Justifying the Unjustifiable

Still having a ridiculously busy week. Today I go lecture a world religions class on religious skepticism. With two days notice. Luckily, I’ve done this before, but it still takes time to prep and to do. So don’t read me today. Read Crommunist.

I’ve been meaning to link to this series for a while. It ties in quite nicely with my interest in the effects of a just world belief (which I will someday write much more on). Like the just world belief, system justification theory goes a long way toward explaining why and how we accept inequalities and injustices that are fundamentally unacceptable. Crommunist, of course, does his usual excellent job at explaining it all.

Part 1

The topic under scrutiny is the seemingly counter-intuitive behaviour we often see from oppressed (the paper uses the term ‘low-status’) groups, wherein they buy into the propaganda about their oppressors. Why, for example, do some black children identify a white doll as the “nice” one in studies of preference? Why do many women engage in some of the same anti-feminist misogyny that you’d expect to be exclusively male? Why do people with low incomes vote for Republicans, or support policies that work directly to their own economic disadvantage? It’s so counter-intuitive as to be almost comical – why would people act in ways that are directly contrary to their self-interest?

Put the way a childhood bully might, “why are you hitting yourself?”

Part 2

Above, the authors illustrate 5 specific mechanisms by which the inclusion of systemic justification explains the seemingly-idiosyncratic phenomenon of disadvantaged people propping up the same systems that keep the boot on their neck. Keep in mind, as you read through all of these, that the phenomena described are only operative in cases where the wish to preserve the status quo is stronger than the wish to change it. We all have the motivation to keep things the same, but it operates at varying levels in different people and can be influenced by a whole number of things: suffering, self-efficacy, opportunity, you get the idea.

Part 3

The authors of the paper suggest that, like many explanations for seemingly-irrational behaviour, the answer to the question of system justification may be found only by measuring ways in which people’s actions betray their subconscious thought processes. The question of favourability bias certainly came to mind: how can we be sure that favourable attitudes toward those on the higher side of power divides aren’t just evidence that minorities are just ‘nicer’? It might not be that there is genuine preference for those at the ‘top’, but rather that there is something about being on the ‘bottom’ that makes you less likely to criticize your betters. How could we measure that?

Part 4

As you can see from the above graph, the more conservative beliefs held, the more likely people (well, white people, apparently. Straight people too) are to hold ingroup-biased attitudes. Interestingly, this is true of both implicit and explicit attitudes, which means that white conservatives are more likely to admit that they prefer other white people. Nothing ground-breaking or shocking about that, I suppose (unless you’re one of those conservatives that believes that liberals are the “real” racists). What is interesting, however, is what happens when you compare the two plots for black responders.

Part 5

If you are part of a low-status group, and you believe that you deserve to be part of this group, then it must be because your past work has been shoddy. At least more so than your future work. This is particularly illuminating because it explains, at least in part, why we see an income gap between men and women. Aside from the systemic sexism of the market, there’s also a drive toward self-limitation that discourages women from pursuing success, and teaching them to think less of their own achievements.

Part 6

If you live in a place where there are people who have a great deal, and many of those who ain’t got, but you wish to retain a belief that the world is a fair place (known as the “just world hypothesis”), your brain has to work a lot harder to reconcile the disparities you see. As a result, you’ll see much more rationalization of the system than you would in a place that looks more egalitarian. This one is perhaps the most difficult to study (the authors acknowledge this as well), since there is a chicken/egg phenomenon to be teased out. Insofar as conservativism is synonymous with system justification, are places that are more liberal more equal, or does increased equality lead to increased liberalism? Is there a synergistic effect, or is it cause/effect?

Part 7

The brain wishes to satisfy all three of these components at the same time. If you’re on the high side of a social disparity (income, sex, orientation, race), then this is very easy. It is, in fact, self-reinforcing: I like me, I like those who are similar to me, and look how awesome we’re doing – it’s because we deserve it. Those of us who pay attention to these things call this by a name that will likely be familiar to many in this community: we call it ‘privilege’.

Part 8

Having summed up my lengthy exploration of System Justification Theory, I teased you this morning with the question that you’ve likely been asking youself from the beginning: now that we know about system justification, what can we do to correct for it? Are we doomed to keep making the same mistakes, or can we overcome our terrible mammal brains and become better critical thinkers?

Justifying the Unjustifiable
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3 thoughts on “Justifying the Unjustifiable

  1. F

    Wow. That’s a plate-full to chew on. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you neglect your readers.

    Best wishes to you in your very busy week. 🙂

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