System Justification Theory

3 Feb

In System Justification Theory and Research: Implications for Law, Legal Advocacy, and Social Justice, Gary Blasi and John Jost outline a model of social psychology they call system justification theory (SJT). According to Blasi and Jost, in addition to the well-established theories of ego justification (that is, our psychological need to think well of ourselves) and group justification (our psychological need to think well of the groups that we identify and associate with), there is a third related phenomenon: namely, system justification. While ego justification accounts for our tendency to privilege ourselves above others and to think and behave in ways that are self-serving, and group justification accounts for our tendency to give preference to members of our group over outsiders, Blasi and Jost argue that system justification is needed to fill out the picture, because we need to account for why marginalized members of society tend to support the current social order, even though it disadvantages them, thus defying the rational actor model inherent in our social institutions, particularly the legal system.

The status quo has an edge...

According to the rational actor model, members of disadvantaged groups should be trying to undermine the current regime, since, by definition, it disadvantages them. Instead, as demonstrated by various empirical studies, they seem to be zealous advocates (so to speak) of the status quo. Blasi and Jost argue that SJT can account for this seeming contradiction because, unlike the rational actor model, it posits that people will generally support the status quo, regardless of whether it advantages or disadvantages them.

In fact, our defense of the status quo becomes even more ardent when we perceive the current system to be threatened. For instance, Blasi and Jost cite one study in which people were asked to assign punishments to hypothetical defendants. For crimes that the researchers represented as being common but rarely punished — and thus an implicit threat to the existing social order — people assigned much more severe punishments to defendants accused of that crime than to defendants accused of crimes represented as being more frequently successfully prosecuted  (129-30). However, we have the opposite reaction to the status quo when we view the regime change as “inevitable” (134-35), which may explain the phenomenon we are now seeing with regard to Americans’ changing attitudes to same-sex marriage, although it is unclear what is needed for a regime change to be considered “inevitable.”

So what happens when we endorse the status quo and adopt system-justifying ideologies? Studies show that in the short term, the acceptance of the status quo by disadvantaged members of society results in greater satisfaction at work and at home, indicating that system justification serves a “palliative function” (132). However, in the long run, their support of the status quo leads to cognitive dissonance, because their need to think well of themselves and their social groups necessarily conflicts with their low status in society. In other words, for disadvantaged members of society, ego justification and group justification will inevitably conflict with system justification because members of these groups will not be able to reconcile their positive perception of themselves and their social groups with their simultaneous support of a system that marginalizes them.

One of the reasons that society may be resistant to this model, as Blasi and Jost suggest, is that it necessitates accepting that our biases can be implicit (that is, unconscious) as well as explicit. The rational actor model is more comforting, because it assures us that we are in full control of our beliefs and behavior. If we have control over them, we can change them. And if we don’t change them, that must be because they are fine the way they are (and of course they are fine, because why else would we have them?).

Overall, SJT provides a persuasive account of the phenomena that Blasi and Jost seek to explain in the chapter. In the same vein as theories like “belief in a just world”, SJT offers a further insight into how we conjure up rationalizations for our situation in life because we do not want to believe — or cannot believe — that it is random or out of our control. Blasi and Jost also suggest a variety of ways in which SJT could be incorporated into the legal system, something that is desperately needed if the law’s foundational view of human behavior — which is to say, the rational actor model — is so far off the mark.


14 Responses to “System Justification Theory”

  1. davidasimon January 30, 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    In the interest of providing some fodder for class tomorrow: I don’t think the authors laid out a particularly convincing way of implementing SJT into the law. Without going into the details, it seemed like some of their arguments emphasized things that good lawyers should already know (e.g., how to frame an issue).

    • Rachel Funk January 30, 2011 at 10:28 pm #

      I disagree. After all, to use your example, good lawyers can take different views on how to frame a case — SJT just provides some psychological grounding for why some frames might be more effective than others, even though they might seem counterintuitive to lawyers not otherwise familiar with mind science theories like this one.

