The system justification theory
You have been working on system justification theory for more than twenty-five years. Could you explain what system justification means?
Yes, I have been working on the theory since I was a graduate student with Mahzarin Banaji years ago at Yale University. At the time, our idea was that existing theories in social psychology did a good job of explaining why people engage in self-serving tendencies (protecting their self-esteem and the interests and integrity of their self-concepts). Other theories did a good job of explaining how people engage in group-serving tendencies to protect the interests and esteem of the extended self, the group to which one belongs. But we felt that they did not adequately explain how the overarching social system affects everyone in society, regardless of their group memberships. We thought that in addition to self-serving and group-serving tendencies, there is also a system-serving tendency, such that people are inclined to accept the legitimacy of the status quo. The fact that people perceive the social system as something legitimate influences their behaviour, and it affects their stereotypes and public opinion in many different ways.
Do we all justify the system? How does it work?
First of all, there is not one system, there are many social systems. There is the nuclear family, our workplace, economic and political institutions, religious systems, the system of gender relations, and so on. Everyone wants to feel that at least some of these social systems are important, meaningful, and legitimate, because
we depend on them to make our lives predictable, meaningful, and safe.
We also share a commitment to these social systems with other people, with our families and friends. I think that, to some degree, everyone engages in these processes. Of course, some of us do it more enthusiastically than others. Some people tend to be more critical of social systems, and others defend some social systems but not others. There is plenty of room for individual and situational factors that shape not only the strength of system justification motivation, but also how it manifests itself.
You state that system justification serves psychological motives to attain certainty, security, and social belongingness. Could you explain what this means?
Believing in the legitimacy of institutions and arrangements allows us to feel more certain about the future, more safe and secure. There are social systems in place to protect us, such as the police, for instance. Justifying these systems enables us to feel a bond with our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and with mainstream society as a whole. Feeling that cultural traditions and economic and political institutions are, in general, legitimate and desirable satisfies these basic psychological needs.
Maybe it is easier to understand all of this by considering the case of social-political activism and what it requires of people, and why most people never engage in such activism. To be an activist—to be someone who is really trying to change the social system in fundamental ways—it is necessary to take on a huge amount of uncertainty, maybe even chaos, and a potential lack of personal safety.
You might face alienation and social exclusion
from other people who do not understand why it is so important to you to change the social system. I think this is a reason why burnout rates are so high among political activists.
There were several studies investigating the potential contextual differences related to system justification. Could you tell us about these studies, and how the US and Hungary, as a post-socialist country, could be different when it comes to system justification?
One thing we have found is that the overall levels of endorsement of system justification is lower in Hungary and other post-socialist countries in this region, including Poland, the Czech Republic and so on, than they are in Western European countries and in North America. We think that some of this is a kind of hangover from people’s inability to trust the Communist system, to trust authorities to treat people beneficially. However, the general processes still seem to be the same: the same variables that are related to system justification in Western Europe and North America are also applicable to the case of Central and Eastern Europe.
You mentioned the contextual variables that affect the strength of system justification. There are three we have the strongest evidence for at this point.
One is that people tend to behave in a more system-defensive way following a perceived threat to the legitimacy or stability of the status quo, especially a threat coming from outside of the social system. For instance, people often respond defensively when a foreigner criticizes the social systems in their country. Many Americans have this experience; we may be critical of certain things about our country when we are at home, but when we travel, for instance, to Europe, and people criticize the United States, we tend to respond more defensively. A far more dramatic example is what happened after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the United States, when we saw an increase in the justification of many different types of authorities and social systems, and this persisted for quite some time.
Another factor is feeling especially dependent of the system.
The more you increase people’s sense that they are dependent on the social system for their outcomes, and that they have no other opportunities to meet their needs, the more they tend to justify the system. If you are completely dependent on a social system for your own well-being, there is a sense in which you really want to believe that the authorities want to help you and that the system will protect you.
A third factor is that when people believe that the overarching social system is inevitable or inescapable or unchangeable, they tend to justify it more. When people see no viable alternatives, they tend to make peace with the status quo.
What lessons does this line of research teach the everyday citizen? Is it necessary to recognize, or to decrease system justification?
I think we should be careful about which social systems we are justifying and why. We should think long and hard about whether the systems we are committing ourselves to are in fact good, legitimate, fair social systems. The implications of my work are that people may justify even unfair social systems and perpetuate them for reasons that are irrelevant to the actual qualities of the system. This is potentially problematic; it is perhaps analogous to people staying in abusive relationships. Sometimes people stay in relationships that are not good for them. In such cases, they should look at the quality of that relationship, and if they want to make a change, they should take steps, however difficult, to make that change.
Likewise, people should know that there are social and psychological forces that may be leading them to remain loyal to the existing social system. So, it is not that system justification is all good or all bad. It is perfectly reasonable to defend and justify social systems that, upon serious reflection, you believe are truly important and good for people. For instance, I would justify the system of liberal democracy, because I believe it is better than illiberal, undemocratic alternatives. But we should think long and hard about why we like the social systems that affect us, why they are important to us, and we should realize that for social psychological reasons we sometimes defend regimes that are harmful to people and that are not the best we can do.
As a social psychologist, what topics do you think are the most important to investigate currently?
Once we get this pandemic behind us,
I believe that the biggest challenge—a problem that everyone all over the world faces—is climate change.
We cannot afford to continue doing little or nothing about it. One of the chapters in my new book, A Theory of System Justification, is about how system justification processes, including our commitment to the capitalist model of industrial production, contribute to inaction on environmental issues. Economic system justification leads people to deny or minimize the problem, or to simply wish it away, imagining that there is going be some technological solution at the last minute to save us all. I worry that this is wishful thinking, motivated by a desire to defend the ways we run our economies and how we have been treating the natural environment. Unless we are able to look at the status quo more critically and make some fundamental changes, it will be a huge problem for my children’s generation, their children’s generation, et cetera. It is something I worry about a great deal, even though the worst effects will happen after I’m gone.
How did you first get in touch with ELTE, and how this connection evolved later?
I was first in touch with ELTE through Professor Hunyady György. He was a friend of my dissertation adviser, William J. McGuire. In 1994 I participated in a summer school in Poland, and after that I travelled around the region and visited Hungary. At Bill’s suggestion, I tried to get in touch with Professor Hunyady. I could not meet him then, but we started a correspondence, and soon thereafter I read an important book that György had written on Stereotypes During the Decline and Fall of Communism. A few years later we met in Santa Barbara, California, when György visited my colleague, David Hamilton. After that, György invited me to a conference at ELTE in late 1999. I attended that conference, had a wonderful time—and completely independent of professional matters—I met Hunyady Orsolya, the daughter of Professor Hunyady. We fell in love and got married. We now have two daughters and have been together for over twenty years.
Because of that family connection,
I have visited Hungary often, usually twice a year.
Over the years I gave seminars, lectures, and taught in summer schools both at ELTE and the Central European University and got to know many faculty members and students. My connections to academics in Hungary are very important and valuable to me.
Your PhD supervisor, William J. McGuire was also elected as an honorary doctor of ELTE. What does your nomination as an honorary doctor of ELTE mean to you?
I happened to be there when Professor McGuire received the honorary doctorate in 2001. It was wonderful to see him receiving such appreciation from academics in another country, quite far away. It was a very moving experience for me, only a few days after 9/11. I had no conception at the time that this kind of recognition could happen to me. I am extremely grateful and honoured and humbled to be receiving this award. It means a great deal to me and to my whole family.