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A Decade of System Justification Theory:

Accumulated Evidence of Conscious and Unconscious

Bolstering of the Status Quo

John T. Jost

Department of Psychology, New York University

Mahzarin R. Banaji

Department of Psychology and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study,

Harvard University

Brian A. Nosek

Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

Most theories in social and political psychology stress self-interest, intergroup conflict, ethnocentrism,

homophily, ingroup bias, outgroup antipathy, dominance, and resistance.

System justification theory is influenced by these perspectives—including social identity

and social dominance theories—but it departs from them in several respects. Advocates of

system justification theory argue that (a) there is a general ideological motive to justify the

existing social order, (b) this motive is at least partially responsible for the internalization

of inferiority among members of disadvantaged groups, (c) it is observed most readily at

an implicit, nonconscious level of awareness and (d) paradoxically, it is sometimes

strongest among those who are most harmed by the status quo. This article reviews and

integrates 10 years of research on 20 hypotheses derived from a system justification perspective,

focusing on the phenomenon of implicit outgroup favoritism among members of

disadvantaged groups (including African Americans, the elderly, and gays/lesbians) and

its relation to political ideology (especially liberalism-conservatism).


ideology, system justification, intergroup relations, implicit bias

There is a cluster of related theories that are by now so prevalent in social

science that they strike the contemporary reader as self-evidently true. Although

these theories are by no means indistinguishable, they share a set of common features,

including the tenets that groups serve their own interests, develop ideolo-

Political Psychology, Vol. 25, No. 6, 2004

0162-895X © 2004 International Society of Political Psychology

Published by Blackwell Publishing. Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ


gies to justify those interests, have strong preferences for members of their own

kind, are hostile and prejudicial toward outsiders, and are conflict-seeking whenever

it helps to advance their partisan interests and particularistic identities. For

the sake of classification—and in order to contrast them with our own approach—

we refer to these as “group justification” theories (see also Jost & Banaji, 1994).

They hold that people are driven by ethnocentric motives to build ingroup solidarity

and to defend and justify the interests and identities of fellow ingroup

members against those of outgroup members. Such theories may contain one or

more of the following specific assumptions:

Similar others are preferred to dissimilar others. (Allen & Wilder, 1975;

Brewer, 1979; Tsui, Egan, & O’Reilly, 1992)

Prejudice is a form of hostility directed at outgroup members. (Adorno,

Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950; Allport, 1954; Brown,

2000b; Pettigrew, 1982)

Intergroup relations in society are inherently competitive and conflictridden.

(Bobo, 1988; Sherif, 1967; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999)

Intergroup behavior is driven primarily by ethnocentrism and ingroup

favoritism. (Brewer & Campbell, 1976; Brewer & Miller, 1996; Sumner,

1906; Tajfel & Turner, 1986)

Prejudice, discrimination, and institutionalized oppression are inevitable

outcomes of intergroup relations. (Sidanius & Pratto, 1993)

Members of dominant groups strive to impose their hegemonic will on

members of subordinated groups. (Fiske, 1993; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999)

Members of subordinated groups first seek to escape the implications of

group membership by exercising individual exit and mobility options.

(Ellemers, Wilke, & van Knippenberg, 1993; Hirschman, 1970; Tajfel,


When individual exit/mobility is impossible, members of subordinated

groups engage in identity enhancement strategies of resistance and competition.

(Scott, 1990; Spears, Jetten, & Doosje, 2001; Tajfel & Turner,


In coping with chronically threatened social identities, members of subordinated

groups typically express stronger levels of ingroup favoritism

than do members of dominant groups. (Leach, Spears, Branscombe, &

Doosje, 2003; Mullen, Brown, & Smith, 1992)

Political ideology mirrors/group membership individual and collective

self-interest and/or social position. (Centers, 1949; Downs, 1957; Olson,

1971; Sidanius, Singh, Hetts, & Federico, 2000)

882 Jost et al.

A sense of injustice is triggered by violations of relative standards or

established fairness norms. (Deutsch, 1985; Gurr, 1970; Taylor &

Moghaddam, 1994; Walker & Smith, 2002)

In the social scientific imagination, it is as if the advantaged are relentlessly

looking to cash in on their dominance and the disadvantaged are proud revolutionaries-

in-waiting. Both types of groups are seen as primarily self-interested,

and overt conflicts of interest are assumed to be endemic.

