In two related projects, my collaborators and I studied the effects of a sense of dependence and powerlessness on people’s tendency to justify the shortcomings of the social, economic, and political system. We found that it led people to legitimize the authority of those they depend on and to be more likely to say that race, class, and gender disparities in society are justified. These findings suggest that inequality, once formed, may become self-reinforcing through bottom-up processes of system justification.

Outcome Dependence and the Perceived legitimacy of authority

Legitimacy is a source of power for authorities because it promotes voluntary deference on the part of followers. From a system justification perspective, there is also reason to believe that power is a source of perceived legitimacy. We report five studies demonstrating that in addition to procedural fairness and outcome favorability, outcome dependence is an independent contributor to perceived legitimacy. In two cross-sectional field studies and one panel study, we hypothesized and found that dependence on an authority figure is positively associated with appraisals of legitimacy, measured in terms of trust and confidence in, empowerment of, and deference to authority. These effects were demonstrated in educational, political, and legal settings. Two additional experiments provided direct causal evidence for the hypothesized effect on both perceived legitimacy and voluntary deference (i.e., acquiescence to additional requests). We also found that participants assigned to a high (vs. low) dependence condition judged their outcomes to be more favorable, despite the fact that the outcomes were identical in the two conditions; this effect was mediated by perceived legitimacy. Taken as a whole, these findings suggest that perceived legitimacy is enhanced not only when authorities exercise fair procedures and deliver favorable outcomes, but also when subordinates are dependent on them. Implications for society and the study of legitimacy and social power are discussed.

Download the paper: Van der Toorn, J., Tyler, T. R., & Jost, J. T. (2011). More than fair: Outcome dependence, system justification, and the perceived legitimacy of authority figures. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 127–138.


Powerlessness Increases System Justification

In an attempt to explain the stability of hierarchy, we focus on the perspective of the powerless and how a subjective sense of dependence leads them to imbue the system and its authorities with legitimacy. In an attempt to explain the stability of hierarchy, we focus on the perspective of the powerless and how a subjective sense of dependence leads them to imbue the system and its authorities with legitimacy. In Study 1, we found in a nationally representative sample of U.S. employees that financial dependence on one’s job is positively associated with the perceived legitimacy of one’s supervisor. In Study 2, we observed that a general sense of powerlessness is positively correlated with the perceived legitimacy of the economic system. In Studies 3 and 4, priming experimental participants with feelings of powerlessness increased their justification of the social system, even when they were presented with system-challenging explanations for race, class, and gender disparities. In Study 5, we demonstrated that the experience of powerlessness increases legitimation of governmental authorities (relative to baseline conditions). The processes we identify are likely to perpetuate inequality, insofar as the powerless justify rather than attempt to change the hierarchical structures that disadvantage them.

Download the paper: Van der Toorn, J., Feinberg, M., Jost, J. T., Kay, A. C., Tyler, T. R., Willer, R., & Wilmuth, C. (2015). A sense of powerlessness fosters system justification: Implications for the legitimation of authority, hierarchy, and government. Political Psychology, 36, 93-110.

Also see: García-Sánchez, E., Van der Toorn, J., Rodríguez-Bailón, R., & Willis, G. (in press). The vicious cycle of economic inequality: Ideological moderation of the relationship between “what is” and “what ought to be” in 41 countries. Social Psychological and Personality Science.