Why Are You Hitting Yourself? An intro to System Justification Theory

By request, here are links to Part 2Read Part 3Read Part 4Read Part 5. Read Part 6. Read Part 7. Read Part 8.

So I’m not sure what your impression of the way I run things around here is, but let me tell you that my info gathering process is incredibly haphazard. Every morning I browse through the various news sites I read, and pull out articles I find interesting. I do the same at lunch from the blogs I follow. Some items come from Facebook or G+ friends, others get sent to me by readers. Every Saturday morning(ish) I pull out the file of the week’s acquisitions and whittle down to the handful of stories I can make hay with in a week’s worth of posts. Some weeks it’s light, other weeks it’s overflowing and I have to delete stuff I really like (since by the time I get to it, it’ll be comically out of date).

Once in a very rare while, I stumble across something that is a veritable goldmine of bloggable content – something that not only ties together a number of separate ideas I’ve had in the past, but helps me re-orient my thinking along lines that open up new avenues and new questions to explore. Such a goldmine is this paper by Jost, Banaji and Nosek:

Most theories in social and political psychology stress self-interest, intergroup conflict, ethnocentrism, homophily, ingroup bias, outgroup antipathy, dominance, and resistance. System justification theory is influenced by these perspectives—including social identity and social dominance theories—but it departs from them in several respects. Advocates of system justification theory argue that (a) there is a general ideological motive to justify the existing social order, (b) this motive is at least partially responsible for the internalization of inferiority among members of disadvantaged groups, (c) it is observed most readily at an implicit, nonconscious level of awareness and (d) paradoxically, it is sometimes strongest among those who are most harmed by the status quo.

This article reviews and integrates 10 years of research on 20 hypotheses derived from a system justification perspective, focusing on the phenomenon of implicit outgroup favoritism among members of disadvantaged groups (including African Americans, the elderly, and gays/lesbians) and its relation to political ideology (especially liberalism-conservatism)

This, for me, is even better than bacon-flavoured porn. It’s the “holy grail” of theoretical frameworks when it comes to understanding an important phenomenon in sociology and race/gender/status issues. It’s important, and I will be referring back to it frequently, so I am going to take my time and pull out the main ideas proposed in the text. It’s 38 pages long, so this is definitely going to take more than one post to give it the attention it deserves.

The topic under scrutiny is the seemingly counter-intuitive behaviour we often see from oppressed (the paper uses the term ‘low-status’) groups, wherein they buy into the propaganda about their oppressors. Why, for example, do some black children identify a white doll as the “nice” one in studies of preference? Why do many women engage in some of the same anti-feminist misogyny that you’d expect to be exclusively male? Why do people with low incomes vote for Republicans, or support policies that work directly to their own economic disadvantage? It’s so counter-intuitive as to be almost comical – why would people act in ways that are directly contrary to their self-interest?

Put the way a childhood bully might, “why are you hitting yourself?”

The authors posit that this seeming contradiction only occurs because our models of human behaviour fail to account for all forces at work. They contrast their approach with the widely-accepted group justification theory models. Basically, the idea behind group justification theory is that people exhibit in-group biases to favour those who are more like themselves. We draw a circle around a group of people based on a characteristic of our choosing (for example, skin colour or nationality) and say “this is us”. We exhibit pro-social biases toward members of our own group, while expressing antipathy toward those outside the circle. This certainly makes sense, and I’ve talked about it before.

The problem with this view, say the authors, is that it does not always match the observed reality. They use an example of American slavery – relationships between master and slave were certainly not pleasant, but it made infinitely more sense for the slave-owners to have an ostensibly friendly relationship with their slaves, and vice versa. This matches, to a certain extent, the types of relationships observed with “house slaves” before Emancipation, and domestic workers up to this day. There is a serious power imbalance, but not open antipathy. Indeed, we often see abuses against domestic workers going unreported not out of fear, but out of admiration and a desire not to “hurt” the abuser (this also matches other kinds of relationships with skewed power dynamics).

The authors explain this discrepancy in the following way:

…hierarchy is maintained not only through mechanisms of ingroup favoritism and outgroup derogation exercised by members of dominant groups, but also by the complicity of members of subordinated groups, many of whom perpetuate inequality through mechanisms such as outgroup favoritism.

Or, to translate from science-speak: power imbalances are perpetuated with the permission and participation of those on the lower end of the divide, with those at the top favouring themselves, and those at the bottom agreeing.

The psychological mechanism of this action is explained (quite brilliantly, I think) according to three competing psychological motives: ego motive, group motive, and system justification. The ego motive – the desire for self-esteem and acceptance – can be thought of in terms of “I like me”. Group motive refers to a desire to see those in your in-group in a positive light – “I like us”. System justification motive, however, refers to our attitudes towards the general state of affairs – “I like things the way they are”. These three motives are in competition with each other, and can be made more or less salient (cognitively available and subjectively important) depending on the circumstances.

