Procedural justice is the study of people’s subjective evaluations of the justice of decision making of conflict resolution procedures—whether they are fair or unfair, ethical or unethical, and otherwise accord with people’s standards of fair processes for interaction and decision making. Procedural justice is usually distinguished from subjective assessments of the fairness of outcomes (distributive justice) and the degree to which people feel that they are gaining or losing resources in the group (outcome favorability). Subjective procedural justice judgments have been the focus of a great deal of research attention by psychologists because people are widely found to be more willing to defer to others when they act through just procedures.
John W. Thibaut and Laurens Walker presented the first system set of experiments designed to show the impact of procedural justice. Their studies demonstrate that people’s assessments of the fairness of third-party decision-making procedures shape their satisfaction with their outcomes. This finding has been widely confirmed in subsequent laboratory and field studies of procedural justice.
What do people mean by a fair procedure? Four elements of procedures are the primary factors that contribute to judgments about their fairness: opportunities for participation, having a neutral forum, trustworthy authorities, and treatment with dignity and respect.
People feel more fairly treated if they are allowed to participate in the resolution of their problems or conflicts. The positive effects of participation have been widely found. People are primarily interested in presenting their perspective and sharing in the discussion over the case, not in controlling decisions about how to handle it.
People are also influenced by judgments about neutrality—the honest, impartiality, and objectivity of the authorities with whom they deal. They believe that authorities should not allow their personal values and biases to enter into their decisions, which should be made based on consistent rule application and the use of objective facts. Basically, people seek a level playing field in which no one is unfairly disadvantaged.
Another factor shaping people’s views about the fairness of a procedure is their assessment of the motives of the third-party authority responsible for resolving the case. People recognize that third parties typically have considerable discretion to implement formal procedures in varying ways, and they are concerned about the motivation underlying the decisions made by the authority with which they are dealing. They judge whether that person is benevolent and caring, is concerned about their situation and their concerns and needs, considers their arguments, tries to do what is right for them, and tries to be fair. In other words, people assess the degree to which they trust the authority.
Studies suggest that people also value having respect shown for their rights and for their status within society. They want their dignity as people and as members of the society to be recognized and acknowledged. Because it is essentially unrelated to the outcomes they receive, the importance that people place on this affirmation of their status is especially relevant to conflict resolution.
- Lind, E. A. & Tyler, T. R. (1988). The social psychology of procedural justice. New York: Plenum.
- Thibaut, J., & Walker, L. (1975). Procedural justice. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Tyler, T. R. (2000). Social justice: Outcome and procedure. International journal of psychology, 35, 117-125.
- Tyler, T. R., & Smith, H. J. (1998). Social justice and social movements. In D. Gilbert, S. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (4th ed., Vol. 2, pp. 595-629). New York: Oxford University Press.