System Justification Definition
System justification refers to a social psychological propensity to defend and bolster the status quo, that is, to see it as good, fair, legitimate, and desirable. A consequence of this tendency is that existing social, economic, and political arrangements tend to be preferred, and alternatives to the status quo are disparaged. System justification refers, therefore, to an inherently conservative tendency to defend and justify the status quo simply because it exists, sometimes even at the expense of individual and collective self-interest.
System Justification Theory
To understand how and why people accept and maintain the social systems that affect them, social psychologists have developed system justification theory. According to system justification theory, people want to hold favorable attitudes about themselves (ego-justification) and their own groups (group-justification), and they want to hold favorable attitudes about the overarching social order (system-justification). Importantly, system justification theory holds that this motive is not unique to members of dominant groups, who benefit the most from the current regime; it also affects the thoughts and behaviors of members of groups who are harmed by it (e.g., poor people, oppressed minorities, gays, and lesbians). System justification theory therefore accounts for counter-intuitive evidence that members of disadvantaged groups often support the societal status quo (at least to some degree), even at considerable cost to themselves and to fellow group members.
Evidence for the System Justification Motive
Several lines of research have documented the means by which individuals engage in system justification. First, sociologists and psychologists have identified several distinct but related system-justifying ideologies adopted by members of both advantaged and disadvantaged groups in the service of rationalizing the status quo, including the belief in a just world, Protestant work ethic, meritocratic ideology, fair market ideology, power distance, opposition to equality, and political conservatism.
Second, evidence indicates that most people want to perceive existing authorities and institutions as largely benevolent and legitimate. The dominant tendency, at least in the Western world, is for people to trust and approve of their government, to restrict criticism of it, and to believe in the fairness of their own system. Similarly, most people disapprove of protest and radical social change. Paradoxically, these tendencies are (at least sometimes) most pronounced for members of disadvantaged groups, who would have the most to gain from the implementation of a new system.
Third, members of advantaged and disadvantaged groups tend to internalize intergroup preferences that reinforce and legitimate the existing social hierarchy. Hundreds of studies have shown that members of advantaged groups tend to exhibit ingroup favoritism (preferences for their own kind), whereas members of disadvantaged groups exhibit this tendency to a much lesser extent and in many cases show out-group favoritism (preferences for others who are more advantaged), especially but not exclusively on implicit (nonconscious) measures of preference. Outgroup favoritism among the disadvantaged maintains the status quo by accepting rather than supplanting existing forms of inequality.
Fourth, studies have also shown that consensual stereotypes (as well as evaluations) are used to differentiate between advantaged and disadvantaged groups in such a way that the existing social order, with its attendant degree of inequality, is seen as legitimate and even natural. For example, members of low-status groups are routinely stereotyped by themselves and by others as less intelligent, competent, and hardworking than members of high-status groups. At the same time, complementary, off-setting stereotypes also lead people to show increased support for the status quo, insofar as such stereotypes maintain the belief that every group in society benefits from the existing social system. For example, individuals who are exposed to “poor but happy,” “poor but honest,” “rich but miserable,” and “rich but dishonest” stereotype exemplars score higher on a measure of system justification than do individuals who are exposed to non-complementary stereotype exemplars.
If there is indeed a psychological motive to defend and justify the status quo, as system justification theory suggests, then people should be especially likely to exhibit the patterns of behavior described previous when the legitimacy or stability of the social system is threatened, as in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Numerous studies have indeed shown that there are increases in the endorsement of system-justifying beliefs and ideologies and the use of evaluations and stereotypes to differentiate between groups of unequal status in response to threats directed at the status quo.
Consequences of System Justification
In accordance with the motivational perspective of system justification theory, the successful rationalization of the status quo is associated with reduced negative affect and satisfaction of basic epistemic and existential needs (e.g., uncertainty reduction, threat management) for everyone in the system. However, the long-term consequences of system justification can differ for members of advantaged and disadvantaged groups. Whereas members of advantaged groups experience increased self-esteem and subjective well-being to the extent that they engage in system justification, members of disadvantaged groups who buy into the legitimacy of the system suffer in self-esteem and subjective well-being and hold more ambivalent attitudes about their own group membership.
System justification may also have detrimental consequences for society as a whole. Although there are hedonic benefits associated with minimizing the unjust and oppressive aspects of everyday life, processes of rationalization inhibit the motivation to change and improve the status quo, thereby undermining efforts to reform society’s institutions and to redistribute social and economic resources in a more just manner. By highlighting the ways in which people consciously and unconsciously defend and bolster the status quo, system justification theory helps explain why acquiescence in the face of injustice is so prevalent and why social change is so rare and difficult to accomplish.
- Jost, J. T., Banaji, M. R., & Nosek, B. A. (2004). A decade of system justification theory: Accumulated evidence of conscious and unconscious bolstering of the status quo. Political Psychology, 25, 881-919.
- Jost, J. T., & Hunyady, O. (2005). Antecedents and consequences of system-justifying ideologies. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 260-265.
- Kay, A. C., & Jost, J. T. (2003). Complementary justice: Effects of “poor but happy” and “poor but honest” stereotype exemplars on system justification and implicit activation of the justice motive. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 823-837.