In this paper, we question these common, almost ubiquitous assumptions and

make a case for a contrary perspective. We challenge these conventionally

accepted principles not because we think that they are unhelpful or incorrect or

fail to capture the modal case, but because the many notable exceptions and deviations

are instructive, revealing, and helpful for creative theory-building (see

McGuire, 1997). The received view is a good story, but it is not the whole story.

We think that it needs to be supplemented with an alternative theoretical perspective

that takes the important exceptions seriously. In this article, we further

advance a psychological theory of

system justification, defined as the “process by

which existing social arrangements are legitimized, even at the expense of personal

and group interest” (Jost & Banaji, 1994, p. 2). Specifically, we review 10

years of research stimulated by a system justification perspective on intergroup

relations, and we present some new data pertaining to the ideological basis of

conscious and nonconscious intergroup attitudes.

The Accumulation of Evidence Against the Received View

In recent years, evidence against the propositions listed above has been accumulating,

and a number of commentators have begun to express dissatisfaction

with pieces of the received view. Jackman (1994), for instance, railed against

“conflict theories” of intergroup relations and the conception of prejudice as “irrational

antagonism.” She suggested that, from a system maintenance perspective,

there is far more to be gained by members of dominant groups fostering cooperative,

even affectionate relationships with their subordinates. Her historical and

survey research shows that dominants and subordinates are highly averse to conflict

and antagonism and generally develop collaborative relationships, even

within the context of dramatically inegalitarian institutions such as slavery. Glick

and Fiske (2001) similarly criticized Allport’s (1954) popular definition of prejudice

as antipathy for failing to explain benevolent forms of sexism. They showed

that seemingly favorable attitudes toward women can help to sustain gender

A Decade of System Justification Theory 883

The assumption of universal self-interest, whether made by social scientists or lay people, may itself

contribute to system justification, insofar as it justifies self-interested behavior on the part of advantaged

group members by suggesting that everyone—including members of disadvantaged groups—

equivalently embraces self-interest (which is not the case, as we will show).

inequality and discriminatory systems and should therefore be considered prejudicial,

even though such attitudes are highly appealing to many women (e.g.,

Kilianski & Rudman, 1998). The weight of evidence is also mounting against the

notion that ingroup bias is a default feature of intergroup relations and that

members of low-status groups typically use a wide repertoire of identity enhancement

strategies. To take one example from the survey literature, Sniderman and

Piazza (1993) found in a large, nationally representative sample that African

American respondents generally accepted unfavorable stereotypes of their own

group as lazy, irresponsible, and violent. Indeed, they endorsed these stereotypes

even more strongly than European American respondents did. Experimental and

field studies have since shown that members of disadvantaged groups often hold

ambivalent, conflicted attitudes about their own group membership and surprisingly

favorable attitudes toward members of more advantaged groups (e.g., Jost

& Burgess, 2000; Jost, Pelham, & Carvallo, 2002). On the basis of these and

other findings, Smith and Mackie (2002) concluded that intergroup attitudes

are more complex and differentiated than the received view allows. Ingroup

favoritism and outgroup derogation may be relatively common, but they are by

no means the only reactions that people have to social groups, especially when

status and power differences are involved.

