Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jul 12, 2019

When and Why Do We Justify the Social Systems on Which We Depend?

by John T. Jost
Building a wall against protesters

When I was a boy, my favorite thing was to play Cowboys and Indians. I watched countless reruns of the TV show Gunsmoke. I loved tearing through the leafy neighborhoods of Cincinnati, Ohio in my cowboy hat, firing cap guns at scattering friends. But my cowboy fantasy came to a crashing halt when my parents called me into the dining room for a serious chat. They said, “We know that you love cowboys, but you need to understand that they were not really the good guys….” Reluctantly, I absorbed the moral lesson and retired my spurs. But the full significance of my parents’ words sank in many years later, when I came across these remarks of James Baldwin:

In the case of the American Negro, from the moment you are born every stick and stone, every face, is white. Since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose you are, too. It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.

The myriad ways in which we, without even realizing it, take the side of dominant groups and individuals, and in so doing, devalue the perspectives of those who are at their mercy has been my major topic of study for the last 25 years. I want to understand the shocking phenomena that Baldwin put his deft finger on and to probe his observation that “what the system does to the subjugated”—and, indeed, to the subjugators as well, “is to destroy his sense of reality.” In other words, I am trying to understand when and why people are motivated to maintain the social systems on which they depend, even if other systems might be better for them. We refer to this general phenomenon as “system justification.”

Research inspired by system justification theory suggests that people are motivated—not necessarily at a conscious level of awareness—to defend, bolster, and justify existing social, economic, and political institutions and arrangements because doing so serves fundamental psychological needs. For example, all of us want to feel some sense of certainty, security, and connection to mainstream society, and these desires can lead us to embrace system-justifying ways of thinking. Even simple actions like pledging allegiance to the flag or singing the national anthem can give us a much-needed—even if illusory—sense of order, safety, and solidarity. Unfortunately, however, some of the beliefs and ideas we hold are quite simply not good for us; they might even perpetuate our suffering, and in that sense, they do not serve our objective interests.

People are good at making virtues of necessity: we accept unwelcome social and political outcomes, including restrictions on freedom and equality, whenever they are perceived as inevitable or inescapable. Studies show that people are also more supportive of social systems as diverse as the caste system in India and the capitalist system in Europe and North America when they are made to feel that these systems are traditional and longstanding, rather than fairly recent historical occurrences.

We are especially likely to justify the social system when it is criticized or threatened, especially by an outsider, such as a foreigner. The feeling that immigrants or terrorists are coming in to ruin our country leads us to defend the current system even if it isn’t benefiting us all that much. Finally, we are more likely to legitimize inequalities in social, economic, and political systems to the extent that we feel powerless or dependent on those systems. Those who must feed their families seldom have the luxury of criticizing their bosses or their companies, let alone the economic system as a whole. In summary, then, we tend to defend and justify the social systems that affect us when we see them as inevitable, traditional, or under criticism or threat—and when we feel especially dependent on them.

Motivated system defense can also explain the backlash against those who dare to challenge the status quo. Think of the emotional intensity of the attacks on Colin Kaepernick for simply “taking a knee.” When my colleagues and I analyzed tweets sent during an Occupy Wall Street rally in New York City, we found hundreds of messages rejecting and disparaging the protestors, including these: “If your still apart of Occupy wall st. You either have no life, no ability to think for yourself, a wannabe or attention seeker or an idiot”; “#OWS you don't represent me nor the rest of this city. GTFO and let us go about our lives”; “The Occupy idiots are nothing but stooges - left brainwashed and ignorant by the liberal infiltration of our educational system.”

Over the last 25 years, my students, colleagues, and I have also examined the question of why people are driven, often unconsciously, to defend existing social, economic, and political institutions and arrangements. Our work suggests that fundamental desires to feel certain, secure, and connected to mainstream society lead us to embrace system-justifying ways of thinking. The net result is that we often have a hard time seeing clearly the flaws in the system and mobilizing to improve upon the status quo. One can only hope that by increasing our psychological understanding of the motivation to defend and bolster existing institutions and arrangements we can develop strategies to overcome it, so that people can work together more effectively to solve the many social, economic, environmental, and political problems that confront us.

John Jost grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, attended Duke University (A.B.) and Yale University (Ph.D.) and has been teaching at New York University since 2003. He lives in Greenwich Village with his wife, who is a psychoanalyst, and their two daughters.  

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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