Social Inequality and the Reduction of Ideological Dissonance on Behalf of the System: Evidence of Enhanced System Justification Among the Disadvantaged

By John T. JostBrett W. PelhamOliver SheldonBilian Ni Sullivan
2000| Working Paper No. 1671

According to system justification theory, people are motivated to preserve the belief that existing social arrangements are fair, legitimate, and justifiable (Jost & Banaji, 1994). The strongest form of this hypothesis, which draws on the logic of cognitive dissonance theory, holds that people who are most disadvantaged by the status quo would have the greatest psychological need to reduce ideological dissonance and would therefore be most likely to support, defend, and justify existing social systems, authorities, and outcomes. Variations on this hypothesis were tested in four U.S. national survey studies. We found that: (a) low income respondents and African Americans were more likely than others to support limitations on the rights of citizens and media representatives to criticize the government (b) low income Latinos were more likely to trust in U.S. government officials and to believe that the government is run for the benefit of all than were high income Latinos, (c) Southerners in the U.S. were more likely to endorse meritocratic belief systems than were Northerners and poor and Southern African Americans were more likely to subscribe to meritocratic ideologies than were African Americans who were more affluent and from the North, (d) low income respondents and African Americans were more likely than others to believe that economic inequality is legitimate and necessary, and (e) stronger endorsement of meritocratic ideology was associated with greater satisfaction with ones own economic situation. Taken together, these findings provide support for the dissonance-based argument that people who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject, or change it. Implications for theories of system justification, cognitive dissonance, and social change are also discussed.