Skip to main content

12.05 The Fair Status-Quo Bias

| Projects


People expect to benefit from cooperation. However, the extent to which they benefit from it can differ among them. Furthermore, opportunities for cooperation are unequally distributed within society. Often those who already have a lot have more opportunities and stand to benefit from them more than those who have little. When such inequalities are substantial, one would expect those who are disadvantaged to rebel. However, they rarely do. In fact, often they do not even regard the existing situation as unjust. This in spite of the fact that it conflicts with their own standards of justice. Inaction and misperception form obstacles to social change. A more just and thereby more sustainable form of cooperation may be feasible, but is not attained in practice.

Here we propose two projects that address cooperation in the face of inequality. Their overarching theme concerns how cognitive processes in general and justification and rationalization (motivated reasoning) in particular reinforce institutions and thereby promote or inhibit sustainable cooperation. Both projects use tools and theories from philosophy as well as psychology. However, the first prioritizes philosophy and the second psychology. In this sense, they are sibling projects. They also require complementary expertise, which – we hope – will facilitate finding suitable candidates with different backgrounds. As envisaged, both projects have the same supervisors, the PhD students cooperate closely, and the super-project organizes interdisciplinary workshops.

-Frank Hindriks & Russell Spears


Aim of the project

People tend to regard the status quo as fair even when they cooperate under conditions that do not meet their own standards of justice. This project sets out to explain this ‘fair-status-quo bias’ and to resolve it in order to promote fair and sustainable cooperation.

Theoretical background

An unfair society can be stable because those who are discriminated or oppressed believe that this is how things should be. As it turns out, people frequently rationalize the status quo such that they regard prevailing norms and institutions as fair. To this end, they rely on rationalizations such as blaming the victim and diffusion of responsibility. This ‘fair-status-quo bias’ explains why people often cooperate under conditions that do not match their own standards of justice. Now, norms and institutions tend to be weak when perceived as unfair. Hence, perceptions of fairness play a pivotal role in maintaining norms and institutions. This suggests that accurate perceptions can play an important role in changing norms and institutions and making them fair and sustainable.

The first part of this project investigates the mechanism underlying the fair-status-quo bias and the effect is has on cooperation. To this end, it compares the most prominent explanations. Proponents of critical theory (philosophy) explain it in terms of an ideology that masks the fact that society is unfair (Geuss 2001). Systems justification theory (psychology) maintains that people have a need to believe that system of institutions in which they participate is just, which facilitates rationalizing it such that an unfair system appears to be fair. According to both theories, in particular disadvantaged groups use prevailing ideas, norms and values to rationalize the status quo, this in spite of the fact that it is against their interests.

However, recent empirical studies reveal that the fair-status-quo bias is also rather common among advantaged groups. Furthermore, the rationalizations that disadvantaged groups employ do not need to run counter their own interests. According to the Social Identity Model of System Attitudes (SIMSA), these findings are best explained in terms of social identity. A thorough comparison of these explanations and the empirical findings that bear on them serves to identify the mechanism underlying the fair-status-quo bias. The second part of this project uses this to formulate a new theory of structural discrimination and oppression, which focuses on the role that rationalizations play in maintaining norms and institutions. The third part proposes novel account of social change aimed at fair and sustainable cooperation. A central question will be whether and if so which roles identity-based norms and fairness norms can play in the process (Iacoviello and Spears 2018). 

Research design

Literature study, overview of empirical findings, theory assessment, theoretical integration


  • Discipline
    Philosophy, Social Psychology
  • Location
    University of Groningen, Faculty of Humanities


Bicchieri, C. (2006) The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Geuss, R. (2001) The Idea of Critical Theory. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Iacoviello, V., & Spears, R. (2018). “I know you expect me to favor my ingroup.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology76, 88–99.

Owuamalam, C. K., Rubin, M., Spears, R., & Weerabangsa, M. M. (2017). Why Do People from Low‐Status Groups Support Class Systems that Disadvantage Them? Journal of Social Issues73(1), 80–98.

Toorn, J., Feinberg, M., Jost, J. T., Kay, A. C., Willer, R., & Wilmuth, C. (2015). A Sense of Powerlessness Fosters System Justification. Political Psychology36(1), 93–110.