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System justification theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


In many contexts, the personal interests of individuals biases their beliefs or attitudes. Individuals adopt attitudes and beliefs, for example, that underscore the merits of their social roles or categories, usually to enhance their self esteem. Affluent individuals, for example, might ascribe their wealth to merit, which reinforces their competence.

Nevertheless, in some contexts, the attitudes and beliefs of individuals actually contradict their personal interests. In particular, individuals who correspond to the lowest echelons of a societal hierarchy often espouse attitudes and beliefs that undermine the interests of their stratum.

To illustrate, many individuals who are financially deprived nevertheless believe in meritocracies--the proposition that pay is related to merit (Jost, Pelham, Sheldon, & Sullivan, 2003). They also often reject socialist principles, which could alleviate economic inequality and boost their financial status, instead championing the merits of capitalism (Jost, Blount, Pfeffer, & Hunyady, 2003). Similarly, these individuals often embrace the existing hierarchy and follow authorities, adopting conservative beliefs (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanksi, & Sulloway, 2003). Furthermore, individuals who belong to minority categories often demonstrate preferences towards members of the majority, as measured by both explicit and implicit measures (Jost, Pelham, & Carvallo, 2002).

Description of system justification theory

System justification theory was formulated to explain the ubiquity of these attitudes and beliefs (Jost, Blount, Pfeffer, & Hunyady, 2003; Jost, Glaser, Kruglanksi, & Sulloway, 2003; Jost, Pelham, & Carvallo, 2002)--attitudes and beliefs that seem to belie the personal interests of individuals. In particular, according to this theory, individuals like to perceive the world as predictable& otherwise, they would not feel a sense of control, and negative emotional states would prevail (cf Lerner, 1980; Rankin, Jost, & Wakslak, 2009). To perceive the world as predictable, they feel motivated to assume that society is fair and just. Accordingly, they justify the existing structures and hierarchies in society, which substantiates the legitimacy of societal principles and practices.

For example, to reinforce the assumption that society is fair, individuals often embrace the stereotype that deprived individuals are actually happy--or that wealthy individuals are often unhappy. After they are exposed to anecdotes that reinforce these assumptions, they perceive society as fairer (Kay & Jost, 2003).

Association between system justification ideologies

Researchers have uncovered a variety of ideologies that justify the extant hierarchies and structures in society. Some of these ideologies imply the existing hierarchy is fair, and can be ascribed to merit, such as fair market ideologies, just world beliefs, and Protestant work ethic (for a review, see Jost & Hunyady, 2005). Similarly, some of these ideologies challenge equality and value authority, such as power distance, political conservatism, social dominance orientation, and right wing authoritarianism (see also Social dominance theory).

Interestingly, endorsement of these various ideologies tend to correlate with one another (see Jost, Blount, Pfeffer, & Hunyady, 2003; Jost & Thompson, 2000; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). These elevated correlations imply the various ideologies might afford the same function.

Antecedents to system justifying ideologies

Many studies have examined the antecedents and determinants of the various ideologies that justify the extant systems. To illustrate, studies have shown that individuals who experience an elevated need to regulate feelings of threat, uncertainty, or anxiety espouse some of these ideologies: such as social dominance and right wing authoritarianism. This need to regulate threat, uncertainty, and anxiety manifests in a variety of measures, such as perception of a dangerous world, intolerance to ambiguity, need for closure, personal need for structure, and fear of death (for a review, see Jost & Hunyady, 2009). These findings imply that system justification theories might instill a sense of certainty and control, which curbs agitation.

Indeed, experimental studies have also confirmed that various forms of threat, including mortality salience, tend to amplify the inclination to justify the existing hierarchy or system (e.g., Landau, Solomon, Greenburg, Cohen, Pyszczynski, Arndt et al., 2004; see also Terror management theory). To illustrate, when the legitimacy of a social system is threatened, individuals are more inclined to embrace stereotypes that justify inequalities (Jost & Hunyady, 2003).

