“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?”- Voltaire, Candide
Back in 1759, Voltaire wrote a rich satire of 18th century society, unleashing his sharp wit on issues from religion to philosophy. One of the many lasting criticisms brought to light in this classic work is that of the just world phenomenon: the belief in some cosmic fairness, and thus, that people tend to get “what they deserve.” The just world phenomenon manifests itself all the time.
People often equate the need for public assistance to laziness. When talking to coworkers about their skills, we often reassure them that if they work hard, they will get the recognition they deserve. And when unarmed black teens are killed on the street, people often assert that they probably “had it coming.” Voltaire had great insight into our violent and optimistic nature: we are unlikely to see undesirable events as random because it’s scary, and it’s a slippery slope from optimism to ignorance
Case-in-point, system justification theory predicts that people are motivated to hang on to the status quo, and will often defend the current system regardless of its disadvantages. Some researchers have attributed this effect to a desire to defend one’s self-concept or group identity against threat (2,3). But there’s also evidence that people do this when they are the very ones at a disadvantage (1).
For instance, in the days following Mike Brown’s August 9th shooting, I saw my first “Pull Your Pants Up Challenge.” This video by Malik S. King is a great example of system justification at work. I doubt the men participating in this challenge actually believe that shooting someone because of the location of his pants is justifiable, but the assertion that black people can dress differently to avoid negative consequences smacks of the old revealing clothing rape justification argument. These videos demonstrate how powerful and how pervasive system justification is.
So, why are people defending the system? Perhaps it is because it is too threatening to think that we have law enforcement officers on the streets who do not make lethal force decisions objectively. Perhaps the young black men doing the pants challenge want to believe that they have some control over whether or not the police will shoot them. But sometimes we must face the reality that not all actions make sense. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds.
One of the main aims of experimental social psychology is to study phenomena that apply to real life. That application is sometimes applied, but often it is simply educating individuals about their own behavior and motivation. I believe the just world phenomenon and system justification theory speak to the latter mission. By knowing that we are cognitively motivated to believe that the world is just, and that we often advocate for existing systems despite fatal flaws, we can be critics of our own cognition, and work toward bringing more justice into our just world.
(1) Toorn, J., Feinberg, M., Jost, J. T., Kay, A. C., Tyler, T. R., Willer, R., & Wilmuth, C. (2014). A sense of powerlessness fosters system justification: Implications for the legitimation of authority, hierarchy, and government. Political Psychology, doi:10.1111/pops.12183
(2) Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2006). The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory. Advances in experimental social psychology, 38, 183-242.
(3) Spears, R., Jetten, J., & Doosje, B. (2001). The (il)legitimacy of ingroup bias: From social reality to social resistance. In J. T. Jost & B. Major (Eds.), The psychology of legitimacy: Emerging perspectives on ideology, justice, and intergroup relations (pp. 332-362). New York: Cambridge University Press.