Speculations on the Evolutionary Origins of System Justification

John T. Jost, Robert M. Sapolsky, H. Hannah Nam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


For centuries, philosophers and social theorists have wondered why people submit voluntarily to tyrannical leaders and oppressive regimes. In this article, we speculate on the evolutionary origins of system justification, that is, the ways in which people are motivated (often nonconsciously) to defend and justify existing social, economic, and political systems. After briefly recounting the logic of system justification theory and some of the most pertinent empirical evidence, we consider parallels between the social behaviors of humans and other animals concerning the acceptance versus rejection of hierarchy and dominance. Next, we summarize research in human neuroscience suggesting that specific brain regions, such as the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex, may be linked to individual differences in ideological preferences concerning (in)equality and social stability as well as the successful navigation of complex, hierarchical social systems. Finally, we consider some of the implications of a system justification perspective for the study of evolutionary psychology, political behavior, and social change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalEvolutionary Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2018


  • amygdala
  • evolutionary psychology
  • hierarchy
  • ideology
  • political neuroscience
  • system justification

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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