Why are you hitting yourself? Part 5: this post is entitled

This is part 5 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.

We left off last week discussing the relationship between where one stands in the power dynamic, and how we see those at the top. If we are part of the high-status group, we have an implicit bias toward ourselves, where as those in the low-status group have an out-group – which also favours those at the top. When pressure is high to justify the status quo, we reach for stereotypes and facile explanations to rationalize why things are the way they are. Interestingly, insofar as this effect (called system justification) is identical to political conservativism, we see these biases exacerbated in people who confess to being conservative.

One of the advantages of having the kind of education I did (broad-based – a hard science candy shell with a delicious nougaty humanities core) is that I can draw on a variety of analogies when trying to impart unfamiliar concepts. Most of you have taken at least some science courses, so you will perhaps be familiar with Boyle’s Law which states, among other things, that gas will expand to fill its container. It’s that concept I want percolating in the back of your mind as we charge forward through our exploration of System Justification Theory.

Hypothesis 9: Members of disadvantaged groups will exhibit a depressed sense of entitlement relative to members of advantaged groups, even in explicitly egalitarian environments.

Translation: If you’re on the low end of the power divide, you think you deserve much less than those on the top think they do.

This follows easily from our understanding of the effect of system justification. After all, it is all about finding ways to justify why people at the top/bottom are where they are, without having to summon any disturbing ghosts that might shatter the social order. If you believe that you deserve what you have, then those who have less believe they deserve less. This certainly fits in well with current narratives from the Occupy Together movement – those who have millions of dollars truly do believe that they earned every penny.

What this means is that those at the bottom are, on average, less likely to demand improved conditions, compensation, or opportunity. The example the authors use is an experiment in which women and men were both asked to evaluate the value of their work – women “paid” themselves nearly 20% less than men did for work of identical quality. This effect is also seen in economic circles, with people working low-paying jobs feeling they deserve less, while those receiving large paycheques thinking they deserved even more.

Hypothesis 10: Members of disadvantaged groups will be more likely to exhibit depressed entitlement (relative to members of advantaged groups) for past work that has already been completed than for future work that has not been completed.

Translation: You’ll justify where you are more than you will where you’re going.

Once again, this hypothesis follows naturally from the central thesis of system justification. If you are part of a low-status group, and you believe that you deserve to be part of this group, then it must be because your past work has been shoddy. At least more so than your future work. This is particularly illuminating because it explains, at least in part, why we see an income gap between men and women. Aside from the systemic sexism of the market, there’s also a drive toward self-limitation that discourages women from pursuing success, and teaching them to think less of their own achievements.

Hypothesis 11: Members of low-status groups will exhibit greater ambivalence toward their own group than will members of high-status groups.

Hypothesis 12: Members of low-status groups will exhibit increased ambivalence toward their own group as system justification is increased.

Hypothesis 13: Members of high-status groups will exhibit decreased ambivalence toward their own group as system justification is increased.

Translation: As system justification becomes more important, it changes the way we see ourselves and others, always to the benefit of those at the top. 

The reason I thought Boyle’s law was a useful thing to have in the back of our minds was that it also, in a very non-literal way, describes human psychology. Our concepts of self constantly shift and expand to fit the situation we’re in – the pressure our minds are under. When we are under pressure, it becomes progressively more difficult to resolve the conflicts between our view of the system as fair, and our view of different groups within that system. Our attitudes toward our own identity becomes more contorted as we have to find ways to rationalize why those like ourselves are where they are. Well, unless we’re on top – then we get to keep telling ourselves that things are as they should be.

Hypothesis 14: System justification will be associated with (a) increased self-esteem for members of advantaged groups and (b) decreased self-esteem for members of disadvantaged groups.

Hypothesis 15: System justification will be associated with (a) decreased depression for members of advantaged groups, and (b) increased depression for members of disadvantaged groups.

Hypothesis 16: System justification will be associated with (a) decreased neuroticism for members of advantaged groups, and (b) increased neuroticism for members of disadvantaged groups.

Translation: The ambivalence/conflict caused by system justification leads to other psychological issues that disproportionately affect members of low-status groups.

As if it didn’t suck enough to simply be low-status, the authors also point to evidence that suggests that the kind of internal conflicts we talked about in the previous section lead to negative psychological outcomes like depression and neuroticism. Those who understand how privilege (which is exactly what we’ve been talking about all along, if you hadn’t noticed) manifests itself in things like health will be completely unsurprised by this finding.

This showed up in the comments section of previous posts, but in a slightly different way. System justification is an improvement on older theories that only encompassed the conflicts between ego motives and group motives. By adding a third motive, we begin to see the emergence of a complex, shifting cognitive framework that tries to find a way to align a variety of different needs. When one of those needs (the need to approve of our in-group) comes into conflict with another (the need to approve of our social system), it results in snarls in our framework. These snarls aren’t good for us, especially if we can’t find a way to resolve the conflict.

In this afternoon’s installment, we’ll look at system justificaiton at a much larger scale.

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  1. says

    Again, this series is awesome. There are some people in my life that I’d really like to have them read this series. A few months ago, the subject of “if the poor worked harder and had a better attitude, they wouldn’t be poor anymore,” came up in conversation, and I had a really difficult time explaining how difficult it is to have a “good attitude” in times of stress. The increased neuroticism in particular seems to feed into a negative feedback loop where the disadvantaged group becomes easier and easier to dismiss (as irrational lunatics, for example), which means that their actions will become less and less rational, which makes them easier to dismiss….

    This kind of stuff makes me really want to find some means to go back to school.

  2. Crommunist says

    Glad you’re enjoying the series. It’s been fun to write.

    This kind of stuff makes me really want to find some means to go back to school.

    I will hasten to point out that I didn’t go to school for psychology or sociology, I just took a few intro courses while I was there. Thanks to the internet and blogs (You Are Not So Smart is one of my favourites), you can get a pretty decent non-technical education from the privacy of your home. I say “non-technical” because the methodologies are harder to pick up through individual study, but theoretically I suppose someone could learn the entirety of any field from a computer screen.

  3. astrosmash says

    Agreed. This has been a great series. Your “translations” are way welcome BTW. Its unfortunate that the spectre of po-mo obscurantism can even make good solid work unnecessarily tough to wade through.

    And another aspect I’d love for you to address…What shifts bring people to the tipping point before the system is “rocked”?

  4. Crommunist says

    I’m going to be discussing that and other questions in a post I hope to have up before the end of the day.

  5. says

    I think I’m doing okay at being an educated lay-person: I’ve been lucky to have a lot of intelligent people in various fields, and I read like a maniac. The reason, though, that I think a more formal education might help me is that it would be a convenient way to challenge my assumptions. The books and blogs I read are self-selected, and so I could be (and probably am) filtering out valid viewpoints that don’t fit my own biases, and that works against my stated desires to be intellectually honest, understand “truth”, etc.

    I did have have some university education right out of high school (did an undergrad in psychology/neuroscience and dropped out in my 3rd year for a few reasons, largest being depression and anxiety) and I’d like another stab at it, now that it’s 15 years later (and now that I’m not fixated on being a brain surgeon…I’d probably do some psych/sociology/history-type thing).

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