System Justification Theory

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System Justification Theory (SJT) is a theory of social psychology that postulates that people are motivated, often unconsciously, to bolster, defend, and justify the status quo–-that is, the prevailing social, economic, and political systems. The term “system” is, intentionally, loosely defined to include a wide array of such arrangements and institutions from relationship dyads to family systems, to corporations and organizations, to economic systems and governments, thus the effort is to identify the general social psychological processes that play out in variety of social establishments. The system justification goal may manifest itself in different forms, such as stereotyping, attribution, and ideology, and is proposed to serve the three more basic existential, epistemic, and relational needs. System Justification Theory grew out of efforts to expand upon and draw connections between a number of theories and concepts from multiple disciplines such as philosophy, social psychology, sociology, and political science including, but not limited to, Marxist feminist theories of ideology and false consciousness, Cognitive Dissonance Theory, “belief in a just world” theory, and Social Identity Theory. System Justification Theory seeks to address, from a social psychological prospective, the ultimate question of why despite the prevalence of systems of inequality, injustice, and exploitation, resistance and collective action for change, even by those who suffer most from such systems, are relatively rare.


Historical and Intellectual Origins of System Justification Theory

System Justification Theory was inspired by several concepts and theories within multiple disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, political science, and social psychology to posit that people have a tendency to justify and perceive the established arrangements and social systems as desirable, fair, and legitimate. SJT stems partly from the concept of false consciousness, which can be traced to the work of Karl Marx. In The German Ideology. Marx and Engels (1846/1970) asserted that because the dominant groups of society control the cultural and institutional means through which ideas and beliefs are spread, such dominant ideas prevail throughout society, resulting in the systematic distortion and inversion of social and political realities. Although Marx believed that the oppressed working class would ultimately see through the ideological illusions imposed by the ruling class and endeavor to overthrow the capitalist system, historically, revolutions against oppressive and exploitative systems have been relatively uncommon; the concern that SJT seeks to tackle. SJT was influenced by Antonio Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony and “spontaneous consent” (1971), György Lukács’ (1971/1989) conception of “class consciousness”, Jon Elster (1982,1983) incorporation of social psychological concepts namely Leon Festinger’s (1957) Cognitive Dissonance Theory and rationalization in his “analytical Marxism,” James Kluegel and Eliot Smith (1986) account of dominant ideology, stratification beliefs, and emotional benefits of “system justifying beliefs,” and MacKinnon’s (1989) Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Furthermore, SJT was also inspired by research on social justice such as “belief in a just world” theory (Lerner, 1980). According to this theory, people have a “justice motive” that may motivate them to protest and rebel against injustice, yet if they are prevented, they engage in rationalization, denial, and victim derogation to maintain and confirm their belief in a just world. Nevertheless, system justification theorists maintain that people will defend and bolster the status quo even when potential opportunities to fight injustice are available. Moreover, SJT was also instigated by sociological theories of the legitimacy such as that of Peter Burger and Thomas Luckmann (1966) Social Construction of Reality on persistence of institutionalization, and the psychological need for cohesion and order. In addition, SJT was influenced by social psychological research on stereotyping, prejudice and the internalization of inferiority, including those of Kurt Lewin’s (1941) explanation of self-hatred among underprivileged, and Gordon Allport’s (1954) contention on rationalizing and justifying function of stereotyping. Moreover SJT attempted to build upon and to complement Social Identity Theory (SIT; Tajfel, 1981) and Social Dominance Theory (SDO; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999), by directly addressing the relatively neglected phenomenon of outgroup favoritism among more recent intergroup literature, and by conceptualizing social order not simply as something imposed by one social group on another, but rather as a collaborative and interactive process by which power relations and systems of inequality are rationalized, justified and thus perpetrated, even by those who are the victims of those very systems.

Basic postulates of System Justification Theory

I. In general, people are motivated (often unconsciously) to justify and defend the status quo, such as prevailing social arrangements and political and economic institutions.

