Why are you hitting yourself? Part 6: SJT writ large

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. Read Part 5.

We left off exploring the consequences of conflicts between how we see ourselves in context of a group, and of how we see the society we live in. There is, the authors suggest (and demonstrate as described in the previous 5 installments of this series), a strong drive within us to reconcile our self of self-worth, in-group approval, and societal outlook. It has the somewhat idiosyncratic effect of causing us to harbour ideas that may work directly to our detriment, but allow us to align these three desires (through the use of stereotyped thinking). Aside from resulting in the advantaged staying at the top, it also leaves those at the bottom with increased psychological issues.

Up until now, our exploration of the specific hypotheses stemming from System Justification Theory has been focussed on individual-level attitudes and effects. In the final section of the paper, the authors explore some of the larger themes that are explained, at least in part, by the desire to approve of the status quo. Most skeptics will be familiar with the concept of cognitive dissonance – it refers generally to a brain state in which we are trying to reconcile two contradictory beliefs. Believers in a deity have pioneered a wide variety of methods to resolve cognitive dissonance – the most popular is the notion of “faith”: recognizing that something is logically impossible but believing it anyway. Throughout this whole discussion, but particularly in the previous installment, we see cognitive dissonance being a key component of the wacky outcomes of SJT.

Hypothesis 17: When individual and group needs and interests are low in salience or strength, members of disadvantaged groups will provide stronger support for the social system and its authorities than will members of advantaged groups.

Translation: When personal stakes are low, those on the bottom of the power gap are more likely to approve of the system than those at the top.

This one takes more than a bit of parsing, because it probably least matches our observed experience of minority behaviour. Certainly, it is usually those on the receiving end of discrimination that fight hardest against it. This is the crux of understanding SJT, so I’m going to draw an analogy. Imagine that your brain is strapped into a chariot that is being pulled by three horses. Due to an administrative cock-up, the horses are all on 120 degree angles from each other, and so the net force of their effort leaves you stuck in place. However, that only happens when you’ve got three horses of equal strength – if one of the horses is much stronger than the other two, your brain gets pulled in that direction.

This is the case for this hypothesis. When ego and group motives are non-salient (those horses are weak – ponies, in fact), disadvantaged people are more likely to support the status quo than advantaged people. The example the authors use has to do with support for government in racial minority groups with income disparity. Low-income Latinos, for example, were more likely to trust government officials than were high-income Latinos (even when controlling for education). It is also seen in attitudes among low- and high-income earners when it comes to wealth disparity, with low-income earners more likely to believe that disparity is needed as an incentive to “work harder”. It is important not to consider these effects in isolation, but as something observed when other explanations do not come into play.

Hypothesis 18: System justification levels will be higher in societies in which social and economic inequality is more extreme rather than less extreme.

Translation: The more unequal a society is, the harder people work to justify it.

This one makes a perverse sort of sense, even without understanding the previous hypotheses. If you live in a place where there are people who have a great deal, and many of those who ain’t got, but you wish to retain a belief that the world is a fair place (known as the “just world hypothesis”), your brain has to work a lot harder to reconcile the disparities you see. As a result, you’ll see much more rationalization of the system than you would in a place that looks more egalitarian. This one is perhaps the most difficult to study (the authors acknowledge this as well), since there is a chicken/egg phenomenon to be teased out. Insofar as conservativism is synonymous with system justification, are places that are more liberal more equal, or does increased equality lead to increased liberalism? Is there a synergistic effect, or is it cause/effect?

The authors point to data that suggests that countries with high levels of gender equality display lower levels of anti-woman sexism, and this was true in both female and male respondents. It certainly gels with the kind of clustering rhetoric about a “woman’s role” coming from those who also advocate unrestricted markets and theocracy. It certainly explains why someone like Michelle Bachmann, running for the highest political office in her country, still endorses being “subject” to her husband – it goes a long way to explain her neuroticism as well.

We shift gears a little to round out the end of the paper.

Hypothesis 19: Exposure to complementary stereotype exemplars (in which members of high- and low-status groups are seen as having opposite, opposing strengths and weaknesses) will increase system justification, in comparison to noncomplementary stereotype exemplars.

Translation: If we see examples of the system ‘working’ for even those at the bottom, we’ll approve of the system.

This one will probably get its own post someday, but I will give a summary version. Anyone who’s read Kathryn Stockett’s execrable novel The Help knows this phenomenon well. The novel paints a rosy picture of racism experienced by black domestic servants in the mid 20th-century South. By giving an account of someone who is low-status, but is still happy and possesses “wisdom” that the upper class doesn’t have, the racist system that existed (and still exists) in the southern United States is granted legitimacy. Our brains tell us “sure, it’s bad, but look it’s not all bad, and each group succeeds in its own way.” If faced, however, with examples of people who suffer unequivocably as a consequence of the system, we are more likely to see the status quo as unjust.

Hypothesis 20: Exposure to benevolent and complementary gender stereotypes (in which women are seen as communal but not agentic) will increase system justification, especially among women, in comparison to neutral or noncomplementary stereotypes).

Translation: As above, when we see women as having “different but balancing” roles, we are more likely to think that the current system works.

Once again we can invoke the crazy-eyed spirit of Michelle Bachmann here. Religious roles for women tend to place them below men on the heirarchy (at least this is true in Abrahamic religions), but emphasize over and over again that women play a vital role as man’s ‘companion’ in YahwAlladdha’s (Yahweh/Allah/Buddha/whichever deity you choose) plan. This is the first comeback any religious misogynist comes back with – “men and women aren’t supposed to be equal – they’re supposed to complement and balance each other”. Of course that usually means, in practice, that this “balance” occurs on the back of the woman.

I’ve gone a bit long here, but this completes the full slate of hypotheses generated and tested by the authors in this paper. I will find some time to publish my concluding thoughts and further research questions soon. In the meantime I would appreciate your thoughts on any holes or flaws you find with SJT – I think it’s a very compelling idea that is a marked improvement on the more simplistic group justification theories that predate it, at least in terms of understanding and predicting behaviour.

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  1. says

    Hey, do you think you could edit your first part of the series to include links to the last 5? I’ve been sharing that link, and it would be helpful for anyone who actually reads it get to the other parts. Thanks.

  2. says

    This is where the “American Dream” really screws people, because it suggests that anyone, if they work hard and have just a little bit of luck, can become stinkin’ filthy rich. They might win the lottery, or they might get a great idea for an invention, or marry into wealth, or get those promotions, or a windfall and everything gets better. Therefore, the system is fair. And it plays into that fundamental attribution thing, too: those who are phenominally successful are able to point to their success as an example of the system working, and since they are usually separated from the thousands of people who are suffering under the system, they are able to ignore any counter evidence.

    And I guess how this plays into the “men are from Mars” thing, too. Sure men are jerks, women don’t make as much money, but they have “women’s intuition” and are more connected to their emotions, so what’s everyone complaining about?

  3. praveenkulkarni says

    Excellent. Really explains a lot of weird behavior. There was a scene in the American TV show, The West Wing, which might be relevant to your post.

    President Bartlet’s office staff (liberal democrat) is puzzled to find out that Blacks in USA don’t want to support the Estate Tax (Death Tax). That they are in favor of tax reduction for Estate inheritance. It sounds counter-intuitive at first. Then President Bartlet explains why the first generation of millionaires among Blacks are opposing the Estate tax:

    Ways and Means (West Wing season3 x episode3):
    President Bartlet :

    “It doesn’t matter if most voters don’t benefit, they all believe that someday they will. That’s the problem with the American Dream, it makes everyone concerned for the day they’re gonna be rich.”

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