Why People Justify Social Systems That Disadvantage Them


The paradox of the disadvantaged justifying authoritarian systems

It can seem paradoxical that people often justify the existing social system even when this comes at personal and collective costs [1]. System Justification Theory (SJT) provides a framework to understand what the motives and contexts behind this phenomenon are [2]. SJT posits that an underlying ideology is motivating the justification of social order in a way that contributes to the often-unconscious belief of inferiority most strongly among individuals of underprivileged groups [3]. It is not just passivity that gives way to the dominance of political elites [4]. Psychological and ideological processes related to resistance to change imply that albeit possible, change is often difficult [5]. Change is especially difficult if there is an ideological system in place that pronounces an authoritarian culture of inequality that, according to SJT, tends to reinforce itself as a ‘culture of justification’ [6]. The association of a nation with God further strengthens people’s confidence to justify the system [7].

Exposure to threat causes conservative shift

The political notion of discussion is persuasion [8] and SJT can be used to influence voters’ viewpoints. Studies found that people who were exposed to thoughts related to death became more supportive of conservative perspectives [9]. Exposure to threat, e.g. in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, indicated a possible shift towards increased approval rates for President George W. Bush [10]. Protests, from a socio-psychological perspective, are triggered by perceived injustice and related anger, social identification, and the faith in collective action. However, existential and relational needs for security can undermine these change antecedents [11]. Following this logic, employees, for example, show an enhanced tendency to deny flaws at their workplace especially in times of scarce labor markets [12].

System justification impedes critical consciousness

Although it is a myth that Western Societies are characterized by equality of opportunity, studies found that a majority’s belief in equality helps to justify a meritocratic ideology, i.e., that it is, given we all start with the same possibilities, fair that individual differences are rewarded. The motive to legitimize economic inequality is further blocking critical thinking capacities with severe consequences for the economic and psychological well-being of marginalized persons [13]. System threat defense mechanisms related to SJT, such as victim blaming, stereotyping, and inequality legitimization, can help reduce emotional anguish. However, the victims of a justified crisis often have to pay a high price for it [14]; a price that may be higher in the long-term than the price of protest to achieve positive change.

The role of psychologists in policymaking

It is essential to understand individuals’ view of the salience and scope of systems as they might be system justifiers of varying degrees related to different systems [1]. Also, one must be aware of how ideologies are advocated and reinforced, e.g., through political and societal structures. Psychologists should work in interdisciplinary teams together with policymakers to remove change-averse infrastructure and untrap citizens from the psychological barrier of system justification [15].

Should system justification be used by organizational leaders to evoke desirable behavior?

First, according to different missions of organizations (e.g., to generate profit, or to grow a movement, etc.), desirable behavior might differ too. Second, I think, even if the behavior of the employees is desirable, a responsible leader should be concerned about how this behavior is created. As system justification is a mostly unconscious and automatic psychological response to threat [1], it might not be the best basis to maintain desirable behavior sustainably. It may also be difficult to evaluate whether the lack of awareness is protective of the employees’ well-being or whether there are possible indirect taxes to consider. Rationalizing away inequalities to defense the status quo may seem to support fearful individuals [16]. However, being in control in one area may hinder progress in other areas. For example, studies found that women retaining power in their traditional household role prevented them from claiming more equality at the workplace [17]. Possibly not the best outcome for the women and the organization as workforce diversity may be useful for the innovation capacity of organizations in many cases [18]. As system justification works based on personal fear and lack of self-esteem, it is, for example, causing narcissistic personalities to justify hierarchy in the case they believe to benefit from it personally, i.e., having the chance to rise to the top [19]. I could often observe adverse outcomes related to selfish reasons and hidden agendas. Therefore, in summary, I would foster desirable behavior through increasing awareness and reward informed and transparent efforts towards desired outcomes.


[1] Ido, L. )., & Jost, J. ). (2011). Special issue: System justification theory motivated social cognition in the service of the status quo. Social Cognition, 29(3), 231-237. doi:10.1521/soco.2011.29.3.231

[2] Blasi, G., & Jost, J. T. (2006). System Justification Theory and Research: Implications for Law, Legal Advocacy, and Social Justice. California Law Review, 94(4), 1119-1168.

[3] Jost, John T., a., Mahzarin R. Banaji, a., & Brian A. Nosek, a. (2004). A Decade of System Justification Theory: Accumulated Evidence of Conscious and Unconscious Bolstering of the Status Quo. Political Psychology, (6), 881.

[4] Van der Toorn, J., & Jost, J. (2014). Twenty years of system justification theory: Introduction to the special issue on ?Ideology and system justification processes?. GROUP PROCESSES AND INTERGROUP RELATIONS, (4). 413.

[5] Stanley, M. L., Dougherty, A. M., Yang, B. W., Henne, P., & De Brigard, F. (2017). Reasons Probably Won’t Change Your Mind: The Role of Reasons in Revising Moral Decisions. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: General, doi:10.1037/xge0000368

[6] Mashele, R. (2015). Traditional Leadership and Democratic Governance: Using Leadership Theories to Calibrate Administrative Compatibility. Acta Universitatis Danubius: Administratio, Vol 7, Iss 2, Pp 27-36 (2015), (2), 27.