Second, measures that are related to openness to experience inversely relate to the endorsement of these ideologies. Individuals who exhibit cognitive complexity are not as likely to justify the extant hierarchies that pervade society (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanksi, & Sulloway, 2003).

Third, endorsement of ideologies that justify the existing hierarchies tend to coincide with measures of self deception (Jost, Blount, Pfeffer, & Hunyady, 2003). This finding implies that individuals might endorse these ideologies to enhance their self esteem& individuals, thus, might experience an affective or motivational inclination to embrace such ideologies.

The existence bias

The existence bias could, partly, explain system justification. According to this bias, individuals tend to assume that any practice or object that is prevalent or ubiquitous is more favorable than any practice or object that is scarce or unprecedented (Eidelman, Crandall, & Pattershall, 2009). Individuals derive positive evaluations from the mere precedence or prevalence of some object or practice. This assumption is applied as a heuristic, intended to expedite evaluations.

Eidelman, Crandall, and Pattershall (2009), for example, uncovered some striking examples of the existence bias. To illustrate, in one study, participants were exposed to a picture of pseudo-random dots. They were, however, informed the dots represent a galaxy. Some participants were informed this configuration of stars resembles most galaxies. Other participants were informed this configuration of stars is scarce.

If participants were told the configuration is prevalent, they perceived this picture as more appealing. That is, patterns that are assumed to be common--to exist ubiquitously--are perceived as more desirable or favorable.

In another study, also reported by Eidelman, Crandall, and Pattershall (2009), participants were asked to imagine that either Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama had won the primary nominations, to become the leader of the Democratic party. This study was conducted before the actual nominations had been completed. Finally, participants evaluated the two candidates.

If participants had imagined Hilary Clinton winning the nomination, they subsequently perceived her more favorably. If, in contrast, they had imagined Barack Obama winning, they tended to perceive him as the more suitable candidate. Conceivably, after individuals imagine an event, this outcome, in one sense, seems to exist and thus becomes more favorable.

In the final study of this report, participants evaluated a beverage. Some participants were informed the beverage was first sold in 1903--and thus has existed over many years. Other participants, in contrast, were informed the beverage was first sold in 2003. If told the product was first sold over 100 years ago, participants were more likely to maintain they enjoyed the beverage.

In a subsequent paper, Eidelman, Pattershall, and Crandall (2010) reported more evidence of this existence bias. Participants felt that an existing university policy was more suitable than alternative practices, especially if told this policy has persisted for a century rather than a decade. Similarly, participants were more likely to assume that acupuncture is beneficial if told the practice is thousands, rather than hundreds, of years old. An expressionist painting was perceived as more aesthetically pleasing if depicted as more than 100 years old rather than about 5 years old. A chocolate was rated as tastier if portrayed as 73 instead of 3 years old. All of these findings indicate that people apply the heuristic that longer is better.

The existence bias could, potentially, explain some instances of system justification. The prevailing system exists ubiquitously and, therefore, might be endorsed.

The existence bias and system justification

Blanchar and Eidelman (2013) explicitly showed how the existence bias overlaps with system justification. In particular, as they showed, people are more inclined to justify systems that seem to have existed over many years.

In one study, participants were informed that capitalism can, to a significant extent, be ascribed to the work of Adam Smith, especially his treatise called the Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776. Next, participants observed a timeline. For some participants, the Wealth of Nations was perceived as relatively recent in time, because the other events on this timeline were more ancient. For some participants, the Wealth of Nations was perceived as relatively old, because the other events on this timeline were more recent. Next, participants indicated the extent to which they perceive capitalism, as conceptualized in this work, as legitimate, valid, and reasonable. Finally, participants specified the degree to which they perceive the American financial system as fair.

When the foundations of capitalism were perceived as older, participants were more likely to perceive capitalism as legitimate and fair. A subsequent study showed the Indian caste system was also more likely to be perceived as legitimate, to both Indians and Americans, if depicted as older rather than more recent. These findings are consistent with the notion of the existence bias in which people tend to assume that a longstanding system must be legitimate and valid.

