Why are you hitting yourself? Part 2: Sticking up for the big guy

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

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.

Concluding thoughts

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.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!


  1. Nentuaby says

    Are you familiar with the concept of kyriarchy? It also provides an explanatory framework for the tendancy to internalize oppression. I’d be interested to hear somebody with more sociological chops than mine do a compare/contrast of the ideas. I’m guessing there’s more compare than contrast.

    (My brief layman’s explanation for those not familiar with kyriarchy, btw: No one oppression such as classism, racism, or homophobia can be taken in isolation; they interlock such that those who are oppressed on one axis are still recruited to enforce those on which they are privileged. Because of fundamental risk-aversion, people are more motivated by fear of loss on their axes of privilege than by hope of gain on their axes of oppression. This causes aversion to general reform even by those who stand to gain a great deal from it overall.)

  2. Crommunist says

    No, that’s a new one to me. I’ll definitely look into it though. Certainly fits with my general schema of how the world is. Thanks for the tip!

  3. quantheory says

    This reminds me of two Mexicans I’ve spoken to. One, who lives here on a green card, and immigrated legally with his family when he was 16, offers up how much he hates hearing people speak Spanish in the U.S. (often in the same breath complaining about how racist people are in this country). I thought that was a little weird, but I’ve met several 1.5th generation immigrants who felt a similar dislike or embarrassment towards their native language, so I sort of shrugged that off.

    But the other person currently lives in Mexico City, and after also complaining about all the racism he’s encountered here, he later causally referred to illegal immigrants as useless “human scum” that Mexico was better off without (yes, really). That same person is gay and complains about how homophobic the culture is in Mexico, but also complains about how sexually depraved the gay population is. It’s sort of a weird thing to watch, someone who both hates bigotry when it affects himself and people he feels an affinity for, and yet otherwise buys into the very same bigoted stereotypes himself.

    On a somewhat different note, this topic makes me really think about atheists, agnostics, and apatheists who complain about popular atheism. There are all these articles that are written about the New Atheism, or about “militant” or “fundamentalist” atheists, and quite a few of them are actually written by nonbelievers. If it was just a matter of people disagreeing with Richard Dawkins, that wouldn’t be terribly strange or unreasonable. But often these criticisms are terribly under-researched, vague and poorly thought through. They don’t make sense as intellectual arguments, but they do make sense from the perspective of someone defending a position within the status quo.

    I mean, if I’m someone who has a reputation as being a nice and reasonable person “despite” not being religious, someone who is harmless to believers “despite” being an atheist, because I am respectful or in some way “on their side”, then I can see how defending that affiliation would require me to defend religion from other atheists. If I try to get my way by appealing to the good bits in Christianity or in particular religions, I can see how it would be terribly inconvenient to have someone come along and point out that it doesn’t so much matter what certain religions say, because in the end they are actually false. If I’m trying to make atheists seem friendlier because they don’t care what people believe, I can see how it might be inconvenient if another atheist says “I think people should only believe things that are probably true.”

    Actually, this makes sense of something that I have had a bit of trouble understanding. I’ve heard several agnostic-y, apatheistic-y folks say that atheists are “just as bad” as fundamentalists because atheists proselytize, are “evangelical”, or otherwise want to “force their beliefs” on people. What’s being implied is that proselytization (not through schools or government, but all attempts at persuasion about religion, *in general*) is the worst thing that fundamentalists do. Which is completely bizarre, since people have, you know, died, or been maimed, or persecuted, because of fundamentalist religion, which seems like a more serious concern.

    But this makes more sense if the threat that these apatheists feel is not the actual threat of being hurt directly by atheists or fundamentalists, but the indirect effect of having to be dragged into, and stressed out by, the religious debates. Of having to acknowledge that there might be something deeply wrong with the whole system, with the whole idea that faith is intrinsically valuable, with the fact that many, perhaps a majority of the people they know regularly go to a church that might be telling them false, and even harmful, things. It’s much easier to simply state that the issue is irresolvable, and that no one can ever know the truth for certain, and then accuse everyone that attempts to actually resolve the issue of being arrogant or intolerant. And this fits in pretty well with the status quo within a lot of faiths, where people don’t particularly want to talk about whether or not their main precepts can be justified on objective grounds, or else acknowledge that it can’t be done (but faith is a virtue!).

  4. quantheory says

    It’s worth pointing out, if it wasn’t obvious, that I live in the United States. Also, I come from a partially Hispanic family (I suppose I’d be third-generation Mexican-American, if you go by my most recent immigrant ancestor).

  5. Crommunist says

    Wow. Your thought about apatheists never even crossed my mind, but it certainly fits the pattern. That’s a very insightful thought. Thanks for your comment!

  6. Nice Ogress says

    Reaction 1: WOW.
    AMAZING article, both parts. Thank you not only for writing this, but for breaking it down into words that don’t make my eyes cross. I appreciate the precision of scientific language, really I do, but I have a very hard time parsing it.

    Reaction 2: …All right, the mechanism’s explained. Now how the heck do we snap people out of it?

  7. Crommunist says

    I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait a while for me to offer my thoughts on how to ‘snap people out of it’, but I invite you (and others) to contribute your own ideas. We have three competing motivations – how do we reconcile them?

  8. pikeamus says

    Thoroughly fascinating. Very glad I clicked the link over to this blog, I’ll have to come back for the rest of the series.

Leave a Reply

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