Ideology and the limits of self-interest: System justification motivation and conservative advantages in mass politics

John T. Jost, Melanie Langer, Vivienne Badaan, Flávio Azevedo, Edgardo Etchezahar, Joaquin Ungaretti, Erin P. Hennes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


It is commonly assumed that political attitudes are driven by self-interest and that poor people heavily favor policies aimed at redistributing wealth. This assumption fails to explain the popularity of economic conservatism and the degree of support for the capitalist system. Such outcomes are typically explained by the suggestion that most poor people believe they will become rich one day. In a representative sample of low-income Americans, we observed that less than one-fourth were optimistic about their economic prospects. Those respondents who believed that they would become rich one day were no more likely to endorse the legitimacy of the system and no more supportive of conservative ideology or the Republican Party, compared to those who did not believe they would become rich. From a system justification perspective, we propose that people are motivated to defend the social systems on which they depend, and this confers a psychological advantage to conservative ideology. Providing ideological support for the status quo serves epistemic motives to reduce uncertainty, existential motives to reduce threat, and relational motives to share reality with members of mainstream society. We summarize evidence from the United States, Argentina, Lebanon, and other countries bearing on these propositions—including a survey administered shortly before the 2016 U.S. Presidential election—and discuss political implications of system justification motivation.
Original languageEnglish
JournalTranslational Issues in Psychological Science
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2017
Externally publishedYes


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