The Dynamics of System Justification

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Principal investigators:

Cheryl J. Wakslak

University of Southern California



John T. Jost

New York University



Sample size: 184

Field period: 9/29/2005-10/5/2005


This study investigates the phenomenon of system justification among low income individuals in the U.S., focusing on consequences of system justification for individuals’ psychological well-being. Results revealed different patterns for European-American and African-American respondents. For low income European-Americans, increased system justification was associated with increased psychological well-being (including increased positive affect and decreased negative affect, as well as increased self esteem, life satisfaction, sense of security, meaningfulness, and mastery); these patterns were considerably weakened or even reversed for African-American respondents. The study also considered two factors that might influence respondents’ degree of system justification: the salience of respondents’ low income status and the explicit encouragement of either system support or system critique. Contrary to expectations, neither of these factors influenced respondents’ degree of system support.


We expected that:
a) Participants whose low income was made salient at the study’s start would engage in system justification more than participants whose low income was not made salient.
b) Participants who received the system justification statements preceded by a paragraph encouraging system support would endorse system justification to a greater extent than those who received the scale preceded by a paragraph encouraging system critique.
c) The degree of system justification endorsement would be positively associated with psychological well-being. We were also interested in whether this effect would differ based on respondent’s ethnic group membership.

Experimental Manipulations

Participants were randomly assigned to one of six conditions in a 2 (high personal income salience vs. low personal income salience) x 3 (system support paragraph preceding system justification scale vs. system challenge paragraph preceding system justification scale vs. no paragraph preceding system justification scale) factorial design.
Income Salience: In the high personal income salience condition, the participants placed themselves on an income scale at the study’s start (before having the opportunity to endorse the system justification statements). In the low personal income salience condition, participants did not place themselves on the income scale until the study’s conclusion.
System Support vs. Critique: Participants completed the system justification scale after reading a paragraph encouraging either system support, system challenge, or (in a control condition) without reading any preceding paragraph.
In all conditions, participants were asked to rate their agreement with eight statements that justify the U.S. political, economic, and social system. Responses to this system justification scale were analyzed as a function of the experimental manipulations and were used as a predictor of psychological well-being.


System justification scale (Kay & Jost, 2003, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology), positive and negative affect, state self-esteem, life satisfaction, sense of security, mastery, belief that one day might become rich, meaningfulness.

Summary of Results

Contrary to expectations, neither income salience nor encouragement of system support/critique influenced respondents’ degree of system justification. However, system justification did emerge as a significant predictor of a variety of psychological well-being variables. Further, the pattern of these associations significantly differed for European-American and African-American respondents. Across specific measures, the general pattern of the results was a positive association between system justification and psychological well-being for European-American respondents, and either no relationship or a negative relationship between system justification and psychological well-being for African-American respondents.


The primary goal of this study was to examine emotional and other psychological benefits that system justification may have for disadvantaged group members. While all study participants were disadvantaged in an economic sense (i.e. were low income group members), patterns of associations were dramatically different for European-American and African-American respondents. While, as expected, system justification was indeed associated with psychological well-being for European-Americans, this was not the case for African-Americans. Thus, emotional benefits of system justification were unequally distributed across racial groups.

Additional Information

Participants were drawn from the population of individuals whose family income is less than $30,000/year, based on KN demographic information. Respondents also reported speaking English as their primary language.


Wakslak, Cheryl J., John T. Jost, Tom R. Tyler and Emmeline S. Chen. 2007. Moral Outrage Mediates the Dampening Effect of System Justification on Support for Redistributive Social Policies. Psychological Science. 18:267-274. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01887.