Overall motivations to justify the system

Individuals often justify the existing system, embracing the status quo, to fulfill various motivations (see Jost & Hunyady, 2005; Jost, Ledgerwood, & Hardin, 2008). First, individuals embrace the prevailing system to instill a sense of certainty and stability. Second, the prevailing system can also confer a feeling of safety. Third, the prevailing system can also facilitate the formation of relationships& that is, the social system provides opportunities or structures that enable individuals to develop relationships. Accordingly, when the system is justified, and these motives are thus fulfilled, anxiety, fear, and uncertainty tend to diminish in particular contexts (Jost & Hunyady, 2002; Jost, Wakslak, & Tyler, 2008).

Queue theory and the status quo bias

People who advise other individuals, rather than need to reach decisions that affect their own lives, are not as susceptible to the status quo bias (Lu & Xie, 2014). That is, they are not as likely to assume the existing circumstances are better than alternatives.

Specifically, according to queue theory (Weber et al., 2007), when people need to decide whether to consider some alternative to their own lives, their main concern is that circumstances do not deteriorate. That is, they are more worried their life could deteriorate than excited their life could improve. Consequently, they first ask themselves whether the alternative could elicit problems before they ask themselves whether the alternative could attract benefits. They will thus be aware of the problems, instead of the benefits, of alternatives first. This awareness of problems can divert their attention from the benefits& that is, because they initially doubt the alternatives, they are more likely to uncover evidence that substantiates this doubt and thus overlook the benefits.

Advisors, however, are not as concerned about complications. They do not prioritize complications over benefits. Hence, the status quo bias is not likely to transpire in advisors.

Lu and Xie (2014) conducted a series of studies that corroborate these arguments. Some participants imagined they were a HR manager who needed to decide between two incentive practices, one of which was the existing practice. Other participants imagined they were a trusted friend of this HR manager and thus an advisor. Relative to the other participants, individuals who assumed the role of advisor were more likely to embrace a shift in the existing strategy& that is, the status quo bias was not as pronounced. In a subsequent study, participants also recorded their rationale. Advisors were more likely than other participants to consider the benefits of this alternative first.

Unstable institutions

According to the proposition that systems of control are substitutable, if one institution or condition that instils control is compromised, individuals like to justify other institutions or conditions. That is, if individuals do not feel a sense of control over their lives, they instead like to believe that some institution or system, like government, is influential and will ensure the environment is predictable. Then, if one of these institutions or systems is compromised, individuals then like to believe that another institution or system instils a sense of predictability.

Kay, Shepherd, Blatz, Chua, and Galinsky (2010) published an excellent illustration of these dynamics. In one study, participants answered questions that relate to whether or not they feel the national government is stable and united as well as their attitudes towards this government. Furthermore, they completed a scale that measures whether they feel that God, or some other divine entity, governs the universe. If individuals felt the government was unstable, they were more likely to believe that God controls the world. They were also less inclined to defend the quality of government.

Accordingly, when government seems unstable, individuals assume that another system--in this instance God--controls the universe. Hence, they do not feel the need to defend this government.

In a subsequent study, the same pattern of results was observed when political instability was manipulated instead of measured. That is, if individuals were informed the government was unstable and could be defeated by the opposition, they became more inclined to assume that God controls the universe (Kay, Shepherd, Blatz, Chua, & Galinsky, 2010). In another study, if the country was perceived as significant but not influential--thus not conferring a sense of control--participants were again likely to espouse the notion of a god that controls the universe. They did not, however, espouse the notion of a significant, but not influential, god (Kay, Shepherd, Blatz, Chua, & Galinsky, 2010). These results also indicate that individuals want to justify a controlling, rather than merely a positive, system or institution.

In the final study conducted by Kay, Shepherd, Blatz, Chua, and Galinsky (2010), some participants were exposed to scientific information that vindicates the possibility that God controls the universe. These participants were subsequently less inclined to support the government. They did not feel the need to defend this system.

