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Why Some People Strive to Justify the Status Quo

A social-cognitive analysis of system justification motivation.

By John T. Jost

There are many ways of looking at income inequality, but they all tell the same story. Over the last 40 years in the U.S. and other capitalist nations, the rich have gotten much richer, while the middle and working classes have stayed the same or gotten poorer (Stiglitz, 2015). In the United States, one of the richest countries in the history of the world, 34 million citizens live below the official poverty level.

In social science, theories of relative deprivation, moral outrage, identity politics, and collective action all propose that people should object, perhaps even violently, to stark forms of inequality. And certainly, some—such as those who participated in the Occupy Wall Street and Indignados movements—do object to the degree of inequality in society. But it is by no means the modal response. In addition to knowing Why Men Rebel, as the great sociologist Ted Gurr (1970) put it, we also need to know why men—and women—do not rebel in the face of injustice.

To this end, my collaborators and I have sought to develop a theory of system justification to explain: (a) why so many people accept the social, economic, and political systems that affect them as more or less legitimate and justified, and (b) how, as a result of this process, the disadvantaged sometimes participate in their own subjugation (e.g., see Jost, 2020).

Do People Justify the System Because They Believe They Will Be Rich One Day?

The most popular explanation on the political left and right for why poor people often endorse regressive forms of taxation and oppose wealth redistribution is that the poor believe that they will become rich one day. In other words, the acceptance of inequality on the part of the working class is often assumed to be driven by the anticipation of self-interest. Bill Maher likes to quote Republican Senator Marco Rubio: “When Americans drive through a wealthy neighborhood, they’re not jealous. They say, ‘Congratulations, we'll be joining you soon!’”

However, when my students and I surveyed low-income Americans, we saw little evidence that the majority believed that they would end up rich. Only 24 percent of our sample agreed that “I believe that one day I may become rich.” Forty-seven percent disagreed with the statement, and 29 percent were unsure (Rankin et al., 2009). Moreover, those who believed that they would become rich one day were no more likely to endorse the legitimacy of the social system, nor did they identify as more conservative or more supportive of the Republican Party, in comparison with those who doubted that they would become rich (Jost et al., 2017).

We are not suggesting that the perception of self-interest is irrelevant. There is a significant but modest effect of social class on ideological preferences. Nevertheless, there are many situations in which political opinions are underdetermined by self-interest motivation, and in these cases a psychological account is useful.

Our work focuses on system justification motivation—the tendency to defend, bolster and justify aspects of the societal status quo, often at a nonconscious level of awareness. My collaborators and I have found that system justification is a potentially strong motivator of human behavior because it addresses fundamental human needs to reduce uncertainty, threat, and social discord. We have sought to understand system justification processes, their social and psychological antecedents, and their consequences for important public policy issues such as climate change, economic inequality, and voting behavior.

Exposure to System Criticism Can Implicitly Activate System Justification Motivation

To investigate the implicit activation of system justification motivation, Ido Liviatan, who is now on the faculty of the Open University in Israel, made use of a lexical decision paradigm in which people were asked to determine—as quickly and accurately as possible—whether a string of letters presented on a computer screen spelled an English word (Liviatan & Jost, 2014). Some of the words participants saw were goal-related, in the sense that they had to do with legitimacy and stability (e.g., fair, just, stable); others were control words that were matched in length, familiarity, and valence. When people are motivated to attain a certain goal—in this case, justifying the social system—words related to the goal become cognitively accessible and are therefore identified more quickly.

Before completing this lexical decision task, research participants were asked to try to memorize the transcript of a speech that had (allegedly) aired on the cable TV channel C-SPAN. One of the speeches was highly critical of the U.S. economic system. It read:

“We Americans have always flattered ourselves that we have more of two things than almost any other country in the world: freedom and equality. However, examining our capitalist economic system seriously calls this belief into question… Wealth inequality in the United States is now at a 60 year high, with the top 1 percent of wealth holders controlling more than the bottom 80 percent put together…”

We hypothesized that participants who had been exposed to this passage would be motivated to restore a sense of legitimacy and stability to the system and would therefore be quick to recognize words that were relevant to the attainment of this goal.

Other participants read a different speech. One speech, which we assumed would be lacking in motivational significance for our research participants, had to do with the state of research in geology:

“We geologists have always flattered ourselves that we have made substantial progress in our research of the earth. However, examining our achievements and accomplishments in recent years seriously calls this belief into question…”

Because we worried that certain words in the system-critical speech (such as "freedom," "equality," and "wealth") might increase the cognitive accessibility of legitimacy concepts for purely semantic reasons, we also included an additional condition that was identical to the experimental condition, except that it referred not to the American economy but to a hypothetical economic system in Star Trek:

“We Romulans have always flattered ourselves that we have more of two things than almost any other race in the laid out universe: freedom and equality. However, examining our cybertrading economic system seriously calls this belief into question…”

As hypothesized, participants exposed to criticism of the U.S. system were faster to recognize words related to legitimacy and stability, in comparison with control words, but this was not the case in either the geology or Star Trek conditions (see Figure 1). These findings suggest that people who were exposed to the system criticism passage were motivated to restore a sense of legitimacy and stability to the system.

Adapted from Liviatan & Jost (2014)
Figure 1
Source: Adapted from Liviatan & Jost (2014)

In a follow-up experiment, we investigated the hypothesis that exposure to system criticism would activate implicit motivation to evaluate the system positively. To test this hypothesis, we examined whether people would exhibit an automatic positive evaluation of system-related symbols in a “sequential priming” task involving the social system.

Participants first read either the system criticism speech or the geology speech and were then presented with a series of visual images. Some of these images were symbols of the system (e.g., American flag, Statue of Liberty), whereas others were not (Taj Mahal, Rodin sculpture). Following each image, participants saw adjectives that were either positive (e.g., attractive, charming) or negative (annoying, horrible) and were asked to indicate, as quickly as possible, the word’s valence while ignoring the image.

If system-related symbols elicit positive evaluation automatically, then participants should identify positive (vs. negative) adjectives following them more quickly. As hypothesized, participants who had read the system-critical speech were indeed faster to respond to positive (vs. negative) adjectives following the presentation of American—but not control—images. Participants who read the geology speech showed no evaluative priming effect (see Figure 2). These findings suggest that when the system’s shortcomings are exposed, people may (paradoxically) evaluate it more positively in the service of system justification motivation.

Adapted from Liviatan & Jost (2014)
Figure 2
Source: Adapted from Liviatan & Jost (2014)

A longer version of this article was published in June of 2017 in Psychological Science Agenda, the monthly newsletter of the American Psychological Association Science Directorate.


Primary References

Jost, J.T. (2020). A theory of system justification. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Liviatan, I., & Jost, J.T. (2014). A social-cognitive analysis of system justification goal striving. Social Cognition, 32, 95-129.

Additional References

Gurr, T.R. (1970). Why men rebel. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Jost, J.T., Langer, M., Badaan, V., Azevedo, F., Etchezahar, E., Ungaretti, J., & Hennes, E. (2017). Ideology and the limits of self-interest: System justification motivation and conservative advantages in mass politics. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 3 (3), e1-e26. doi: 10.1037/tps0000127

Rankin, L., Jost, J.T., & Wakslak, C.J. (2009). System justification and the meaning of life: Are the existential benefits of ideology distributed unevenly across racial groups? Social Justice Research, 22, 312-333.

Stiglitz, J.E. (2015). Rewriting the rules of the American economy: An agenda for growth and shared prosperity. New York: Norton.