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.
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.