Extent to which people feel the system can change

As Johnson and Fujita (2012) showed, when individuals feel they may be able to change a system, their inclination to justify this system diminishes. Instead, they become motivated to change, rather than justify, the existing systems or practices.

To illustrate, in one study, some participants were informed that previous attempts to change the practices of their university had been unsuccessful. That is, these participants formed the opinion that change is unlikely. Other participants were informed that previous attempts to change the practices of their university had been successful and, therefore, change is feasible. Next, participants were granted an opportunity to read an external review of their university. They were asked whether they would prefer to read about the strengths or weaknesses of their university.

If participants felt the university could not change, they often chose to read about the strengths only. They presumably were motivated to justify the existing system. In contrast, if participants felt the university could change, they often chose to read about the limitations. These individuals were, perhaps, motivated to change and improve the system and sought the negative feedback to facilitate this endeavor. A subsequent study showed that a motivation to improve the university, but not mood, mediated these associations.

Johnson and Fujita (2012) formulated a dual motive theory to explain these findings. To illustrate this model, they referred to the distinction between self-protection and self-change. Specifically, when people do not feel they can change, they strive to overrate the extent to which they are capable, called self-enhancement, or consistent, called self-verification. In contrast, when people feel they can change, they are motivated to assess themselves accurately and to improve their qualities, called self-assessment and self-improvement (e.g., Trope, Gervey, & Bolger, 2003). Similarly, when people do not feel they can change their systems, they strive to inflate the qualities of these systems. When they feel they can change their systems, this bias diminishes, and individuals are receptive to negative feedback about these systems.

Psychological reactance

Some people exhibit elevated levels of psychological reactance. They reject changes that may impinge on their freedom. They become aggrieved when their freedoms are restricted, and they tend to dismiss rules and regulations. A sense of control over their environment is very important to these individuals. Whenever their sense of control is breached, they actually become more likely to seek this control from other sources, such as the system. Therefore, although they tend to reject regulations, rules, and constraints, if their sense of control is compromised, these individuals actually are more likely to defend the system and, for example, support the government.

This set of arguments was proposed and validated by Knight, Tobin, and Hornsey (2014). One study showed that people who exhibit psychological reactance, and agree they do not like rules, regulations, and restrictions, generally showed contempt towards governments institutions and systems, such as the federal government, police forces, and so forth. Yet, as subsequent studies showed, this disdain towards the system dissipated after their sense of control was impeded.

Specifically, in one study, half the participants wrote about a time in which they were granted no control over the outcome, priming a limited sense of control. The remaining participants wrote an essay on a topic that was not related to feelings of control. If control had been compromised, the negative relationship between psychological reactance and system justification dissipated: The people who typically detested regulations were more likely to defend government institutions.

Attention and distraction

If individuals are distracted by other tasks, they might be even more likely to exhibit some manifestations of system justification. For example, Callan, Sutton, and Dovale (2010) demonstrated that individuals, when distracted by another task, are more likely to demonstrate the just world bias--the belief that people receive the rewards or punishments they deserve. In particular, people are more likely to assume that immoral behavior cause subsequent negative events, like illness or accidents.

To illustrate, in this study, participants read about a man who as the victim of a car accident. Some of the participants were also informed this man had, previously, been engaged in an affair with a travel agent, Suzanne. The other participants were informed this man had merely purchased airplane tickets for his family from Suzanne. Participants were then asked to "To what extent do you feel (his) accident was the result of his dealings with Suzanne". While completing this task, participants were also asked to memorize a 2 digit or 9 digit number.

If the man had been unfaithful, participants were more likely to ascribe this accident to his interactions with Suzanne. This inclination was especially pronounced when they also needed to retain 9 rather than 2 digits. Hence, when participants are distracted, they are particularly likely to ascribe unfortunate outcomes to immoral behavior. Deliberation thought, demanding considerable attention, may thus override this bias, called immanent justice reasoning.