II. The strength of this system justification motive varies accordingly to contextual and individual differences.

III. Perceived characteristics of the status quo are one of such situational variables. Specifically, system Justification motive increases as a) the perceived system inescapability and inevitability increases, b) the system is threatened or criticized c) the perceived dependability of the individual on the system increases.

IV. System justification is believed to satisfy epistemic, existential, and relational motives. It follows that the strength of system justification motive varies as a function of situational and dispositional variability in these three needs.

V. The system justifying goal can be satisfied through several means such as endorsement of certain ideologies, the legitimation of institutions and authorities, complementary stereotyping, rationalization, denial, and minimization, etc.

VI. For those who are not privileged by the status quo (i.e. member of the disadvantaged groups) system-justification motive is in conflict with ego and group justification, and therefore it is negatively associated with self-esteem, in-group favoritism, and long-term psychological wellbeing.

VII. For those who are privileged by the status quo (i.e. members of the advantaged groups) system-justification motive is congruent with ego and group justification, and therefore it is positively associated with self-esteem, in-group favoritism, and long-term psychological wellbeing.

VIII. System Justification motive serve a short-term palliative function.

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

False Consciousness

Bringing together various Marxist-feminist approaches, Jost (1995) defined false consciousness as “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,” and argued for 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.

Ego-justification, group-justification, and system-justification motive

System justification theorists propose that in addition to ego-justification (i.e. one’s motivation to maintain a favorable view of oneself) and group-justification (i.e. one’s motivation to maintain a favorable view of one’s group), there exists yet another motive that is to defend, bolster and justify the overarching social system (i.e. system-justification motive). Moreover, under certain conditions system-justification motive may overrule ego-justification and group-justification motives such that the prevailing social arrangements and institutions are justified despite the fact that those very systems are causes of one’s and one’s group inferiority and exploitation (Jost & Banaji, 1994; Jost, Nosek, & Banaji, 2004; Jost & van der Toorn, 2012).

Epistemic, Existential, and Relational Needs

System justification motivation is believed to arise from and satisfy three distinct human needs: 1. Epistemic: needs for consistency, certainty, and meaning 2. Existential: needs to manage threat and distress 3. Relational: needs to coordinate social relationships and achieve shared reality with others.

Unlike most theories of social psychology such as Terror Management Theory (Anson, Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Greenberg, 2009; Greenberg & Jonas, 2003; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986), Meaning Maintenance Model (Heine, Proulx, & Vohs, 2006), Uncertainty-Identity Model (Hogg, 2007) and others, system justification theorists suggests that not all ideologies, but only those that are system justifying in nature (as opposed to system challenging) would serve these epistemic, existential, and relational motives. Therefore chronic and temporary increases in aforementioned needs are hypothesized to be associated with stronger inclinations toward system-justifying beliefs and ideologies (Hennes, Nam, Stern, & Jost, 2012).

Dispositional and Situational Antecedents of System Justification and Consequences

Despite this general tendency, system justification motivation is expected to vary according to dispositional and situational differences. With regards to contextual variables, system justification motivation increases when people feel dependent on the system, perceive the status quo as inevitable or inescapable, perceive the system as being challenged or threatened, and perceive low sense of control (Kay & Friesen, 2011). Furthermore system justification is also known to be associated with certain individual characteristics such as the need for structure, order, and meaning, and openness to experience, etc. (Jost & Hunyady, 2005). Moreover, when people have a heightened need to system-justify (e.g. when the system is threatened), there are various means through which they can accomplish this goal, such as legitimizing existing institutions and authorities, denying, minimizing, and rationalizing system problems. Often, system justification motivation is satisfied through the stereotyping of members of disadvantaged groups as less competent than members of advantaged groups. Moreover, endorsement of complementary stereotypes (e.g., “poor but honest,” “poor but happy”) by members of both disadvantaged and advantaged groups serves to reinforce the existing hierarchy by creating an “illusion of equality” in society (Kay & Jost, 2003). Furthermore, adoption of certain ideologies and belief systems may also satisfy this goal, namely Protestant work ethic, “belief in a just world”, meritocratic ideology, fair market ideology, benevolent sexism, Social Dominance Orientation, right-wing authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, and political conservatism. Such ideologies and belief systems are system justifying insofar as they all describe the status quo in a way that maintains the general legitimacy of the existing order (Jost & Hunyady, 2005).

