“System justification” stops productive dialog between liberals and conservatives

by Olivia LaRosa, October 7, 2014

I have a lot to say about government. I started studying politics and economics in my teens. This interdisciplinary focus is called political economy. I went on to college while working full time and raising a family. I continued my studies. Then I got a degree in political science and went on to graduate from a top-tier law school with honors in public law.

So, when I talk about government, I have an impeccable knowledge base. It often seems as though I am a complainer. People ask me why I am so “negative.”

In reality, I am not negative. I appreciate the many benefits that my government and my society provide. But because I know how this is all supposed to work, I feel compelled to point out moves that take us in the wrong direction.

In other words, I am POSITIVE about my country. I want to help us be the best we can be. To encourage discussion about what is good, what is bad, and what could be made better, I copy a chunk from this article that talks about those who are intolerant of attempts to discuss how we can fix what’s wrong.

Another promising route that researchers are exploring involves the concept of “system justification.” Put simply, system justification arises from the deep-seated psychological need for humans to feel like the broad systems they are a part of are working correctly. It doesn’t feel good to know you attend a broken school or inhabit a deeply corrupt country — or that your planet’s entire ecology may be on the brink of collapse.

People tend to deal with major threats to their systems in one of two ways: taking a threat so seriously that they seek out ways to neutralize it, or “finding ways to justify away problems in order to maintain the sense of legitimacy and well-being of the system,” explained Irina Feygina, a social psychologist at New York University. This latter route is system justification.

Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on system justification, but there’s strong evidence they do it more than liberals. “There’s a lot of research that just goes out and asks people what their opinions and preferences are, and pretty consistently — I don’t actually know of any examples to the contrary — people who tend to report being further on the conservative end of the spectrum also report having greater confidence in the system and greater motivation to justify it,” said Feygina.

She and two colleagues looked into the connection between system justification and environmental beliefs for a series of studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2009. They found that, among an undergraduate sample at least, there was a strong correlation between system justification (as measured by reactions to items like “In general, the American political system operates as it should”) and denial of environmental problems.

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