We left off the previous post looking at system justification theory, and the intersection of three competing motivations for behaviour: ego (“I like me”), group (“I like us”) and system justification (“I like things the way they are”). People will try to find ways to balance all three of these motives, which often has the result of serving those who are already overprivileged (Tim Wise sagely notes that while the dictionary recognizes ‘underprivileged’ as a word, it is flummoxed into red-squiggleness by ‘overprivileged’). This of course runs contrary to previous models of human behaviour, in which people exhibit preferences for their own group and antipathy to outsiders. With the addition of system justification, we can see that there may in fact be times when low-status people may demonstrate higher levels of out-group favourability.
The paper itself is a narrative walk through 20 specific hypotheses of System Justification theory that have been grouped into subtopics, so I think I will do much the same in these posts.
Hypothesis 1: People will rationalize the (anticipated) status quo by judging likely events to be more desirable than unlikely events (a) even in the absence of personal responsibility, (b) whether those events are initially defined as attractive or unattractive, and (c) especially when motivational involvement is high rather than low.
Translation: the more likely you think something is, the more desirable you think it is.
This one seems like an odd one to start with, because it doesn’t seem to be related to the conflicting motives described above, but in context of the theory in toto it makes a lot of sense. Our view of reality is shaped by social narratives explaining that reality. When we are told to expect things to be a certain way – male/female power dynamics for example – we are more likely to approve of them a priori. This happens by a weird quirk of our lazy brains – we avoid mental conflict by finding ways to make our expectations and wants align. So, if we feel like getting that promotion or getting the phone number of that cute girl at the bar are highly unlikely, well then I’m not interested in becoming part of the ‘rat race’, and that girl was probably a bitch anyway. Which brings us to the next hypothesis:
Hypothesis 2: People will use stereotypes to rationalize social and economic status differences between groups, so that the same target group will be stereotyped differently depending on whether it is perceived to be high or low in status.
Translation: We use stereotypes to explain differences in power, to the benefit of the top group.
This flows nicely from the previous point. Stereotypes are readily available and require almost no cognitive processing – they’re lazy heuristics that save us from having to do any heavy mental lifting. When our brains cast about looking for explanations for a given phenomenon, we reach for the easiest one. Why did lightning strike my house? Demons, obviously. The crops failed? It was witches. Black people live in comparatively greater poverty than whites? It’s because they’re lazy and lack personal responsibility. The key thing for this finding, however, is that both sides believe it. If you’re a white person confronted with the inequality, it’s because blacks are lazy. If you’re a black person confronted with the inequality, it’s because whites are more industrious. Now obviously this doesn’t hold true for everyone, but it is the easiest way of aligning the three conflicting ego, group and system justification motives.
Hypothesis 3: People will defend and justify the social system in response to threat by using stereotypes to differentiate between high- and low-status groups to a greater degree when there is no threat.
Translation: When under stress, we’re more willing to reach for stereotypes than to think things through.
Again, we see our lazy brains in action. If there is a threat to the system status quo - a radical new legislation proposal, a terrorist attack, the potential election of a new leader we don’t like – our brains are taxed. Our sense of “I like things the way they are” becomes threatened, and we have a strong desire for quick, easy answers. Those quick answers come in the form of stereotypes, meaning we’re more likely to use them than we would if the crisis was smaller.
Hypothesis 4: Providing explanations (or pseudo-explanations) for status or power differences between groups will (a) increase the use of stereotypes to rationalize differences, and (b) lead members of disadvantaged groups to express more positive (relative to negative) affect concerning their situation.
Translation: If we’re given a stereotype to believe, we’ll believe it happily.
In this latest fight over “illegal immigrants”, we were introduced to a new phrase by the right: anchor babies. The fear, they say, is that women will sneak across the border and have kids who are U.S. citizens. Then, 18 years later, those anchor babies can sponsor their families to immigrate, thus taking over America. The idea is patently absurd, and yet you’l find people eagerly embracing it because it fits right in line with stereotypes about those sneaky, lazy Mexicans (especially the pregnant ones). Thanks to system justification theory, we can now tease out the thought process of a person of Mexican descent making this same argument:
- I am not “an illegal” (so I still like me)
- I am one of the “good” Mexicans (so I still like “us”)
- The problem isn’t racism, it’s illegal immigration (so I still like things the way they are)
This last one is important because it prevents the speaker from having to deal with two things: 1) being the target of racist ideologies which underpin the “anchor baby” myth; and 2) coming into conflict with their white friends/political leaders. Even though the excuse is a thin veil over an ancient racist enmity, it provides enough of a screen that even Latin@s (this is how I’ve seen the non-gender-specific expressed before) can buy into it, provided their support of the status quo is important to them. It saves them from having to fight.
Hypothesis 5: Members of disadvantaged groups will misremember explanations for their powerlessness as being more legitimate than they actually were.
Translation: Under threat, we will drink deep the nectar of bullshit.
I could very well use the same example as above to illustrate this point – we will lean hard on the crutch of our lousy explanations. It prevents us from having to confront the reality that there is a real problem facing us. While those of us fighting to change the status quo will see the lack of legitimacy in stereotype-based argument, those of us who feel that a change in the way things are is a bad thing will see them as true. It’s important to recognize that this rationalization will occur regardless of the merit of the argument. If it’s grounded in stereotypes and thus makes a superficial kind of “sense”, it’s good enough for our brains.
Above, the authors illustrate 5 specific mechanisms by which the inclusion of systemic justification explains the seemingly-idiosyncratic phenomenon of disadvantaged people propping up the same systems that keep the boot on their neck. Keep in mind, as you read through all of these, that the phenomena described are only operative in cases where the wish to preserve the status quo is stronger than the wish to change it. We all have the motivation to keep things the same, but it operates at varying levels in different people and can be influenced by a whole number of things: suffering, self-efficacy, opportunity, you get the idea. Our understanding of power and status dynamics becomes much greater when we recognize the role that system justification plays in our formation of beliefs.
I will continue this series next Thursday. Feel free to read it for yourself and leave ideas/questions/interpretations in the comment thread.
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