Miller (1999) argued persuasively that self-interest is a product of social and

cultural norms rather than a universal “fact” about human motivation. Empirical

studies conducted by Miller and Ratner (1998) demonstrate that group memberships

have much weaker effects on social attitudes than observers assume. With

regard to political attitudes, there is notoriously little correspondence between

indicators of self-interest (such as income, social class, and demographic group

membership) and ideology (e.g., Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003a;

Lane, 1959/2004; Lipset, 1981; Sears & Funk, 1991; Sidanius & Ekehammar,

1979; Stacey & Green, 1971; Wilson, 1973). Even on issues that should be highly

relevant to considerations of self-interest, such as policies of economic distribution,

research repeatedly shows that low-income groups are scarcely more likely

than high-income groups to support such policies, although they would obviously

benefit from them (Fong, 2001; Gilens, 1999; Jost, Pelham, Sheldon, & Sullivan,

2003; Kluegel & Smith, 1986). In a similar vein, Newman (2002) concluded on

the basis of her urban ethnographic work that, in defiance of current sociological

theories, “ghetto dwellers are neither the passive victims of nor the heroic resisters

against capitalist or racist exploitation” (p. 1586). Evidence against the received

view has been accumulating, and much of it is more consistent with a system

justification perspective that stresses accommodation and rationalization of the

status quo than with identity-based or interest-based theories.

Like all contemporary researchers of intergroup relations, we have been influenced

immensely by theories of social identification (Tajfel & Turner, 1986) and

social dominance (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). From our viewpoint, however, these

approaches are hampered by adhering so closely to conventional assumptions of

884 Jost et al.

self-interest, homophily, ingroup bias, outgroup antipathy, and intergroup conflict.

In the case of social identity theory, Tajfel (1975) absorbed much of this framework

from Hirschman’s (1970) rational choice analysis of exit versus loyalty.

Other aspects may have resulted from Tajfel and Turner’s (1986) overgeneralization

of results from the minimal group paradigm in an effort to explain very different

contexts involving longstanding inequalities between groups. With regard

to social dominance theory, assumptions of self-interest may derive from a reading

of evolutionary theory in which, among other things, ethnocentrism among

humans is seen as determined by inclusive fitness as an extension of “genetic selfishness”

(Sidanius & Pratto, 1999, p. 27).

To the limited extent that these theories address attitudes toward the overarching

social system (rather than intergroup attitudes), they tend to regard the social

order as something that is imposed by one group and resisted by the other.

2 This

is their strength—because there is considerable heuristic value in making such an

assumption—but it is also their weakness. The image of intergroup relations that

results is overly self-interested and insufficiently ideological; these two criticisms

are not contradictory, because ideology is motivated by many factors in addition

to self-interest (Jost et al., 2003a). Theories of social identity and social dominance

fail to account for the degree to which psychological responses to the social

and political status quo are characterized by active bolstering and system justification,

especially among members of disadvantaged groups. That is, hierarchy is

maintained not only through mechanisms of ingroup favoritism and outgroup

derogation exercised by members of dominant groups, but also by the complicity

of members of subordinated groups, many of whom perpetuate inequality

through mechanisms such as outgroup favoritism.

To illustrate the one-sided emphasis on homophily, ingroup favoritism, and

ethnocentrism (and the corresponding neglect of outgroup favoritism), we have

listed in Table 1 several books on social identity and intergroup relations, comparing

the number of index entries for “ingroup bias” and “ingroup favo(u)ritism”

to entries for “outgroup bias” and “outgroup favo(u)ritism.” For 11 books published

between 1981 and 2000, there were 142 index entries for ingroup

favoritism, whereas there were 12 entries for outgroup favoritism, 8 of which

came from a single chapter by Hinkle and Brown (1990). This one-sidedness is

not accidental. Prevailing theories contain a much more developed set of explanatory

concepts around the struggle to foster positive group distinctiveness and to

favor ingroup members than around the motive to justify the status quo and the

tendency to internalize status hierarchies. Framing theories around concepts of

A Decade of System Justification Theory 885

On this issue, Havel (1991) wrote perceptively that “only a very generalized view (and even that

only approximative) permits us to divide society into the rulers and the ruled… . In the posttotalitarian

system [the line of conflict] runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his own

way is both a victim and a supporter of the system. What we understand by the system is not, therefore,

a social order imposed by one group upon another, but rather something which permeates an

entire society and is a factor in shaping it” (p. 144).

