Objective and Subjective Socioeconomic Status as Sources of Status-Legitimacy Effect and Legitimation of Income Inequality

System justification theory proposes that people are motivated to perceive the existing social system as fair, legitimate, and desirable. However, status-legitimacy effect, understood as the most disadvantaged living in the most unequal contexts experiencing this need most strongly, has only found mixed support in empirical works. This article presents a comprehensive test of the original reading of status-legitimacy hypothesis which implied that those with lower objective status are the most motivated to system justify and of the respecified version that posits subjective powerlessness to be the driver of undue system legitimization. Multilevel mixed-effects linear regression analysis of International Social Survey Programme modules on social inequality, covering almost 50,000 respondents from 28 countries, shows that the mean effects of both subjective and objective status are in line with predictions of economic rationality. To model contextual inequality, we distinguish between an objective measure, Gini, and perceived amounts of income differences as reported by respondents. The analysis testing contextual moderation lends support for the original reading of status-legitimacy hypothesis—the objectively, rather than subjectively, disadvantaged experience greater motivation to defend the system.

Buchel, O., Luijkx, R., & Achterberg, P. (2021). Objective and subjective socioeconomic status as sources of status‐legitimacy effect and legitimation of income inequality. Political Psychology42(3), 463-481.


Author: peter

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