Chrystia Freeland, the global editor-at-large at Thomson Reuters, recently wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times seeking to explain a recent study that revealed that Americans would prefer to live in a society “more equal than even highly egalitarian Sweden.” If this is true, asks Freeland, then why are Americans generally complicit in our vastly unequal capitalist system? Freeland offers as an explanation two phenomena, which she refers to as national self-confidence and the lottery effect. Readers of this blog will notice that these phenomena are outgrowths of System Justification Theory (SJT).
Freeland argues that national self-confidence manifests itself in a “widespread conviction that the American way is probably right because all those other ways don’t seem to work out so well. (despite the fact that the American way surely is not the best way to achieve socioeconomic equality). Additionally, she identifies what she calls “the lottery effect,” which she analogizes to the lottery – Americans buy lottery tickets, despite the infinitesimal odds of winning, because they see other people just like them winning the lottery every week. Freeland posits that “the nation’s rowdy form of capitalism is a lottery that has similarly bestowed fabulous rewards on the Everyman. The current leading exemplar of self-made billions is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and he may soon be outstripped by the even more instant cyber-star Andrew Mason, the founder of Groupon.”
Blasi and Jost’s article on SJT explains the underlying psychological processes behind these phenomena: “system justification serves a palliative function, operating as a coping mechanism for members of both advantaged and disadvantaged groups, reducing anxiety, uncertainty, and distress.” In other words, individuals rationalize the status quo in the ways identified by Freeland in order to minimize the negative effect of the dissonance between the world they wish to live in and the one they actually do live in. Further, the very asking of a question that calls into doubt the American way can increase the motive to justify, as system justification motives become most evident when we perceive a threat to the legitimacy of a system to which we are attached.
Unfortunately (from the perspective of those Americans who desire of a more egalitarian society), individual acts of system justification result in continued inequality. Increased system justification alleviates people’s negative emotional states, and thereby undermines support for the redistribution of resources and the desire to help the disadvantaged.