The Merits of Valuable Resource Distributions: Reactions from the (un)Fairly Advantaged and DisadvantagedISER Internal Seminars

I explore how the acceptance of social differences among the advantaged and the disadvantaged is affected by the merited or
unmerited attributions individuals make about the outcomes of others. System justification theory (Jost & Banaji, 1994) predicts cognitive
and ideological support for the social status quo, especially among individuals least benefiting from the system. Implicit in this
prediction is that disadvantaged individuals construct a legitimate explanation for their low-status positions as a result of motivated
social-cognitive processes (i.e., cognitive dissonance). As a result of these processes, it is the poor who have the greatest need to
reduce the ideological angst of participating in a system from which they are not benefiting. As such, system justification theory asserts
that the disadvantaged are more likely to justify and support the system than are the advantaged. For example, research supporting this
theory has shown that poorer respondents are more likely to endorse items that tap into capitalistic ideologies than are wealthier

Missing from this perspective, however, is an understanding of the attributions of merit that individuals make about the outcomes of
others, and how those attributions affect the eventual acceptance or rejection of outcomes and systems. Thus, I explored system justifying
reactions among individuals who were made explicitly aware that the advantage or disadvantage for participants involved in a competition
was – or was not – merited.

Study 1 focused on how people interpret their situation as a function of merited or unmerited advantage and found, among
other things, that when advantaged participants were asked to attribute their own outcomes they ignored their own merit and instead
they used a disadvantaged student as a referent, a process that fully mediated their acceptance of the outcome. Conversely, when advantaged
participants were asked to attribute the disadvantaged student’s outcomes, they used themselves as a referent.

Study 2 focused on how people interpret their situation as a function of merited or unmerited disadvantage and found that
disadvantaged participants relied on a more congruent focus for attributing outcomes, such that self-attributions were self-referent
and other-attributions were other-referent. Results from Study 2, however, revealed more complexity when it comes to acceptance of the
outcome and of the system among disadvantaged students. A path-analytic model predicts, among other things, that it is only
disadvantaged students who perceive that the advantaged person’s outcome is unmerited who endorse competition as a means of
distributing resources. In sum, our results indicate differential attributional processes among the advantaged and disadvantaged.
Moreover, our experimental results, and converging evidence from nationally representative GSS data sets, seem to suggest that what at
first looks like endorsement of the status quo (e.g., system justification theory) might actually be an endorsement of the
original intention of the system after a perceived violation of that intention.

Presented by:

Philip J. Cozzolino (Psychology Department, University of Essex)

Date & time:

14 Mar 2007 13:00 pm - 14 Mar 2007 00:00 am

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