Long-Term Outcomes of System Justification

System Justification Theory predicts opposite long-term psychological consequences of defending and bolstering the status quo for members of advantaged and disadvantaged groups. For those who are favored by the existing system, the perception of their high status in society is consistent with holding positive attitudes about their own group (group justification) and themselves (ego justification). In other words, for members of advantaged groups, system justification is positively associated with ingroup favoritism, enhanced self-esteem, and psychological wellbeing. However, for those who are disfavored by the existing system, there is a conflict between their need to justify the system and their motives to perceive their own group (group justification) and themselves (ego justification) positively. As a consequence, for members of disadvantaged groups system justification, in the long term, is negatively associated with ingroup favoritism, self-esteem, and psychological wellbeing (Jost et al., 2004).

Short-Term Palliative Function of System Justification

Jost and Hunyady (2002) suggested that system justification can also serve a short-term palliative function for members of both advantaged and disadvantaged groups by increasing positive affect, decreasing negative affect, and increasing satisfaction with the status quo. For instance, Jost, Pelham, Sheldon, & Sullivan (2003) found that people who tend to endorse meritocratic ideology (that is, the belief that economic inequality is legitimate and necessary in a capitalist society) have increased life satisfaction and contentment among both the poor and wealthy.

System Justification and Resistance to Change

Much of the research on system justification has demonstrated that the motivation to defend and bolster the status quo typically leads people to perceive social change as threatening to the existing social system and therefore to resist change. Wakslak et al. (2007) showed that system justification may dampen moral outrage and thereby reduce people’s intentions to help the disadvantaged. However, some recent research suggests that people are more likely to support and engage in social change when it is perceived as inevitable or highly likely, and/or when it is perceived as consistent with and upholding the existing social system. Kay, Jimenez, & Jost, J. T (2002) found that when the implementation of a new regime was seen as inevitable, people tended to engage in anticipatory rationalization of the expected change. Furthermore, although system justification motivation is generally associated with a heightened denial of climate change, Feygina et al. (2010) demonstrated that by framing potential changes as “system-sanctioned” (that is, as patriotic and consistent with protecting the existing social system), high system-justifiers were persuaded to support pro-environmental initiatives. These findings suggest that social change may be achieved by framing potential changes as consistent with preserving the status quo.

Criticisms of System Justification Theory

SJT has been criticized by proponents of SIT (e.g., Huddy, 2004; Reicher, 2004; Rubin & Hewstone, 2004). These critics are skeptical of SJT’s account of outgroup favoritism, and internalization of inferiority. Although Social Identity Theorists do not refute the existence of outgroup favoritism, they propose that expressions of outgroup favoritism should not be taken at face value. Rather they suggest that such expressions may be due to “social reality constraints.” In another words, the members of disadvantaged group find it difficult to publically challenge the “social reality” of the “credible”, “superior” audience, and thus these manifestations can merely be a self-representation strategy. It is worth noting that SJ theorists maintain that such explanation cannot account for cases of implicit (those that are outside the realm of conscious awareness) ingroup favoritism (Jost, 2011). Moreover SIT advocates suggest that Self-Categorization Theory- a close associate of SIT can better address cases of genuine internalization of group inferiority. According to this view, individual self-definition may encompass a more superordinate group (e.g. nationality, society, the system) that is in conflict to identification and interests of one’s subordinate group (e.g. ethnic group). Lastly, SIT theorists maintain that SJT critique of SIT is more a result of lack of research that is focused on outgroup favoritism rather than a limitation of the SIT theoretical framework.


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