“identification” and “dominance” dictates a focus on difference, conflict, and the

advancement of specific group interests.

The neglect of system-justifying processes is ironic, given that the historical

record reveals far more acquiescence than identity-based competition or revolt on

the part of disadvantaged group members. Zinn (1968), for example, noted that

Society’s tendency is to maintain what has been. Rebellion is only an

occasional reaction to suffering in human history; we have infinitely

more instances of forbearance to exploitation, and submission to authority,

than we have examples of revolt. Measure the number of peasant

insurrections against the centuries of serfdom in Europe—the millennia

of landlordism in the East; match the number of slave revolts in America

with the record of those millions who went through their lifetimes of toil

without outward protest. What we should be most concerned about is not

some natural tendency towards violent uprising, but rather the inclination

of people, faced with an overwhelming environment, to submit to

it. (pp. 16–17)

In the remainder of this article, we demonstrate that a theory of system justification

like the one we proposed a decade ago (Jost & Banaji, 1994) is needed to

account for the full range of empirical evidence pertaining to the causes, consequences,

and depth of the individual’s psychological investment in the existing

886 Jost et al.

Table 1.

Number of Subject Index Entries in Books on Social Identification and Intergroup

Relations Referring to Ingroup Favoritism and Outgroup Favoritism, 1981–2000

Book Ingroup Outgroup

favoritism/ favoritism/

ingroup bias outgroup bias

Turner & Giles (1981) 21 0

Tajfel (1984, both volumes) 6 0

Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell (1987) 8 0

Brown (1988) 24 0

Abrams & Hogg (1990) 13 8


Oakes, Haslam, & Turner (1994) 7 1

Taylor & Moghaddam (1994) 5 0

Stephan & Stephan (1996) 3 0

Spears, Oakes, Ellemers, & Haslam (1997) 38 3


Sedikides, Schopler, & Insko (1998) 6 0

Brown (2000b) 11 0

Total 142 12

Average per book 12.9 1.1


All eight of these entries refer to a chapter by Hinkle and Brown (1990).


Two of these three entries refer to a chapter by Stangor and Jost (1997).

social system, especially when that investment contradicts his or her own selfinterest

and/or ingroup solidarity.

We argue that there is a general (but not insurmountable) system justification

motive to defend and justify the status quo and to bolster the legitimacy of the

existing social order. Such a motive is not unique to members of dominant groups.

We see it as comparable—in terms of its strength and social significance—to

widely documented motives to defend and justify the interests and esteem of the

self-concept and the social group (Brewer, 1979; Cialdini et al., 1976; Greenwald,

1980; Tajfel & Turner, 1986). We expand previous theoretical notions and claim

that people want to hold favorable attitudes about themselves and about their own

groups, but they also want to hold favorable attitudes about social and political

systems that affect them.

Ego, Group, and System Justification Motives

Jost and Banaji (1994) distinguished among three different justification tendencies

or motives that have the potential to be in conflict or contradiction with

one another for members of disadvantaged groups. The first motive is “ego justification,”

and it describes the need to develop and maintain a favorable selfimage

and to feel valid, justified, and legitimate as an individual actor. The second

is referred to as “group justification,” and this is the primary focus of social identity

theory, namely the desire to develop and maintain favorable images of one’s

own group and to defend and justify the actions of fellow ingroup members. The

third is “system justification,” and it captures social and psychological needs to

imbue the status quo with legitimacy and to see it as good, fair, natural, desirable,

and even inevitable. Within this theoretical framework, one can see that members

of disadvantaged groups are likely to engage in social change only when ego

justification and/or group justification motives overcome the strength of system

justification needs and tendencies.