The authors of the paper point out that members of a group on the low side of a power divide are less likely to push for a change in the system if ego or group justification needs are not being met. Put another way, even those for whom the system sucks will tend to side with the status quo unless their desire for greater self-esteem (either individually or as a group) overcomes their inherent belief that the current social order is as it should be. If self-esteem can be maintained alongside the system’s integrity, people will find ways of rationalizing their position – whether they’re at the top or the bottom.

Like I said, this is a complex and well-evidenced theory – too long to fully explore in one post. I will keep coming back to this paper, because it really does explain a lot.

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  1. says

    this post is quite serendipitously timed; I’ve been trying to explain the concepts of “internalized oppression” and “the colonized mind” to a few people, and having psychology to support and mesh with these more sociological ideas will help immensely 🙂

  2. Crommunist says

    Did I seriously scoop you on a 16 year-old socio/psychological theory? That’s fuckin’ spooky

  3. Sunil D'Monte says

    Thanks for posting this, I’d read articles about the “Just World Theory” where System Justification Theory was mentioned as well, but hadn’t looked into it yet. I recall them mentioning that one cause for system justification from members of dominant groups is guilt – i.e. “What would it say about me, if I was really part of oppression of XYZ. No, there is no oppression of XYZ.”

  4. says

    Not exactly. I was already talking about the phenomenon in general terms. This has a lot of relevance for the entry of the middle class into the Occupy movement and their absence up to now. You made it much simpler for me to be concise and incorporate this by reference. 🙂

  5. Crommunist says

    Oh, awesome. Well I’m glad it helps. I’ll have more up later today and next week, which will talk more explicitly about some of the relevant status issues.


  6. says

    ARRRGGGHH!!!! Another longish post about an interesting topic that makes a lot of sense and is backed by real research, but I’d never thought about it quite that way before. One that makes me want to think carefully about the situation and read the whole paper. Dammit man, don’t you understand I’m busy? I can only read so much in a day.

    Okay, I’ll just move your blog above PZ’s in my reading order…

  7. Crommunist says

    Hahaha, well if you can be patient I will be trying to blog-digest it for you in manageable pieces. It’ll take a few weeks though – lots of stuff to write about.

  8. astrosmash says

    Coupled with growing research on Authoitarianism and the good old Dunning-Kruger studies, System justification is a welcom addition. I’m looking into this.

  9. Dean Buchanan says

    One question

    overcomes their inherent that the current social order is as it should be.

    inherent belief?

  10. Crommunist says

    Absolutely not, and I’m offended you even asked 😛

    I’ll have to take a look at this on Monday – paper is behind a paywall

  11. says

    I tend to be a sucker for any idea with the word “system” in the title.

    Anyway, this is interesting and I’d like to think a bit more about it.

    Anecdotal experience: When I worked in the Congo (then Zaire) much of our research was funded directly by, or the funds controlled by, the owner of Budweiser (she came to the field with us), the owner of the largest jewelry conglomerate in the Carribean, the wealthy author of the book Congo (based partly on my research area in the Ituri), Gordon Getty, or the heiress to Standard Oil. We scientists, graduate students, etc. etc. hung around with these icons of wealth and industry and stuff, not all at once but in various size doses, either in the field (budweiser and jewelry) or at meetings or fundraisers etc. etc.

    Meanwhile, I and my colleagues would go to the Ituri Forest where we, as graduate students or junior post doc types would have orders of magnituded more wealth than any local person, by both the none comparable and comparable standards of raw wealth (we had jobs part of the year that gave us more monthly than any local Ituri person would see in a life time) even though we were not paid well, and and effective wealth (we had transport and money for food and paying fines etc. that would, in fact, never run out).

    I was able to observe my colleagues and to a lesser degree myself (does one ever observe oneself) as we moved between being the ant at the picnic to being the picnic, and back and forth.

    My gut feeling just from these experiences is that there is something to SJT. I’m sure I acted accordingly sometimes. However, I never did drink Bud. There are limits.

    I’m looking forward to reading as you parse, apply and revise this newly found perspective.

  12. JediBear says

    One of my correspondents points out that while you do link to the image on their site, you do not directly credit the authors of the comic which serves as a theme image for this piece.

    Now, I followed the link and figured it out, but not all my friends are as smart as me. 😛

    Probably not a big deal, but thought you might want to know it was a deal. Apologies if this represents some kind of an error on my part.

  13. Katharine says

    For some fascinating accounts of “system justification,” one should read the ex-slave’s (and great American) Frederick Douglass’s autobiography “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.”

    At one point Douglass writes about watching his fellow slaves literally get into fist fights with each other over who had the “better” (richer, more powerful, kinder, etc.) master.

    According to Douglass, while it was humiliating to be a slave, it was even more humiliating to be a slave of a poor or lowly slaveholder.

    As an ex-slave, Douglass had a tremendous perspective on power, and his writing is filled with disquisitions on human relationships and character within the context of an evil system.

    I just stumbled on this quote from him on Wikipedia: “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”


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