Allusions to diversity programs

Many organizations introduce diversity programs, without actually improving fairness. They might refer to diversity in the vision and values statement or offer diversity training. Interestingly, people who do not belong to minority or disadvantaged groups tend to assume these organizations are fair, even if these workplaces engage in unjust behavior. That is, they perceive these diversity programs as a signal of fairness and may overlook apparent injustices, called the illusion of fairness. Because of this illusion, these individuals become more inclined to perceive the existing state of affairs as legitimate and fair. For example, they believe that existing inequalities in pay between the sexes is fair and feel animosity towards people who complain about discrimination.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Kaiser et al. (2013), participants read the vision and mission of a fictitious company. For half the participants, this vision and mission also alluded to the importance of diversity. Next, they read pie charts that indicated the percentage of White and Black employees who received promotions and scanned an article about an employee who had sued the organization for unfair discrimination. Finally, participants were asked to indicate the degree to which they feel that all races at this company seem to be treated fairly.

If the vision and mission alluded to diversity, participants rated the company as fair to all races. They maintained this perception even if the bar charts clearly showed that White employees were more likely to be promoted than Black employees. Their perception of fairness, therefore, was sometimes unwarranted.

Other studies extended these findings to other facets of the business. For example, if participants were informed that employees receive training on gender diversity, they were more inclined to reject complaints from women about gender discrimination, even if informed that women were more likely to be rejected than men during job interviews despite similar levels of aptitude. They also believed that pay is fair, even when informed that women earn significantly less money than men.

Consequences and implications of system justification

Consistent with the proposition that justifications of existing systems curb uncertainty, endorsement of these ideologies has been shown to improve mood and wellbeing, at least initially (Jost, Pelham, Sheldon, & Sullivan, 2003). Furthermore, guilt and frustration tend to dissipate, particularly among the more deprived individuals (Jost, Tyler, & Chen, 2005).

Nevertheless, over time, in individuals who correspond to the lowest echelons of some hierarchy, the endorsement of these ideologies can undermine mood and wellbeing. That is, in these individuals, the rejection of egalitarian principles curbs self esteem and elicits symptoms of depression (Jost & Thompson, 2000).

Furthermore, when individuals espouse these ideologies, they become more inclined to like members of elite groups, as measured by both explicit and implicit procedures (Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, 2004). This preference arises regardless of whether participants belong to elite or deprived communities.

Most gravely, when individuals espouse these ideologies, they reject programs that redistribute resources to deprived communities. They do not experience the need to assist the disadvantaged (see Wakslak, Jost, Tyler, & Chen, 2007). Moral outrage tends to wane.

Environmental attitudes and behaviors

Conceivably, individuals who are inclined to justify the existing system might reject initiatives that are intended to conserve the environment. That is, when individuals embrace the existing system, they reject initiatives that challenge the status quo. Environmental policies often imply the status quo might be inefficient, squandering important resources. Individuals who prefer the status quo should, therefore, dismiss these policies (e.g., Feygina, Jost, & Goldsmith, 2010).

Several studies show that factors that tend to reflect system justification are inversely correlated with environmental attitudes or behaviors. Right wing authoritarianism (e.g., Sabbagh, 2005), social dominance (e.g., Son Hing, Bobocel, Zanna, & McBride, 2007), and a conservative political orientation (e.g., Kilbourne, Beckmann, & Thelen, 2002) are negatively associated with environmental attitudes or behaviors.

Feygina, Jost, and Goldsmith (2010) conducted a series of studies to examine how system justification affects environmental attitudes and behaviors. In one study, participants first completed a questionnaire to establish the extent to which they embrace the prevailing system, with items like "Most policies serve the greater good". Next, participants completed facets of the New Environmental Paradigm scale (Dunlap, Van Liere, Mertig, & Jones, 2000). This scale assessed the degree to which individuals deny that ecological crises are possible, deny that population growth needs to be limited, deny that resources are limited, and deny that disruptions to environmental equilibrium are damaging. System justification was indeed positively related to all these various forms of denial.

