Working for the system: Motivated defense of meritocratic beliefs

Alison Ledgerwood, Anesu N. Mandisodza, John T. Jost, Michelle J. Pohl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Conceptualizing the widespread belief in meritocracy as a case of system justification, we examined how the desire to justify the societal status quo motivates cognitive and behavioral defense of the notion that hard work leads to success. Experiment 1 demonstrated that participants judged objectively equivalent evidence as better in quality when it led to a conclusion that supported (vs. challenged) a link between hard work and success in American society, and that this pro-meritocracy bias in judgment increased following system threat. Experiment 2 tested a paradoxical implication for behavior: Participants defended the system by working harder when they were told that success on the task was due to luck (vs. effort), but only when the task was perceived to be system-relevant. In Experiment 3, this pattern replicated even for participants who did not explicitly endorse a personal belief in meritocracy. Taken together, these results suggest that meritocratic beliefs serve to justify the social system and elucidate the cognitive and behavioral mechanisms used to defend such beliefs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)322-340
Number of pages19
JournalSocial Cognition
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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