Stereotypes like these that incorporate a positive aspect to counterbalance the negative aspect would lead people to increase their justification of the status quo. Interestingly, other findings suggested that these compensatory stereotypes are preferred by those with more left leaning political ideologies, while those with more right leaning political ideologies preferred non-complimentary stereotypes that simply rationalized inequality rather than compensated for it. But that overall, conservatives were more likely to have increased system justification tendencies than liberals.
Consequences of system justification
Consequences of people’s motivation to legitimize the status quo are wide-ranging. In needing to believe that the current or prevailing systems are fair and just, results in people justifying the existing inequalities within it. Research on system justification theory has been applied to many different social and political contexts that have found the theory has implications for general social change, social policies, and specific communities. Research has found that people with increased system justification motives are more resistant to change, and thus an implication of this would be greater difficulty to move towards policies, governments, authority figures, and hierarchies that reflect equality.
Research suggests that system justification motives reduce emotional distress in people that would otherwise result in demands for amendments to perceived injustices or inequalities. Specifically, moral outrage, guilt, and frustration are reduced when system justification motives increase. This has shown to result in less support for social policies that redistribute resources in the aim for equality.
In developing counties, in which group inequalities are most evident, researchers were interested in testing the claim of system justification theory that when inequalities are more visible, this will result in greater justification of the status quo. Researchers visited the most impoverished areas of Bolivia, and found that among children (aged 10–15) who were members of low status groups, legitimized the Bolivian government as sufficiently meeting the needs of the people more than children from high status groups. Observing system-justification motives in low status groups located in one of the most impoverished countries implies there will be less support for social change in a country that arguable needs it the most.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there were different reactions to the devastation it brought to communities as well as the government’s relief efforts. Researchers who have studied these reactions, found that the slow and inefficient response of relief efforts were perceived by some to expose “governmental shortcomings, call into question the legitimacy of agency leadership, and highlight racial inequality in America.” These perceptions indirectly brought a threat to the legitimacy of the U.S. government (i.e. the system). As a result of this system threat, researchers found that people tended to restore legitimacy to the system through utilizing stereotypes and victim blaming. In particular, since the majority of the communities affected by Hurricane Katrina were generally low-income and composed mostly of minorities, some people used stereotypes to blame the victims for their misfortune and restore legitimacy to the government. Researchers explained how this could have consequences for the victims and restoring their homes and communities back to normal. Increased system justification, and increased victim blaming could be detrimental in providing the victims the resources needed to work towards repairing the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Social identity theory debate
This debate arose from social identity theorists countering a critique to the theory by system justification theorists. The critique by system justification theorists refers to the evidence for the theoretical conception of system justification theory that derived from limitations to social identity theory. System justification theorists have stated that Social Identity Theory does not account for outgroup favoritism, and that the limitations of the theory only lend it to measure ingroup favoritism. Advocates for social identity theory claim that this critique is more a result of lack of research done that has focused on outgroup favoritism rather than a limitation of the theoretical framework. Moreover, social identity theorists also claim this is not sufficient evidence for the need of system justification and social dominance theories to help account for justification motives. As such, they have claimed that research that measures outgroup favoritism from a social identity perspective is simply needed to bolster the theory. While both theories continue to produce findings, the debate continues to be discussed.
Relation to status quo bias
Another critique is that SJT is too similar and indistinguishable to status quo bias. Given that both deal directly with upholding and legitimizing the status quo, this critique is not unfounded. But system justification theory differs from the status quo bias in that it is predominately motivational rather than cognitive. Generally, the status quo bias refers to a tendency to prefer the default or established option when making choices. In contrast, system justification posits that people need and want to see prevailing social systems as fair and just. The motivational component of system justification means that its effects are exacerbated when people are under psychological threat or when they feel their outcomes are especially dependent on the system that is being justified.
Congruent with a broader trend toward neuroscience, current research on system justification has tested to see how this manifests in the brain. Findings by researchers have shown that people with more conservative ideologies differed in certain brain structures, which was associated with sensitivity to threat and response conflict. Specifically, those who were more conservative were “associated with greater neural sensitivity to threat and larger amygdala volume, as well as less sensitivity to response conflict and smaller anterior cingulate volume,” compared to those who were more liberal. This research is currently exploratory and has not yet determined the direction of the relations to ideology and brain structures.
Recent findings by researchers have shown that system justification motives to legitimize the status quo was found in young children. Through utilizing the developmental psychological theory and data, children as early as age 5 were found to have basic understandings of their ingroup and the status of their ingroup. System justification motives were also observed in that children from low status groups were found display implicit outgroup favoritism. Research on system justification in young children remains a current trend.
- False consciousness
- Just-world Hypothesis
- List of cognitive biases
- Progress trap
- Status quo bias
- Consensus theory
- Social Identity Theory
- Social Dominance Theory
- Cognitive Dissonance Theory
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