Nov 07 2011

Why are you hitting yourself? Part 7: Summary

This is part 7 of an ongoing discussion of a paper by Jost, Banaji and Nosek discussing System Justification Theory. Read Part 1Read Part 2. Read Part 3. Read Part 4. Read Part 5. Read Part 6.

So on Thursday I finished up with the last sections of the paper, but I didn’t get to do the wrap-up post that I wanted to (time crunch – abstract submission deadline followed by dinner immediately after work, with friend who then asked for a full explanation of the entire OWS movement… it was a long day for my brain). So I’m going to take this opportunity to bring this series to a conclusion.

Why System Justification Theory?

Older psychological models to explain human behaviour focussed on the relationship between individual ego motivation, and group allegiance. The central understanding was that people would tend to demonstrate in-group favouritism and out-group hostility. In the same way we tend not to see ourselves as bad people but vilify the actions of others, we would do the same for groups with whom we did and did not feel allegiance.

The problem with this theory is that it fails to explain a common and seemingly-inexplicable finding: that people often tend to demonstrate an asymmetric bias toward people in high-status groups, even to the point of abhorring their own group. If it was a rare occurrence, we could just chalk it up to “well some folks is crazy”, but when it’s consistently observed in many different populations under experimental conditions, it becomes something that needs looking at.

System Justification: A Powerful Motivator

Jost and colleagues propose a theory with three components. First, there is the intrinsic need to approve of one’s self. Second, the need to approve of your in-group. The contribution of SJT in in the third part: the need to approve of the way the world is. This has many names, but perhaps the easiest way to think of it is in terms of the “just world fallacy” – the belief that the world is a fair place, that good is rewarded and evil is punished. When read backwards, this allows us to justify the existence of suffering by saying “the world is a just place, and therefore you deserve to suffer.”

The brain wishes to satisfy all three of these components at the same time. If you’re on the high side of a social disparity (income, sex, orientation, race), then this is very easy. It is, in fact, self-reinforcing: I like me, I like those who are similar to me, and look how awesome we’re doing – it’s because we deserve it. Those of us who pay attention to these things call this by a name that will likely be familiar to many in this community: we call it ‘privilege’.

However, when you are on the bottom of these disparities, life becomes a bit trickier – in order to balance these three factors without conflict, we have to hold the same ideologies of dessert for the top group, even though it might be to our direct disadvantage.

The effect of System Justification

The authors propose and provide evidence to support no fewer than 20 separate hypotheses from SJT. I will not reiterate them all, because you can just click through and see my discussions of them all. I will, however, try and summarize them thematically.

For a variety of reasons, our brains like to do as little work as possible when trying to figure out the world. This leads us to use stereotypes and other heuristics as mental ‘shortcuts’ instead of painstakingly considering each individual event in the world. When it comes to understanding complex things like group dynamics, our minds search for the simplest explanation, which leads us to accept stereotypes as true. We will, when under pressure, see those stereotypes as having more and more legitimacy, regardless of what the data tells us.

As with many things in psychology, much of this system justification happens below the level of conscious awareness. We have a ‘gut feeling’ about things, and then find justifications for why that feeling is true. What is interesting is that our stated preferences and our implicit preferences are sometimes at odds – powerful evidence of implicit processes at work.

System justification can be neatly swapped with political conservatism, which is essentially the desire to maintain the status quo and preserve tradition. As such, we see system justifying behaviours aligning nicely with self-identified conservative ideology. This certainly explains why conservatism is often associated with bigoted attitudes toward gay people, non-whites (at least in the USA/Canada/Europe), and the poor. The ‘just world fallacy’ resonates strongly.

As people on the low half of the power divide adopt system justifying behaviours and attitudes, they begin to see themselves as less valuable. It is not the case (as we often see) that people are actively oppressed by the majority group exclusively – we often see members of the same group tearing each other down, with the slogans of the majority on their lips. There is a price to pay, however. The conflict between the desires to approve of self, group and system means that forcing this kind of alignment takes its toll in terms of feelings of self-worth, happiness, and stability.

The amount of system justifying we’re likely to do increases sharply when our personal motivations are low. The less of a threat the system is to us personally, the more we approve of it – regardless of how it affects those in our ingroup. We will, in fact, work harder to justify the system as it becomes more unequal, particularly those of us on the bottom. Exposure to examples that conform to comforting stereotypes cause us to justify the system even more.

My thoughts

The thing that I especially love about this theory is that it ties together several different phenomena that I’ve seen and blogged about: privilege, the intersection between conservatism and bigotry, anti-feminist attitudes among women, cognitive dissonance, the appeal of the Tea Party, the use of stereotypes… it’s all here. We can point to those behaviours and no longer have to shake our heads in bewilderment. What we are seeing is understood and documented, with a theory that is both comprehensive and supported by multiple intersecting lines of evidence.

The question becomes what do we do now that we know this? I will share some of my thoughts, as well as other questions in this afternoon’s follow-up.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!



  1. 1

    You may be interested in looking into Social Dominance Theory (SDT)(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Dominance_Theory). The SDT people and the SJT people are big rivals. Here is a good description of SDT (lenthy, though): http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic895260.files/PrattoSidaniusLevin_2006.pdf

    There is also a book on SDT called Social Dominance by Sidanius and Pratto. It goes into detail about the various theories that inspired SDT, spends a lot of time discussing institutional discrimination in education & healthcare/criminal justice system/housing market/labor market, and also discusses oppression as cooperative.

  2. 2

    I’m looking forward to digesting this new theory. From my cursory look at the Wiki, SJT better matches my own experience, but that might be simply because SJT got there (my brain) first.

  3. 3

    Perhaps. I read SDT first (and I know Ph.D. students in SDT – so I read the book Social Dominance). I really liked it, and it was cool that the intention of the authors was to empirically define how group-based hierarchies are set-up and maintained specifically because they care about social justice. In the end, I found their accumulation of data convincing. Their model is complex (lots of pieces), but so is the world, so it does take quite a bit of explaining on the authors part to fully explain SDT.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite="" class=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>