The second study was similar, except additional measures were included. Specifically, participants completed a scale that assesses the extent to which individuals embrace economic, rather than broader societal, systems. Furthermore, the participants completed measures to assess the degree to which they engage in environmental behavior, such as recycling and donations to environmental causes. System justification was positively associated with denial of environmental problems, which in turn was inversely related to environmental behavior (Feygina, Jost, & Goldsmith, 2010).

The final study, however, showed that system justification does not always curb environmental behavior. Specifically, if individuals justify the prevailing system, they are more likely to engage in behaviors that preserve the status quo& that is, they may embrace environmental policies that are assumed to preserve the existing way of life.

To explore this possibility, American participants first read an excerpt about research into the environment. Some participants then read a statement that highlights that environmental behavior can help Americans preserve their way of life. Other participants were not exposed to this sentence. Later, participants were granted an opportunity to sign a petition, intended to facilitate conservation of the environment. Furthermore, the extent to which they justify the prevailing system was assessed.

If participants had read that environmental behaviors can help preserve their way of life, system justification was positively related to such behavior, consistent with the hypotheses (Feygina, Jost, & Goldsmith, 2010). In contrast, if participants had not read these sentences, system justification was inversely related to environmental behavior. Thus, if participants embrace the status quo, they will engage in environmental behaviors they feel will preserve the prevailing customs of their nation.

Beliefs about global warming

Feinberg and Willer (2011) showed that a form of system justification--the need to perceive the world as just, fair, orderly, and stable--may underpin the denial of global warming. In particular, global warming implies the world might not be fair, orderly, and stable: Climate change implies that innocent children and adults in the future will be harmed because of human activity now, a possibility that is obviously unfair. Denial of global warming, in contrast, restores this sense of justice.

In one study, participants first completed a measure that assesses the extent to which they believe the world is fair and just--that people receive the rewards and life they deserve. Next, they received a message about global warming. Some participants read about the dire consequences that could unfold, emphasizing the devastating and unfair consequences to future generations. Other participants read about possible activities to curb global warming. Finally, at that time and a few weeks later, participants answered questions that determine whether they feel that global warming is genuine and likely.

Participants became more skeptical about the effects of global warming after reading the message about dire consequences. However, this increase in skepticism was apparent only in participants who perceived the world as just and fair. Thus, this skepticism seemed to represent an attempt to reestablish the belief the world is just and fair. Similarly, the second study showed that skepticism in response to dire warnings was especially likely after incidental exposure to words like justice, stability, and order during a sentence unscrambling task. One of the practical implications of this finding is that dire messages about global warming should often be superseded by more uplifting messages about how these problems can be prevented.

Belief in committed relationships

Many people believe that marriage and commitment to relationships improve wellbeing. That is, they assume that people would be happier in committed relationships. They feel that commitment to relationships is right and even moral. Nevertheless, research does not indicate that committed relationships do necessarily enhance wellbeing. As demonstrated by Day, Kay, Holmes, and Napier (2011), this belief in committed relationships may represent an attempt to instill in individuals a sense of control and order.

Specifically, from the perspective of system justification theory, individuals like to perceive the world as ordered and predictable. They like to know their roles. Committed relationships may clarify the roles of each person and offer a sense of security as well. Thus, when this order or security is threatened, individuals may become more likely to espouse the importance of committed relationships.

Day, Kay, Holmes, and Napier (2011) undertook a set of studies that confirm this possibility. In the first study, to threaten their sense of order, some Canadian participants read their nation discriminates against Arab residents. Other Canadian participants were not exposed to this information. Next, participants read about a study that either vindicates or challenges the benefits of committed relationships. Finally, participants were granted an opportunity to criticize this study. If participants had read their nation discriminates against Arab residents?-challenging their sense of order?-they became especially likely to criticize the article that invalidates the importance of committed relationships. That is, they espoused the importance of such commitment. Nevertheless, this pattern of results was observed in men only. The second study was similar except different information was used to threaten the sense of order in participants.

