A Theory of System Justification: A Précis
Why do we defend, bolster, and justify unjust social systems?
Posted June 9, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
By John Jost, Ph.D.
In the middle of the 16th century, a 22-year-old law student in France named Etienne de la Boétie wrote an essay entitled "Discourse of Voluntary Servitude" that was circulated among academics for centuries. In this work de la Boétie sought to understand:
... how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him... Surely a striking situation! Yet it is so common that one must grieve the more and wonder the less at the spectacle of a million men serving in wretchedness, their necks under the yoke, not constrained by a greater multitude than they, but simply, it would seem, delighted and charmed by the name of one man alone whose power they need not fear (de la Boétie, 1548/2008)
The author proposed three factors to explain the politics of obedience: (1) cultural inertia, the “force of custom and habit”; (2) manufactured consent, ideology, and propaganda; and (3) patronage, such that “tyrants surround themselves with dependents, who in turn have their own dependents” (Lukes, 2011).
For centuries scholars and literary figures have revisited de la Boétie’s questions about why people submit willingly, even enthusiastically, to the humiliations of the powerful. His description of voluntary servitude, sometimes referred to as self-domination, has much in common with Marxian concepts of ideological hegemony and false consciousness. Gramsci (1971), for instance, marveled at the “‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.”
Although it is clear that people sometimes rebel against unjust manifestations of authority, the persistence of inequality and exploitation leads historians to conclude that, “Rebellion is only an occasional reaction to suffering in human history; we have infinitely more instances of forbearance to exploitation, and submission to authority, than we have examples of revolt” (Zinn, 2002). The key question is why people are as accepting as they are of social injustice. This is the question that the theory of system justification seeks to answer.
A Theory of System Justification: Major Tenets
According to system justification theory, people are motivated to defend, bolster, and justify the social, economic, and political systems on which they depend for their existence and livelihood, as I have argued in my recent book (Jost, 2020): A Theory of System Justification.
More than 25 years ago, Mahzarin Banaji and I observed that social psychologists had done an admirable job documenting self-justifying tendencies to defend the interests, actions, and esteem of the ego and group-justifying tendencies to defend the interests, actions, and esteem of the extended ego (or in-group). They had not developed as rich an understanding of “the tendency to justify what exists,” which we termed system justification (Jost & Banaji, 1994).
We initially proposed system justification theory to account for the “participation by disadvantaged individuals and groups in negative stereotypes of themselves” and the phenomenon of out-group favoritism. The scope of system justification theory was subsequently expanded to account for a much wider range of outcomes than those associated with the internalization of inferiority. These included appraisals of legitimacy, fairness, deservingness, and entitlement; judgments about individuals, groups, and social systems; and the doctrinal contents of religious and political belief systems.
There are five major tenets of the theory in its current form:
- People are motivated—often at a non-conscious level of awareness—to defend, justify, and bolster aspects of the societal status quo, including existing social, economic, and political institutions and arrangements.
- As is the case with all other forms of human motivation, the strength of system justification motivation and its expression vary according to situational and dispositional factors. In particular, system justification motivation appears to be strengthened when: (a) the social system is criticized, challenged, or threatened, especially by outsiders; (b) it is perceived as longstanding, inescapable, or inevitable; and (c) the individual feels especially powerless or dependent on the social system and its authorities.
- System justification subjectively addresses epistemic, existential, and relational motives. That is, chronic or temporary psychological needs to reduce uncertainty, threat, and social discord should be associated with an increase in system justification motivation, all other things being equal.
- System justification serves the palliative function of making people feel better about the status quo; it is associated with positive affect and the absence of negative affect. Among other things, this may help explain why conservatives and rightists report being happier and more satisfied with their lives in comparison with liberals and leftists, even after adjusting for differences in wealth and income.
- At the same time, there are potential costs associated with system justification tendencies. For members of disadvantaged—but not advantaged—groups, justifying the existing social order may come at the expense of self-esteem, in-group attachment, and mental and physical health. Another potential problem is that system justification undermines the motivation for social change for those who are advantaged and disadvantaged by the status quo.
General (or Diffuse) System Justification
There are three major domains of life in which the implications of system justification theory have been investigated in some detail. They are general (or diffuse, that is, societal) system justification, economic system justification, and gender-specific system justification. General system justification is typically measured explicitly with an 8-item survey that includes items such as, “In general, you find society to be fair,” “Most policies serve the greater good,” and “Society is set up so that people usually get what they deserve” (Kay & Jost, 2003). One of the things we have discovered is that political conservatives (and people who identify as rightist rather than leftist) almost always score higher on the general system justification scale.