Because system justification theory distinguishes more clearly than other theories

among the three motives of ego, group, and system justification, it has taken

the lead, even over its predecessors, in identifying the social and psychological

consequences of supporting the status quo, especially among members of lowstatus

groups (see also Jost, Burgess, & Mosso, 2001). Because social identity

theory locates all social behavior on a continuum ranging from “interpersonal” to

“intergroup” behavior (e.g., Tajfel, 1981; Tajfel & Turner, 1986), it has contributed

much to our understanding of the first two motives (ego and group justification)

and the relations between them, but it has done relatively little to advance our

understanding of system justification processes. Tajfel and Turner (1986) hinted

that people may find it difficult to imagine “cognitive alternatives,” but they did

not explain the origins of this difficulty, nor does such an assumption follow from

other tenets of social identity theory.

A Decade of System Justification Theory 887

Social dominance theory has addressed the second and third motives (group

and system justification), but in such a way that they are frequently conflated with

one another. Jost and Thompson (2000) demonstrated that some items from the

Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) scale load onto a “group-based dominance”

factor, whereas others load onto a separate “opposition to equality” factor.

Because of conceptual and empirical ambiguities concerning the meaning and

measurement of the construct of social dominance, some have interpreted it as a

form of group justification, whereas others have treated it as synonymous with

system justification. Sniderman, Crosby, and Howell (2000), for example, concluded

that “the job of the social dominance measure” is to “assess the strength

of the desire of some to enjoy the benefits of dominance over others” (p. 270),

and they are by no means alone in this interpretation (e.g., Altemeyer, 1998;

Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994; Sidanius, 1993; Sidanius & Pratto,

1993). Recently, the definition of social dominance orientation has shifted to make

it more compatible with a system justification perspective. Sidanius, Levin,

Federico, and Pratto (2001), for instance, described the concept as a “general

desire for unequal relations among social groups, regardless of whether this means

ingroup domination or ingroup subordination” (p. 312, italics omitted), which

renders it much closer to system justification than group justification. Consistent

with this interpretation, Overbeck, Jost, Mosso, and Flizik (2004) found that

members of low-status groups with high SDO scores adopted system-justifying

styles of acquiescence rather than group-justifying styles of resistance to the status

quo (see also Jost & Burgess, 2000).

As part of an increased effort to specify and, ultimately, formalize the central

tenets of a system justification perspective, Jost and Hunyady (2002) listed 18

hypotheses that have been derived from this framework and reviewed empirical

support for each of them. The hypotheses cover rationalization of the status quo,

internalization of inequality (including outgroup favoritism and depressed entitlement),

relations among ego, group, and system justification motives (including

consequences for attitudinal ambivalence, self-esteem, and psychological wellbeing),

and the reduction of ideological dissonance. The fact that each of these

hypotheses has received at least some empirical support suggests that the first

decade of system justification theory has been a productive one.

We organize our review of the relevant research around the hypotheses identified

by Jost and Hunyady (2002) and two others addressed by Jost and Kay (in

press; Kay & Jost, 2003), but we will not devote equal space to each of them.

Instead, we will emphasize and elaborate on those thematic issues that (a) are

most relevant to political psychology, and (b) particularly distinguish a system

justification perspective from related theories of social identification and social

dominance. The themes we stress in this article are rationalization of the status

quo; implicit, nonconscious outgroup favoritism; effects of political ideology on

ingroup/outgroup favoritism; conflicts among ego, group, and system justification

888 Jost et al.

motives; evidence of enhanced system justification among the disadvantaged; and

system-justifying effects of complementary stereotyping.

Rationalization of the Status Quo

According to McGuire and McGuire (1991), people engage in “sour grapes”

and “sweet lemons” rationalizations by adjusting their preferences to fit with their

expectations about what is likely to occur. Kay, Jimenez, and Jost (2002) elaborated

on the McGuires’ analysis of rationalization and offered the following

hypothesis to distinguish its consequences from predictions derived from cognitive

dissonance and social identity theories:

Hypothesis 1.