The third study examined whether or not challenging the benefits of committed relationships would invoke other attempts to experience a sense of order and control. In particular, some participants read an article that highlighted that commitment in relationships is diminishing. Other participants read an article that confirms the prevalence and importance of relationship commitment. Finally, all participants answered questions on whether they perceive the political system of their nation as fair and just. If participants had read an article that challenges the prevalence or benefits of committed relationships, they become more likely to perceive their society as just, presumably as a means to restore order and control. Again, however, this finding was observed in males only.

The fourth study confirmed that individuals likely to endorse the importance of committed relationships primarily to instill a sense of control and order. That is, some participants were informed that committed relationships do indeed confer a sense of control as well as improve wellbeing. Other participants read similar information, but without the references to control. Next, participants rated the degree to which they feel that committed relationships are suitable and beneficial. If participants were informed that committed relationships confer a sense of control, they were especially likely to endorse this institution. Again, this finding was confined to men and not women.

Some of the studies showed that women may also endorse committed relationships as a means to restore control and order, but only in specific circumstances. For example, in one study, the questions assessed whether participants perceive their own romantic relationships as important. After their sense of order was threatened, by reading about the problems in their society, women were more likely to perceive their romantic relationships as vital to their identity. Hence, they endorsed their own romantic relationships rather than relationships in general.

Furthermore, another study showed that women endorse the importance of committed relationships but only when gender inequalities are not pronounced. Presumably, in some nations, because of gender inequalities, committed relationships do not confer a sense of control and, thus, are not endorsed by women when the system is threatened.

Persistence and effort

When individuals are exposed to information that indicates that society is just and fair, they often become more persistent and determined. Specifically, if individuals feel that society is just, they sense their efforts will be rewarded in some way. They feel a sense of control.

Interestingly, this association between the perceived fairness of society and persistence is especially pronounced in people with low socioeconomic status. When socioeconomic status is elevated, individuals tend to experience a sense of control anyway. When socioeconomic status is low, individuals depend on the belief that society is fair to experience this sense of control.

These premises were substantiated by Laurin, Fitzsimons, and Kay (2011). In one pair of studies, participants were asked to specify the extent to which society is fair. They were also asked to indicate the degree to which they are likely to persist after failures on preliminary exams or to devote effort to enhance their career success. Perceived fairness of society was positively associated with persistence and effort, but only in participants whose socioeconomic status was low. In a subsequent study, after members of ethnic minorities, but not majorities, received information that indicates the society is becoming fairer, they devoted effort to future goals.

Feelings of vulnerability after enacting undesirable behavior

If people believe in a just world, they tend to feel especially vulnerable after enacting an unsuitable or undesirable act. For example, when asked to donate money to cancer research, they might refuse. Then, after they are reminded of this refusal, they feel more vulnerable. That is, they are more likely to assume they could contract cancer (Kogut & Ritov, 2011).

One study was conducted by Kogut and Ritov (2011) ten days after a yearly fundraiser was organized to attract donations for cancer research. People were approached in public places, like malls, to complete a questionnaire. Participants were asked to estimate the likelihood they believe they may be diagnosed with cancer over the next five years. In addition, they completed a scale that assesses whether or not they feel the world is just and that people receive the rewards and recognition they deserve.

Furthermore, all participants were asked whether they had donated money to the fundraiser for cancer research. Some of the participants answered this question before estimating the likelihood they might be diagnosed with cancer. These participants, therefore, were reminded of whether or not they had not donated to this cause before estimating their susceptibility to cancer. Other participants answered this question after estimating the likelihood they might be diagnosed with cancer.

Some of the participants believed the world is just, but did not donate to the fundraiser. If these participants had been reminded they had not donated to this cause before estimating their susceptibility to cancer, they felt that a diagnosis of cancer was very likely. If these participants had not been reminded of their reluctance to donate before estimating their susceptibility to cancer, they did not feel that a diagnosis of cancer was likely.

