A sense of powerlessness fosters system justification: Implications for the legitimation of authority, hierarchy, and government


Journal Article

© 2014 International Society of Political Psychology. 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 was positively associated with the perceived legitimacy of one's supervisor. In Study 2, we observed that a general sense of powerlessness was 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 increased legitimation of governmental authorities (relative to baseline conditions). The processes we identify are likely to perpetuate inequality insofar as the powerless justify rather than strive to change the hierarchical structures that disadvantage them.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • van der Toorn, J; Feinberg, M; Jost, JT; Kay, AC; Tyler, TR; Willer, R; Wilmuth, C

Published Date

  • January 1, 2015

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 36 / 1

Start / End Page

  • 93 - 110

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1467-9221

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0162-895X

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1111/pops.12183

Citation Source

  • Scopus