In countries as diverse as the United States, United Kingdom, Argentina, New Zealand, Lebanon, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Latvia, we see a significant positive correlation between conservative/rightist orientation and general system justification. There is only one country thus far in which we have observed a significant negative correlation. In 2017, a French translation of the general system justification scale was administered to a very large, nationally representative sample of nearly 25,000 citizens in France. Results revealed that general system justification was associated with liberal-leftist political orientation and support for immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers, as well as low (rather than high) levels of authoritarianism (Langer et al., 2020). We interpret these results as indicating that the secular-humanistic ideals of “liberté, egalité, fraternité,” which emerged during the French Revolution, are by now so well-entrenched that they have come to represent the establishment in France.
By contrast, national surveys conducted in the U.S. shortly before the 2016 presidential election revealed that Americans who score higher on general system justification are more politically conservative, more religious, and more strongly identified with the nation. They are also older, wealthier, more highly educated, and more likely to be male, in comparison with people who score lower on general system justification. High system-justifiers in the U.S. score lower on measures of egalitarianism and justice sensitivity from the perspectives of victims, observers, and beneficiaries.
Economic System Justification
Economic system justification is usually measured with a 17-item survey that includes items such as “Economic positions are legitimate reflections of people's achievements,” “Social class differences reflect differences in the natural order of things,” and “Most people who don’t get ahead in our society should not blame the system; they have only themselves to blame” (Jost & Thompson, 2000). In national surveys, we find that U.S. citizens who score higher on economic system justification tend to be older, wealthier, more religious, and to score higher on both general and gender-specific forms of system justification. They are also more likely to affiliate with the Republican Party and to score higher on symbolic (identification-based) and operational (issue-based) measures of social, economic, and political conservatism (Azevedo et al., 2017, 2019).
High economic system-justifiers in the U.S. also score higher on measures of right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation, and they score lower on measures of egalitarianism and justice sensitivity. They are less supportive of system-challenging social movements associated with feminism, environmentalism, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and LGBTQ+ rights, compared to those who score low on economic system justification.
In experimental research, we investigated the hypothesis that individuals who scored higher on economic system justification would be relatively undisturbed by economic suffering (Goudarzi et al., 2020). Specifically, we exposed research participants to videos focusing on the experience of homelessness and control videos that made no mention of poverty or inequality. When we asked participants how they felt while watching the videos about homelessness, low economic system-justifiers reported feeling more sadness, empathy, and pity directed at the homeless person, and they also reported feeling more anger, disgust, and sadness directed at the social system, in comparison with high economic system-justifiers.
Importantly, these differences were not confined to measures of verbal self-report. We also measured skin conductance levels and, using facial electromyography, muscular activity in the corrugator supercilii (furrowing of the brow), while participants watched the videos. We observed that low economic system-justifiers showed more signs of emotional arousal and distress when watching the homeless (vs. control) videos, whereas high economic system-justifiers did not. Thus, consistent with the palliative function of system justification, people who believe that the economic system is fair, legitimate, and desirable appear to be less distressed, even on a physiological level, by extreme forms of inequality (Goudarzi et al., 2020).
Economic system justification is also at work in the downplaying of economic concerns and skepticism about anthropogenic climate change. In experimental studies, we have found that people high in economic system-justification showed selective motivation in their memory for scientific information. For example, when we showed research participants information from scientific experts about the magnitude of increases in global temperatures and rises in sea levels, high (vs. low) economic system-justifiers misremembered the numbers as lower than they actually were (Hennes et al., 2016). Thus, our psychological dependence on the capitalist system—and the concomitant motivation to justify it—may be contributing to inaction when it comes to climate change (Jost, 2020).
Gender System Justification
Gender-specific system justification is measured with an 8-item questionnaire, which includes items such as “In general, relations between men and women are fair,” “Most policies relating to gender and the sexual division of labor serve the greater good,” and “Society is set up so that men and women usually get what they deserve” (Jost & Kay, 2005). According to national surveys in the U.S., men score higher than women on gender system justification, and those who score higher tend to be older, wealthier, more religious, and to score higher on other types of system justification. They are also more social and economically conservative and score higher on right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. High gender system-justifiers score lower on egalitarianism and justice sensitivity, and they are relatively unsupportive of feminism, environmentalism, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and LGBTQ+ rights (Azevedo et al., 2017, 2019; Jost, 2019).