[7] Shepherd, S., Eibach, R. P., & Kay, A. C. (2017). ‘One Nation Under God’: The System-Justifying Function of Symbolically Aligning God and Government. Political Psychology, 38(5), 703-720. doi:10.1111/pops.12353

[8] Körösényi, A. (2005). Political Representation in Leader Democracy. Government & Opposition, 40(3), 358. doi:10.1111/j.1477-7053.2005.00155.x

[9] Zhu, L. )., Kay, A. )., & Eibach, R. ). (2013). A test of the flexible ideology hypothesis: System justification motives interact with ideological cueing to predict political judgments. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(4), 755-758. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2013.03.007

[10] Sterling, J., Jost, J. T., & Shrout, P. E. (2016). Mortality Salience, System Justification, and Candidate Evaluations in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. Plos ONE, 11(3), 1-21. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0150556

[11] Jost, J. T., Becker, J., & Osborne, D. (2017). Missing in (Collective) Action: Ideology, System Justification, and the Motivational Antecedents of Two Types of Protest Behavior. Current Directions In Psychological Science, 26(2), 99-108. doi:10.1177/0963721417690633

[12] Proudfoot, D., Kay, A. C., & Mann, H. (2015). Motivated employee blindness: The impact of labor market instability on judgment of organizational inefficiencies. Organizational Behavior And Human Decision Processes, 130108-122. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2015.06.008

[13] Godfrey, E. B., & Wolf, S. (2015). Developing Critical Consciousness or Justifying the System? A Qualitative Analysis of Attributions for Poverty and Wealth Among Low-Income Racial/Ethnic Minority and Immigrant Women. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 22(1), 93-103.

[14] Napier, J. L., Mandisodza, A. N., Andersen, S. M., & Jost, J. T. (2006). System Justification in Responding to the Poor and Displaced in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Analyses Of Social Issues & Public Policy, 6(1), 57-73. doi:10.1111/j.1530-2415.2006.00102.x

[15] Gifford, R. (2011). The Dragons of Inaction: Psychological Barriers That Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation. American Psychologist, 66(4), 290-302.

[16] Schlenker, B. R., Chambers, J. R., & Le, B. M. (2012). Conservatives are happier than liberals, but why? Political ideology, personality, and life satisfaction. Journal Of Research In Personality, 46(2), 127-146. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2011.12.009

[17] Williams, M. J., & Chen, S. (2014). When “mom’s the boss”: Control over domestic decision making reduces women’s interest in workplace power. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 17(4), 436-452.

[18] Mamman, A., Kamoche, K., & Bakuwa, R. (2012). Diversity, organizational commitment and organizational citizenship behavior: An organizing framework. Human Resource Management Review, 22(4), 285-302.

[19] Zitek, E. M., & Jordan, A. H. (2016). Narcissism predicts support for hierarchy (at least when narcissists think they can rise to the top). Social Psychological And Personality Science, 7(7), 707-716. doi:10.1177/1948550616649241

About mathias sager

Independent researcher, artist, social entrepreneur, and leadership and strategy advisor I was born in Zurich in 1975 and grew up in Switzerland. Currently, I’m living in Tokyo. I love open-minded people everywhere and the passion to working relentlessly for developing human potential, which is an overarching theme throughout all his work. I have extensive experience in leadership and management, organizational psychology research, and learning & development practice. I have worked as a teacher, a leadership trainer, as well as a senior manager responsible for client relationships, counseling, and virtual teams around the world. Also, I’m a social entrepreneur and serving as a strategy and leadership advisor in different ways. My goal is to inspire with interdisciplinary, innovative, and cross-cultural approaches to personal and professional development for the people’s individual well-being and common good alike. Continuously learning himself and keen to help, I appreciate any questions or feedback you may have at any time. Please connect here on any social media, as well as per direct email goodthings@mathias-sager.com.
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8 Responses to Why People Justify Social Systems That Disadvantage Them

  1. I seem to have trouble with commenting here.

    • mathias sager says:

      The only thing I see is that your comments need to be approved again, albeit they should be pre-approved. Will eventually remove this one here. Anyway, thanks for staying in contact, commenting, and your patience with the approvals:-).

  2. Hello Mathias,

    Thank you for sharing this post. I have linked your current excellent post to mine at soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/soundeagle-in-best-moment-award-from-moment-matters/, which also discusses some of the related issues uncovered by System Justification Theory (SJT).

    • mathias sager says:

      Hi. Thank you very much for linking these pieces together. Hope it helps to boost each other’s useful message a bit.

  3. Hi Mathias,

    I seem to have trouble with commenting on your blog. Could you kindly fix the problem, please?

  4. Hi Mathias – this is an interesting piece. I have always been curious about the use of propaganda by politicians to sway public sentiment. I wonder if they would heed the advise of psychologists or just use the information to cater to voters.

    • mathias sager says:

      Thank you very much for your kind comment and great question. Much appreciated.
      I think it is difficult to generalize individual politicians’ ethical choices, i.e., whether to follow evidence from, e.g., psychologists, for what serves people’s well-being versus what is required to be politically successful. From a system perspective, politics also needs to serve money/the capitalist system because it controls communication. Without funding, you don’t get your advertising across, and the funders (economy, financial industry, lobbyists, investors, and taxpayers) make sure the messages serve them well. Also, policymakers themselves might not be resistant to the system justification phenomenon, which results in ongoing promotion of sub-optimal policies. Even (psychological) research itself often is sometimes not entirely independent and creates results as expected by the system-justifiers (See also post about academic capitalism: https://mathias-sager.com/2017/10/07/culture-blindness-and-academic-capitalism/
      Again, these are less individual problems as I’m convinced everybody wants to do their best. It is, however, current economic and political systematics that often make it difficult for individuals just to do the best from a purely humanistic (and psychological) perspective.

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