A second experiment replicated these findings. In this experiment, participants read about another person who either did donate or did not donate to some cause. Again, if she was depicted as someone who did not donate, participants felt this person was perceived as more vulnerable to cancer. A later study showed this effect is especially pronounced after individuals reflect upon a situation that showed the world tends to be just. The final study showed that refusal to donate money can increase perceived susceptibility to other problems, such as financial loss.

In brief, people do not explicitly believe that refusing to donate money will culminate in some tragedy. But intuitively, if they believe the world is just, they feel they have tempted fate by refusing to donate. They will, therefore, feel susceptible to diseases or other problems.

Factors that affect the consequences of system justification

Salience of stigmatization

The extent to which a stigmatized social identity is salient can affect the impact of system justification. That is, when individuals identify closely with a stigmatized group, but also endorse the existing system, their beliefs align to the stereotypes against this collective.

To illustrate, in a study conducted by Cheung and Hardin (2010), the participants were Filipina workers in Hong Kong, a stigmatized constituency. Participants first answered questions that assess the degree to which they identify with this community. A typical item is "The (ethnic) group I belong to is an important reflection of who I am.? In addition, they completed a measure of social dominance orientation, to gauge the extent to which they feel the existing hierarchy is justifiable. Finally, they completed questions about whether they feel they deserve more pay.

Some of these individuals identified closely with this Filipina community. If these individuals endorsed the existing hierarchy, they felt they did not deserve more pay. That is, they embraced the stereotype that Filipina workers are not elevated in the social hierarchy. A second study was similar, except the stigmatized community was females rather than Filipina workers, and political orientation was utilized to assess justification of the system.

Measures of system justification

Kay and Jost (2003) developed a measure to gauge the extent to which individuals embrace or justify the prevailing system. The measure comprises eight items, such as "Most policies serve the greater good" or "Society is set up so that people usually get what they deserve". Alpha internal consistency approximates .80 (Kay & Jost, 2003).

Furthermore, Jost and Thompson (2000) developed another scale, comprising 16 items, that represents the extent to which individuals justify the prevailing economic system. Typical items include "If people work hard, they almost always get what they want". Again, alpha consistency approximates .80 (Jost & Thompson, 2000).


Findings that challenge the status-legitimacy hypothesis

System justification theory initially emanated from the status-legitimacy hypothesis (for a review, see Brandt, 2013), the proposition that people who are low in status, such as individuals whose income or education is limited, are more likely to perceive the existing systems as legitimate. That is, these individuals are more likely to trust the government or express confidence in the major banks, courts, companies, military, and government agencies.

To explain this finding, Jost and Hunyady (2003) invoked the concept of cognitive dissonance. In essence, they argued that people who are low in status experience a sense of conflict or dissonance because they are disadvantaged by these systems but do not protest. To resolve this dissonance, they like to believe the systems are indeed worthy and legitimate.

Yet, Brandt (2013) undertook a comprehensive study that challenges this status-legitimacy hypothesis. In contrast to previous studies, Brandt (2013) derived the data that covers over 50 years and most of the globe. Data were derived from the World Values Survey and two American databases. To assess status, five measures were included, such as income, education, gender, race or ethnicity, and social class. To assess legitimacy, the degree to which individuals express trust and confidence in the major banks, courts, companies, military, and government agencies was measured.

Only one of the 14 possible relationships supported the status-legitimacy hypothesis. That is, in general, people who were lower in status did not perceive the systems as more legitimate. The relationship between status and legitimacy did, however, seem to vary appreciably across the samples. Yet, variables that should amplify cognitive dissonance, and thus increase this relationship, such as greater civil liberty or inequality, did not tend to moderate this association in the expected direction. Future research, therefore, is needed to understand why the relationship between status and legitimacy varies considerably.

According to Brandt (2013), the status-legitimacy hypothesis is tenuous. Yet, many other features of system justification theory--such as the concepts of compensatory control, motivations to resist change, and biases because of the justice motive--seem helpful and productive.


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