In experimental studies, exposure to “benevolent” gender stereotypes of females as warm and caring and deserving of male appreciation and protection caused young women (but not men) to (a) score higher on gender-specific (and general) system justification scales (Jost & Kay, 2005); and (b) exhibit increased state self-objectification, self-surveillance, body shame, and appearance management (Calogero & Jost, 2011). In another program of research, exposure to “benevolent” sexism led women in Germany to withhold support for feminist collective action, and the effect was mediated by gender system justification as well as the perceived advantages of being a woman (Becker & Wright, 2011).
What About Social Change?
System justification motivation often leads people to perceive social change as threatening to the status quo and therefore to resist it—perhaps exemplified by President Trump’s nostalgic slogan (which he took from Ronald Reagan) of “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). At the same time, people are more willing to embrace social change when it is perceived as inevitable or extremely likely to occur, that is, part of a new or emerging status quo.
For instance, Kristin Laurin (2018) found that people were more likely to accept as legitimate legislative bans on public smoking and the use of plastic water bottles—as well as the new presidency of Donald Trump—immediately after these changes went into effect (vs. immediately before). People are also more open to social change when it is represented as congruent with the preservation of the social system and its ideals, as Danielle Gaucher and her colleagues observed in the context of Canadian politics. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced a new policy of openness to immigration from Syria, the government framed the changes as congruent with the “Canadian way,” and this apparently shifted stereotypes of immigrants (especially among high system-justifiers) in a more positive direction (Gaucher et al., 2018).
In the context of the 2016 Presidential election, we observed, again in a nationally representative sample of Americans, that system justification in domains of gender and economics predicted support for Donald Trump (and the other Republican candidates), but it predicted opposition to the Democratic candidates, namely Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. At the same time, general (or diffuse) system justification was associated with support for Clinton over Trump (Azevedo et al., 2017).
This overall pattern of results highlights the importance of distinguishing among various domains of system justification. The same individual may vigorously defend the capitalist economic system and the traditional, gendered division of labor within the family, but not the federal government—or vice versa. Trump supporters in 2016 tended to reject the “status quo” of liberal governance under President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. However, they often did not challenge the status quo in a deeper sense. Like other conservatives, Trump supporters tended to strongly justify gender-based disparities as well as economic disparities.
Typically, system justification operates as a brake on social change. Studies conducted in New Zealand and the U.S. demonstrated that Whites in both countries who scored higher (vs. lower) on general system justification identified more strongly with their own ethnic groups, experienced less system-based anger, supported politically conservative social movements, such as the MAGA movement, and opposed system-challenging collective action on behalf of the disadvantaged, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Among Maori people and African Americans, high (vs. low) system-justifiers were less likely to identify with their own ethnic group, perceived less injustice, experienced less system-based anger, and were less supportive of system-challenging collective action that would benefit their own groups (Osborne et al., 2019).
System justification theory is distinctive in postulating a general tendency to defend, bolster, and justify aspects of the societal status quo—not necessarily at a conscious level of awareness. The claim is not that people always or exclusively engage in system justification; there are plenty of other motives that may neutralize or outweigh system justification tendencies in any given situation. People may also justify some aspects of the social system but not others.
Individual and group differences in the strength of system justification motivation are linked both theoretically and empirically to variability in epistemic, existential, and relational needs to reduce uncertainty, threat, and social discord. System justification is associated with the legitimation of racial, gender, and economic inequalities, as well as short-term palliative benefits and long-term costs, especially for those who are disadvantaged by the status quo.
The tendency to defend, bolster, and justify the status quo can inspire people to celebrate and maintain institutions that, as far as we can tell, are truly just—such as democratic norms and practices. At the same time, it is sometimes an obstacle to the attainment of social justice, because system justification can lead us to deny and excuse aspects of our social systems that should be addressed sooner rather than later. There is no shortage of contemporary examples, including the ever-widening gap between rich and poor; racial disparities in policing and criminal sentencing; the devaluation and degradation of women and sexual minorities in public and private settings; and the serious, possibly irreparable, damage we are doing to the natural environment. Our ability to solve these problems depends upon many things, but one of them is the critical perspicacity required to transcend the power of the status quo.
This article also appears on the official website of the International Society for the Science of Existential Psychology (ISSEP).
Jost, J.T. (2020). A theory of system justification. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674244658
Azevedo, F., Jost, J.T., & Rothmund, T. (2017). “Making America great again”: System justification in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 3, 231-240.
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Zinn, H. (2002). Disobedience and democracy: Nine fallacies on law and order. Cambridge, MA: South End Press. (Original work published 1968)