People will rationalize the (anticipated) status quo by

judging likely events to be more desirable than unlikely events, (a) even

in the absence of personal responsibility, (b) whether those events are

initially defined as attractive or unattractive, and (c) especially when

motivational involvement is high rather than low.

In support, Kay et al. (2002) found that immediately before the 2000 U.S. presidential

election, both Democrats and Republicans judged potential Bush

and Gore

presidencies to be more desirable as their perceived likelihood increased and less

desirable as their perceived likelihood decreased. Stakeholders did not rationalize

their own preferences or those of the political parties with which they identified.

Rather, they rationalized the status quo even before it became the status

quo, much as Democrats, Republicans, and independents all showed substantial

increases in support for the Iraq war (as well as approval of the president’s job

performance and satisfaction with the direction of the country) immediately after

President George W. Bush’s announcement of war plans and the commencement

of military action (Saad, 2003).

Another way in which people justify the way things are is by using stereotypes

to differentiate between high- and low-status groups in such a way that

inequality seems natural and appropriate (e.g., Jackman & Senter, 1983). To eliminate

actual differences between groups, Jost (2001) developed an experimental

paradigm to assess the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 2.

People will use stereotypes to rationalize social and economic

status differences between groups, so that the same target group

will be stereotyped differently depending on whether it is perceived to

be high or low in status.

Evidence provided by Jost (2001) and Jost and Burgess (2000) supported this

hypothesis, revealing considerable ingroup derogation and outgroup elevation on

A Decade of System Justification Theory 889

status-justifying attributes when the ingroup was believed to be lower in social

and economic status than the outgroup, and the opposite when the ingroup was

believed to be higher in status.

If there is indeed a motive to defend and justify the status quo, as system justification

theory holds, then people should be especially likely to use rationalizing

stereotypes (and other means) to bolster the legitimacy of the prevailing

system when it is threatened or attacked. Accordingly, Jost and Hunyady (2002)


Hypothesis 3.

People will defend and justify the social system in response

to threat by using stereotypes to differentiate between high- and lowstatus

groups to a greater degree than when there is no threat.

Many of the social and psychological effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks

(Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Greenberg, 2003)—including increased presidential

support (Moore, 2001), governmental trust (Chanley, 2002), and stereotyping of

Arab Americans (Goodwin & Devos, 2002)—may be attributable to heightened

needs to defend and justify the system against threat, although it is difficult to distinguish

among personal, group, and system-level threats in this case (e.g., Huddy,

Feldman, Capelos, & Provost, 2002).

On the assumption that people would further rationalize the status quo by

accepting and even bolstering weak justifications for inequality among groups,

Haines and Jost (2000) argued:

Hypothesis 4.

Providing explanations (or pseudo-explanations) for status

or power differences between groups will (a) increase the use of stereotypes

to rationalize differences, and (b) lead members of disadvantaged

groups to express more positive (relative to negative) affect concerning

their situation.

Hypothesis 5.

Members of disadvantaged groups will misremember

explanations for their powerlessness as being more legitimate than they

actually were.

Both hypotheses were supported. Even placebic explanations led members of a

disadvantaged group to feel better and to ascribe favorable characteristics to

members of an outgroup that had power over them (see also Kappen &

Branscombe, 2001). A memory bias indicated that people were more likely than

would be expected by chance to falsely recall that neutral and illegitimate explanations

for the power differences were in fact legitimate.

None of the myriad ways in which people imbue the status quo with justification

and legitimacy follow from theories of social identification or social dominance.

Rather, hypotheses concerning the varied manner and considerable extent

to which people actively rationalize the status quo must be derived from a perspective

that takes system justification tendencies seriously (see also Schmader,

Major, Eccleston, & McCoy, 2001).

