This is part 8 of an ongoing discussion of a paper by Jost, Banaji and Nosek discussing System Justification Theory. Read Part 1. Read Part 2. Read Part 3. Read Part 4. Read Part 5. Read Part 6. Read Part 7.
Having summed up my lengthy exploration of System Justification Theory, I teased you this morning with the question that you’ve likely been asking youself from the beginning: now that we know about system justification, what can we do to correct for it? Are we doomed to keep making the same mistakes, or can we overcome our terrible mammal brains and become better critical thinkers?
In order to answer this question, I must first re-iterate a point that I’ve been making for almost as long as this blog has been in existence: we can overcome cognitive biases by becoming more aware of them. Just like we, as skeptics, have learned to recognize faulty arguments like straw men and fallacies like appeal to authority, we can also learn to recognize when we (or others) base their arguments on streotypes instead of evidence. System justification lives on stereotype – confronting those will go a long way on its own to reduce the amount of system justifying we do.
There is also something important to be learned from Part 6, which is that system justification is directly connected to the level of inequality present in a society. As we reduce gaps between groups – be they through legislative policies like pay equity or through changing the social stigma associated with being in the minority – we reduce our tendency to ‘explain away’ disparities as being part of the natural order of things. By engineering societies that are more fundamentally equal, we simultaneously rob fuel from the system justifying machine.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially (or just my preferred method), we can reduce system justification by talking about it. The more people are aware that they have a tendency to do this kind of backfilling, the more likely they are to notice themselves doing it in the future. Successes in my own ongoing struggle to become less misogynistic suggests to me that awareness (and acceptance) of the fact that we all have cognitive demons operating below the level of conscious awareness will help us police our own attitudes better. We may never become perfect at it, but we can certainly become better.
Now, I would be a really crummy scientist if I didn’t use this opportunity to raise some research questions of my own that this paper did not address.
Does making group status (high- vs. low-) more salient lead to a change in system justifying behaviours?
The issue with implicit processing is that we incorporate attitudes towards certain groups, often without realizing that we are processing group status. One of the examples the authors use is that of white and non-white students alike demonstrating a preference for partnering with a white person for a co-operative task. I highly doubt that students consciously processed race when making their decisions. My question is, are we less likely to engage in system justifying behaviours when group status is made more explicit? Will reminding members of minority groups of the fact of their low-status relationship make them more likely to advocate for in-group causes rather than demonstrating out-group favourability?
Related to this question is the conservative talking point: that talking about race issues makes people resentful of each other. I think this is nonsense, designed at preserving the status quo, but how does this attitude relate to system justification? Will people who are prone to system justifying behaviour demonstrate increased out-group hostility when reminded of their status? Will members of the majority demonstrate more explicit antipathy toward minority groups if reminded of the power divide? Is that effect moderated by level of self-confessed politicial conservatism?
Is system justification moderated by the size of the status gap between groups?
One could make the argument that there are some groups that are not as relative low-status as others. Atheists are a low-status group compared to theists, for example, but they (we) do not face nearly the same kinds of discrimination that Arab Americans or gay people do. Does the effect to which people demonstrate system justifying behaviours change in proportion to the magnitude of the status gap? For example, do black women demonstrate more system justification than black men when compared to white men – this is assuming we can control for other factors like socioeconomic status.
Related to this question is whether or not the gap between explicit and implicit attitudes toward group favouritism (see graphs in part 3) is moderated by the size of the power gap. The graphs for age discrimination and race discrimination look quite different from the graph for sexual orientation (see paper page 898-900) – is that related to the magnitude of age discrimination vs. anti-gay discrimination (two types of discrimination that look very different), or something else?
Are some people predisposed to system justifying behaviour? Is it related to a ‘capacity’ for cognitive dissonance?
Anecdotally, some people are better at ‘suspending disbelief’ than others. People who are otherwise intelligent but manage to compartmentalize the various contradictions within religion, for example (I am not referring to those that pretend they don’t exist – denial is something else entirely) – are they just “better” at simultaneously holding conflicting ideas in their heads? If that’s the case, and some people are better at handling cognitive dissonance than others, are those kinds of people also more prone to system justifying behaviours? Will they more readily adopt out-group favourable attitudes if they are in the minority? Basically – can SJT explain why women are more religious than men, poor people are more religious than wealthy, and why communities of colour are more religious than whites? Is it because the high tolerance of cognitive dissonance needed to be a believer is related to the high tolerance of cognitive dissonance needed for out-group preference?
I think these are all interesting and relevant questions for reducing the impact of system justification, or at least moderating its effects. I am sure you can think of more questions that you’d like to see answered. Please consider leaving them in the comments. Bonus points if you can propose a method of measuring them.
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