  2. riopierce January 31, 2011 at 1:34 am #

    I didn’t think the focus of the article was providing a way to implement the insights of SJT into the law. Although not explored in the article, much of the foundational rhetoric of the law (justice, justice, and more justice) can be seen as the sort of discourse that you would expect from those under the sway of SJT. Particularly important in this regard is the fact that the primary speakers of law’s values (judges and prominent attorneys) are those who have stayed on the right side of the law, so the system seems quite right to them.

    Although I enjoyed the article, I was troubled by its vagueness in defining the word, system. It seems there’s a great deal of overlap between systems and groups. Furthermore, at what macro level are the authors considering system? It seemed primarily they meant the entire United States, but then why not North America, or the World at large. I may not have read carefully, but I also thought that the authors were relatively unclear about how the various studies they explained managed to separate and distinguish between self-justification, group-justification, and system-justification. I understand the separation in a certain subset of cases, primarily revolving around economic inequality, but that seemed to be a limited group.

    Also, this may be a somewhat heretical point, but is system justification, at least from the selfish personal view of the system justifier, such a bad thing? System justification, in allowing us to sleep safely in our beds while hundreds of millions of people live in dire poverty, can be considered highly beneficial to our well being.

    • DAS January 31, 2011 at 1:57 am #

      “Also, this may be a somewhat heretical point, but is system justification, at least from the selfish personal view of the system justifier, such a bad thing? System justification, in allowing us to sleep safely in our beds while hundreds of millions of people live in dire poverty, can be considered highly beneficial to our well being.”

      No, but the point seems to be that an unjust system can persist in the face of injustice. That seems particularly harmful in cases where the injustices are diffuse and significant. Maybe the fact that we can rationalize suffering has beneficial consequences for the non-suffers–but it certainly doesn’t help those dying of hunger, genocide, etc. . . . .

      I think, though, you were probably taking a more functionalist approach: because we can never achieve perfect justice (if it exists, however you define it), SJ may be a necessary response to living in any system. Without it, in other words, a system would break down. Is that what you were driving at?

      • riopierce January 31, 2011 at 2:31 am #

        Well yes, I was only speaking from the point of view of the ‘selfish system justifier.’ System justification doesn’t produce good results for those who are not helped by the system. I was speaking of the, as you say, functionalist viewpoint. If hundreds of millions of people are in poverty, and the system is largely immobile (especially with all these darn sjt-ers holding it up), then what happens to one largely immune to the siren charms of SJT. This individual may be able to help a hundred people, a thousand, several thousand, but at some point there is a probable limit to the amount of good that they create in the world and there will remain millions upon millions in dire straits. Will that person remain bedeviled and unhappy by the cruelty of the system, while an SJT-er is complacent and far happier, thinking everything is in its right place? If we take a highly limited and highly flawed view that normatively prioritizes personal happiness, I think there’s at least a case that the SJT-er will be better off than the do-gooder. However, I think the flaw in my own model is that a person’s placement on the SJT scale will determine how happy they are. A do-gooder would be even more unhappy doing nothing, than doing something with real but limited benefit; while an SJT-er would be more unhappy doing something than nothing; after all, according to him, everything is fine.

    • Rachel Funk January 31, 2011 at 2:11 am #

      With regard to whether system justification is a good thing, I think that is answered by the short-term and long-term effects observed. That is to say, in the short run, it allows us to sleep safely in our beds, but in the long term, it has the opposite effect (i.e., has an adverse effect on our well-being) because we don’t know how to reconcile our justification of the status quo with other experiences or biases that we have which may conflict with it.

      • riopierce January 31, 2011 at 2:23 am #

        This seems to have been Joost’s argument as well, although his argument seemed particularly geared to the harmful effects on minority individuals who were heavy SJT-ers. I would like to think that those who SJT away the world’s problems will suffer some eventual psychological retribution. It seems eminently justified on a karmic level. However, I’d be curious to see whether the data actually supports such a finding.


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