Justifying the system: why do disadvantaged people believe the game isn’t rigged?

Why do some people continue to believe that the system is fair, that this is a meritocracy, that they can win? Why do they fail to see the system as I do?

Intuitively, one would believe that those for whom the system doesn’t work–those in marginalised groups–would be those who express the most rage at the system. In fact, the converse is true: for example, people from economically deprived groups often believe capitalism to be fair and good, rejecting socialism. There is also a strong bias towards believing that profitable companies are more ethical than non-profitable companies, despite the opposite being true. Stereotypes flourish: black people are lazy and that is why they can’t get jobs; Polish people work insane hours and that is how they are stealing all our jobs. People will vote for political parties that do not represent them: for example, many economically deprived people vote for parties that endorse neoliberal ideologies, destroying services they access in favour of the pursuit of profit.

This seeming anomaly is explained by a psychological theory: System Justification Theory.

System Justification Theory posits that people are motivated to perceive the world around them as fair, that even though they themselves may be receiving the thin end of the wedge, the system is inherently just. This happens because people want to believe that the world is predictable, giving a sense of certainty and stability. Due to this motivation, people fall over themselves to justify the system.

It is comforting to believe that everything makes sense, and that the world isn’t all fucked up and crooked. It is more comforting to believe that people are poor because they don’t work hard enough, and they’re happier poor, anyway. It is more comforting to believe that women who are raped had probably done something wrong or deserved it–rather that than believe it could happen to anyone. It is easy to believe that immigrants are to blame for unemployment than it is to believe a corrupt capitalist system is streamlining the number of jobs to maximise profits.

System justification increases when people are thinking about their own mortality, or when they believe the world is not a safe place. Threats of terrorism and crime increase people’s belief in system-justifying ideologies.

I, of course, get frustrated when I see other people justifying a system which I believe to be unjust (though that may be because people who do not endorse system-justifying ideologies display higher levels of anger and frustration). However, there are consequences to system justification beyond me being a bit angry.

Psychologically, people who endorse system-justifying ideologies are happier and more satisfied with life, and less angry and frustrated, across the board. For advantaged people, additional benefits emerge: those who endorse system-justifying ideologies have higher levels of self-esteem and feel a greater sense of solidarity with people from similar social groups. For disadvantaged groups, the opposite is true: self-esteem is lower, and there is less solidarity with similar individuals.

Increased system justification also leads to increased perceptions of legitimacy of governments and institutions, and decreased support for social change: in other words, system justification may help maintain a fundamentally unjust and broken system.

Put together, it is unsurprising that very few class revolutions or civil rights movements are successful with the strong psychological barriers in the way.

Real-world implications of system justification have been measured with regards to beliefs about climate change and behaviours to protect the environment. In this study (unfortunately, paywalled), it was found that system justification led to climate change denial and a reduction in environmentally protective behaviours such as recycling.

The authors of the study then attempted to work with system-justifying beliefs to attempt to encourage environmentally protective behaviours, by informing participants that such behaviours were vital for protecting their way of life, and it was therefore patriotic. This had the desired effect: people changed their behaviour.

Such “system-sanctioned change” may represent a way of counteracting some of the negative effects of justifying the system, but it is difficult to see how it can have an effect on stereotyping and prejudice and building an altogether fairer society.

It is frustrating and anger-inducing to be unable to justify the system. I have enough rage, though, that I wish to see an end to hierarchical power structures. It keeps me fighting.

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