890 Jost et al.

The Importance of Outgroup Favoritism

Jost and Banaji (1994) argued that by stressing the ubiquity of ingroup

favoritism, social identity theory failed to account adequately for the degree of

stereotype consensus across group boundaries and the prevalence of outgroup

favoritism among members of low-status groups. In advancing this criticism, we

joined several others, including Sidanius (1993) and even a few social identity theorists

(Hewstone & Jaspars, 1984; Hewstone & Ward, 1985; Hinkle & Brown,

1990), some of whom now argue that social identity theory has no problem

handling outgroup favoritism (see Brown, 2000a; Rubin & Hewstone, 2004). In

proposing system justification theory as an alternative, Jost and Banaji (1994)

hypothesized that members of

both high- and low-status groups engage in

thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that reinforce and legitimate existing social

systems, and that outgroup favoritism is one such example of the legitimation of

inequality between groups. Outgroup favoritism refers to the expression of an evaluative

preference for members of a group to which one does not belong (see Jost

et al., 2002). The argument is not that people have a special motivation to favor

the outgroup merely because it is an outgroup. Rather, outgroup favoritism is seen

as one manifestation of the tendency to internalize and thus perpetuate the system

of inequality. Its prevalence contradicts the common but false assumption derived

from social identity theory that “members of actual low-status groups, whose

group identity is chronically threatened by their relative inferiority to higher status

groups, evaluate out-groups most negatively” (Leach et al., 2003, p. 933).

Objections to Taking Outgroup Favoritism Seriously

Several different reasons have been offered for downplaying the significance

of outgroup favoritism among low-status group members and for rejecting the

possibility that it reflects system justification. The first is that outgroup favoritism

may be due to demand characteristics. This was the position taken by Mullen et

al. (1992), who dismissed the fact that 85% of the low-status experimental groups

included in their meta-analysis exhibited outgroup favoritism (see Jost, 2001).

Mullen et al. discounted the experimental evidence on the grounds that the studies

used “artificial groups” and “a concentration on transitory, task-specific conceptualizations

of status” (p. 119). To address this issue, Jost (2001) summarized

several studies in which perceived socioeconomic success was experimentally

manipulated in the context of real-world group memberships and found that outgroup

favoritism was still the dominant response of members of low-status


A second criticism is that most evidence of outgroup favoritism has been on

“status-relevant” dimensions of comparison, which suggests that perceptions of

relative inferiority may be largely accurate. Brewer and Miller (1996), for

instance, argued that “considering this factor, the effect should probably not be

A Decade of System Justification Theory 891

labeled a ‘bias’ at all” (p. 95). In responding to this issue, Overbeck et al. (2004)

showed that members of low-status groups who score high on SDO (and therefore

actively reject egalitarian alternatives to the status quo) exhibit outgroup

favoritism even on status-irrelevant traits, indicating that they have a generalized

sense of inferiority. Behavioral evidence provided by Jost et al. (2002) also establishes

that outgroup favoritism is not restricted to status-relevant stereotypic traits.

A third, related objection is that outgroup favoritism occurs “only” when

members of low-status groups are “constrained” by “social reality” to accept the

legitimacy and stability of the status quo, before they have the chance to adopt

one of several identity enhancement strategies: individual exit/mobility, social creativity,

or social competition (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). With regard to the behavior

of members of disadvantaged groups, social identity theory clearly aims to

focus on how people move “from social stability to social change” (Tajfel, 1981),

from “passive acceptance to collective protest” (Wright, Taylor, & Moghaddam,

1990), and from “social reality to social resistance” (Spears et al., 2001) whenever

circumstances leave the possibility open.

3 The main problem with this formulation

is that it underestimates the strength of system justification motives to

rationalize the status quo and leave everything as it is. Consequently, the theory

is overly optimistic about prospects for social change (see Reicher, 2004).

Afourth objection is that outgroup favoritism reflects public impression management

rather than genuine, private internalization of inferiority (e.g., Scott,

1990). In their critique of system justification theory, for example, Spears et al.

(2001) argued that “the resistance of low status social groups to their so-called

‘inferiority’ may have been somewhat underestimated, often because we have

taken expressions of outgroup bias (and the expression of ingroup bias) at face

value” (p. 334). Th


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