ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2024, Vol. 32 ›› Issue (2): 386-397.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2024.00386

• Regular Articles • Previous Articles     Next Articles

System-justifying beliefs and mental health: The palliative function and an extension

XU Ronghua1, DING Yi1(), ZHANG Yue2, GUO Yongyu1   

  1. 1School of Psychology, Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing 210097, China
    2Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing 100732, China
  • Received:2023-05-12 Online:2024-02-15 Published:2023-11-23
  • Contact: DING Yi


System-justifying belief refers to the perception that the existing social system is fair, legitimate, and justified. System justification theory proposes that people are motivated to justify the system by adopting system-justifying beliefs, especially when they face stress events caused by social inequality (i.e., a threat and defense process). This has a positive effect on mental health, known as the palliative function. Specifically, it helps people accept their current situation by reducing negative emotions (e.g., anxiety and depression) and increasing positive emotions (e.g., hope), which leads to higher life satisfaction.

In this paper, we propose three main psychological mechanisms that explain how the palliative function can protect mental health, based on the defense perspective from system justification theory. These are: alleviating ideological dissonance, compensating for personal control, and denying or minimizing threats. Specifically, (1) Alleviating ideological dissonance occurs when individuals have a conflict between their beliefs about the reality and the ideal of the existing system. System-justifying beliefs help them restore their cognitive consistency by viewing the social status quo as desirable, which reduces negative emotions; (2) Compensating for personal control relates to the role of system-justifying beliefs in compensating for the lack of personal control and satisfying the need for certainty. They provide a stable external order and personal agency, which alleviates the psychological distress caused by uncertainty; (3) Denying or minimizing threats involves system-justifying beliefs creating psychological barriers for individuals. This mechanism filters and weakens their perception of internal and external threats of the system, and thus preserves their psychological well-being in threatening situations. In addition, we identify three boundary factors that may influence the effectiveness of these mechanisms. The first one is the contextual boundary, which is social inequality. The second one is the individual boundary, which is (low) social status related to wealth, gender, and race. The third one is the temporal boundary, which refers to the difference between short-term and long-term effects. Some researchers have argued that system justification as a psychological defense mechanism can only temporarily reduce the negative impact of the current threat on individuals, but cannot really improve their living conditions. Therefore, the palliative function of system-justifying beliefs may not be consistent over time.

System justification theory has explained how and when system-justifying beliefs protect mental health from the perspective of psychological defense, which is the dominant view in related fields. However, we argue that this defense perspective has two limitations. First, the individual’s perception of system fairness is not only driven by some defensive motivation (i.e., motivational component), but may also reflect the outcome of individual non-motivational processes (i.e., cognitive component), such as a realistic assessment of the social reality or a by-product of some basic cognitive process. We propose that there may be a dual function of system-justifying beliefs on maintaining mental health. While the motivational component provides a temporary and passive psychological defense function, the cognitive component, which indicates the perception and judgment of the fairness of the social system, may offer a more stable and active coping function. Second, based on the research of adaptive processes in clinical psychology, we suggest that system-justifying beliefs maintaining personal mental health can also be divided into two types of patterns: defense and coping. Defense is an unconscious, passive, and unintentional response, while coping is a conscious, active, and problem-solving-oriented response. We propose that system-justifying beliefs, as a cognitive construct, also have the function of influencing the individual’s “coping” response, that is, by enhancing the individual’s coping resources, which can in turn preserve the individual’s mental health. Studies have shown that system-justifying beliefs are positively correlated with many coping resources, such as optimistic mindset, trust and cooperation, group identification and perceived mobility, which help individuals adopt positive coping strategies and lead to better mental health. Based on analyzing and addressing these two questions, we finally construct a defense-coping model, which posits that system-justifying beliefs maintain personal mental health through two paths: the defense path (i.e., palliative function) and the coping path.

We conclude by discussing some key issues that warrant further research attention, including the negative effects of system-justifying beliefs on individuals, groups, and society; the improvement of the measurement of system-justifying beliefs; and the expansion of the inquiry.

Key words: system-justifying belief, mental health, palliative function, the defense-coping model

CLC Number: