ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2016, Vol. 48 ›› Issue (11): 1467-1478.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2016.01467

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Do lower class individuals possess higher levels of system justification? An examination from the social cognitive perspectives

YANG Shenlong1; GUO Yongyu1; HU Xiaoyong1,2; SHU Shouli1,3; LI Jing1   

  1. (1 School of Psychology, Central China Normal University, Key Laboratory of Adolescent Cyberpsychology and Behavior, Ministry of Education, and Hubei Human Development and Mental Health Key Laboratory, Wuhan 430079, China) (2 Faculty of Psychology, Southwest University, Chongqing 400715, China) (3 School of Educational Science, Anhui Normal University, Wuhu 241000, China)
  • Received:2016-01-27 Published:2016-11-25 Online:2016-11-25
  • Contact: GUO Yongyu, E-mail:


According to system justification theory, lower class individuals are more likely to view social system as legitimate than those from higher class. Yet, the opposite pattern emerged in many empirical studies suggesting that system justification was stronger among individuals from higher class relative to lower class counterparts. Recently, a cognitive perspective of system justification theory proposes that people express a salient tendency of internal attribution when explaining socioeconomic disparities, which serves as a main source of system justification. Given the fact that individuals from lower social class are characterized by contextualized cognitive style and external attribution, they may attribute socioeconomic disparities to external factors, and thereby are less likely to support the social system. Thus, we expected that 1) one’s social class was positively correlated with system justification, and 2) an internal attribution for the gap between the rich and the poor played a mediating role. Moreover, studies derived from social cognitive theory of social class demonstrate that the increase in perceived control have potential to help lower class individuals shift their attributional styles from external to internal. We further hypothesized that 3) perceived control could moderate the mediation model proposed in hypothesis 2. Two studies were designed to test these three hypotheses with different strategies. In Study 1, 241 college students with different levels of subjective social class were randomly assigned into high or low perceived control priming conditions, and then assessed their attributional tendency regarding the rich-poor gap and system justification, so that the moderating effect of perceived control on the mediation model could be tested. In study 2, 829 college students from four universities of different levels received scales of social class, perceived control, attributional style for the rich-poor gap and system justification to examine the hypothesized relationships in their actual lives. The results supported all of the three hypotheses. Firstly, social class was positively associated with system justification. That is, lower social class individuals exhibited fewer tendencies to support the social system. Secondly, attributional tendency for the rich-poor gap mediated this relationship between social class and system justification. Lower class individuals were less likely to attribute the disparities between the rich and the poor to internal factors (e.g., personal striving, ability), and also displayed lower level of system justification. Thirdly, the hypothesized moderated mediation model was also supported; that is, the mediating effect of attribution between social class and system justification was moderated by perceived control. When perceived control was low, the mediating effect was significant; however, when perceived control was high, lower class individuals’ internal attributional tendency would become as high as those of higher class, resulting in the absence of the mediation model. Both of the two studies supported consistenly all of the above hypotheses. These results support and expand the cognitive perspective of system justification theory, which emphasizes the cognitive basis of one’s system justification but fails to consider the differences between classes. This study also proposes an extension to the social cognitive theory of social class by combining different social classes’ social cognition with their system justification. In addition, the connection of the two theories forms a more comprehensive picture of class, cognition, and justification. Therefore, the present research is based on social cognitive perspectives. Furthermore, this study demonstrates that perceived control can moderate the mediation model. This is not only a further theoretical exploration, but a noteworthy suggestion for social governance that lower class individuals’ internal attribution and system justification can be altered by an increased sense of mastery of themselves and a decreased sense of restriction from the society.

Key words: social class, system justification, attribution for the gap between the rich and the poor, perceived control, social cognition