ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (7): 1637-1650.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.01637

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Exploring the effect of social inequality on system-justifying beliefs of the disadvantaged

ZHANG Yue1, DING Yi1, YANG Shenlong2, XIE Xiaona1, GUO Yongyu1()   

  1. 1School of Psychology, Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing 210097, China
    2Institute of Social Psychology, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Xi’an Jiaotong University, Xi’an 710049, China
  • Received:2021-11-22 Online:2022-07-15 Published:2022-05-17
  • Contact: GUO Yongyu


System-justifying beliefs reflect individuals’ system-supportive attitudes, which comprise perceptions of the fairness, legitimacy, and justifiability of the prevailing social system, as well as supportive and defensive attitudes toward this system. Previous research on the relationship between social inequality and the system-justifying beliefs of disadvantaged individuals remains inconclusive. On the one hand, self-interest-oriented theories (e.g., social identity theory) argue that inequality decreases the system-justifying beliefs of the disadvantaged, given that inequality conflicts with their self-interest. System justification theory, on the other hand, predicts that when inequality in the system is made especially salient, then system justification motivation is activated (or increased); thus, individuals (including the disadvantaged) would be more likely to defend and support the unequal status quo. Previous research has tested these two conflicting views, but failed to reach a consistent conclusion.
In this article, we intend to advance the debate by proposing a dual-process model. We argue that system justification theory is not, in fact, contradictory to self-interest-oriented theories, but that both of which jointly contribute to explaining the full picture of the relationship between social inequality and the system-justifying beliefs of the disadvantaged. Therefore, the focus of the debate is not whether inequality reduces or enhances their system-justifying beliefs, but rather when (i.e., the cognitive base) and how (i.e., the motivational base) inequality causes them to oppose or defend the status quo.
First, in terms of the cognitive base, we start our model by focusing on the construction, rather than the level, of inequality. From the constructivist perspective, individuals’ system-justifying beliefs depend on how the unequal system is processed psychologically. For the disadvantaged, inequality may pose different types of threats to them. On the one hand, inequality may threaten the interests of the disadvantaged at the individual or group level, which is termed a realistic threat. On the other hand, the unequal status quo may also conflict with their beliefs about the justice and legitimacy of the system around them, which is termed a symbolic threat. These two kinds of threats of inequality may affect their system-justifying beliefs differently.
Second, in terms of motivation base, self-interested motivation and system justification motivation cause disadvantaged individuals to oppose or defend the unequal status quo, respectively, and the two motivations conflict with each other. Previous research either examined the two motivations from opposite perspectives or overemphasized the role of one of them. In contrast, we believe that the two motivations are not all-or-nothing but can co-exist with each other. Therefore, it is necessary to clarify the conditions under which they operate, that is, what determines which of them is stronger and which of them plays a dominant role.
Third, we argue that distinguishing between realistic and symbolic threats of inequality is key to clarifying how self-interested and system justification motivations operate. In other words, different motivations drive the disadvantaged to either oppose or defend the unequal status quo, and which motivation plays a dominant role depends on how inequality is processed psychologically. Specifically, when the realistic threat of inequality at the individual or group level is salient, it is more likely to activate the self-interested motivation of the disadvantaged (and thus inhibit their system justification motivation), and in turn weaken their system-justifying beliefs. However, when the symbolic threat of inequality at the system level is salient, it is more likely to activate their system justification motivation (and thus inhibit their self-interested motivation), thereby enhancing their system-justifying beliefs.
Our dual-process model offers a new approach to bridging the research gap. Future research is needed to test and develop the dual-process model and to extend our knowledge regarding people’s response to the high and rising level of inequality around the world.

Key words: social inequality, system-justifying beliefs, system justification motivation, self-interested motivation, social governance

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