The Social Psychology of Uncertainty Management and System Justification
The Social Psychology of Uncertainty Management and System Justification
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter reviews research findings on the social psychology of uncertainty management processes and the role these processes have in explaining system justification and other human reactions (such as people's behavioral reactions to homeless individuals and how people respond toward messages that violate or support their religious worldviews). The chapter holds that uncertainty management (at least occasionally) may better explain people's responses than does terror management theory. The chapter also focuses on the social psychological processes underlying uncertainty management effects and argues that personal uncertainty has strong effects on human reactions, because personal uncertainty involves affective-experiential processes and typically constitutes an alarming experience to people. The chapter suggests that the social psychology of uncertainty management and system justification involve processes of "hot cognition" and not "cold cognition." The chapter closes with a discussion of the implications for the psychology of system justification and people's beliefs in a just world.
People are often faced with threats to the legitimacy of their socio-political system (Lau, Kay, & Spencer, 2008). According to system justification theory (SJT), when faced with such threats, people become motivated to restore their faith in the status quo by engaging in psychological processes that bolster its apparent legitimacy (Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, 2004). Thus, a general social psychological tendency exists to see the status quo as good, fair, legitimate, and desirable (Kay, Jost, Mandisodza, Sherman, Petrocelli, & Johnson, 2007). Furthermore, there is consistent evidence for the psychological principle that people prefer to believe that their social system and the system’s ideology are fair and legitimate, and that people detest social systems and corresponding ideologies that are believed to be unfair and illegitimate (e.g., Crosby, Pufall, Snyder, O’Connell, & Whalen, 1989; Jost & Banaji, 1994; Kay, Jost, & Young, 2005; Lerner & Miller, 1978; Major, 1994; Martin, 1986; Tyler & McGraw, 1986).
In this chapter, I focus on the social-cognitive and epistemic bases of ideology and system justification. More specifically, I will discuss recent research (p.186) findings on the social psychology of uncertainty management processes and will especially focus on how these processes predict how people react toward fair and unfair events and to other events that bolster or violate their cultural and ideological worldviews. Thus, I will examine the role uncertainty management processes play in understanding and explaining system justification, ideology, and other human reactions pertaining to worldview defense.
First, after introducing the core topics of this chapter, I will show that management of personal uncertainty concerns may be driving people’s reactions to various social issues, including their responses to socially deviant people and their behavioral and other reactions to homeless individuals. I also will review research findings that reveal that salience of personal uncertainty is important in understanding the psychology of religion and how people react toward messages that violate or support their religious worldviews. I suggest that, at least sometimes, uncertainty management may better explain processes of system justification and worldview defense than another approach, namely, terror management theory (TMT).
I will subsequently focus on the social psychological processes underlying uncertainty management effects and will argue that a combination of experiential conditions with individual tendencies to show intense affective reactions determines people’s reactions toward fair and unfair events, as well as their reactions to innocent victims of crimes and other misfortunes. I will discuss also the possible implications of recent insights regarding the human alarm system with respect to these processes. In discussing these issues, I will note the implications of these findings and theories may have for our understanding of the psychology of system justification, ideology, and related issues such as the belief in a just world. The next section introduces briefly the uncertainty management assumption that drives the core elements of this chapter.
THE UNCERTAINTY MANAGEMENT ASSUMPTION
People can encounter different types of uncertainties (Van den Bos & Lind, 2002), but the uncertainty management work I concentrate on here focuses on the experience of personal uncertainty, which involves the implicit and explicit feelings and other subjective reactions people experience as a result of being uncertain about themselves (see, e.g., Van den Bos, 2001, 2007; Van den Bos, Poortvliet, Maas, Miedema, & Van den Ham, 2005; see also De Cremer & Sedikides, 2005; Hogg, 2005; McGregor, Zanna, Holmes, & Spencer, 2001). I define personal uncertainty as a subjective sense of doubt or instability in self-views, worldviews, and the interrelation between the two (Van den Bos & (p.187) Lind, in press). Personal uncertainty entails both stable individual differences, such as differences in emotional uncertainty (Greco & Roger, 2001), and situational fluctuations, such as conditions in which people’s personal uncertainties have (versus have not) been made salient (Van den Bos, 2001).
I work from the assumption that experiencing personal uncertainty is a “hot-cognitive” social psychological process (Abelson, 1963; Kunda, 1999; Stapel, 2003), involving a combination of both cognitive and affective reactions (Van den Bos, 2007). I also think that personal uncertainty more often than not involves visceral and intuitive (rather than more reasoned and rationalistic) reactions (Van den Bos & Lind, in press). Experiencing personal uncertainty about one’s attitudes, beliefs, feelings, and perceptions, as well as about one’s relationship to other people, is generally aversive (e.g., Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Hogg, 2000; Lopes, 1987; Sorrentino & Roney, 1986), and personal uncertainty therefore often motivates behavior that seeks to reduce it. Although experiencing personal uncertainty may sometimes be sought out and occasionally may instigate contemplation or introspection (see, e.g., McGregor & Marigold, 2003; Sorrentino, Bobocel, Gitta, Olson, & Hewitt, 1988; Weary & Jacobson, 1997), I argue that it is more common for people to find experiencing personal uncertainty an alarming event that does not allow for contemplation and introspection, but instead requires people to respond rather quickly to what is going on (Van den Bos, Ham, Lind, Simonis, Van Essen, & Rijpkema, in press).
Although a full review of uncertainty management models is beyond the scope of this paper (for more complete descriptions, see, e.g., Hogg, 2007; McGregor, 2004; Van den Bos & Lind, 2002), it is noteworthy that uncertainty management models start with the observation that the world is an uncertain place. For example, many people have jobs with indefinite tenure, and success at work often depends on adaptability and flexibility in the face of an uncertain future (Lord & Hartley, 1998). Rapid changes are happening everywhere, and news of layoffs as well as national and international conflicts reaches us almost daily. Furthermore, people are unpredictable, and most of us have experienced both unanticipated disappointments and unexpected successes in our personal, work, or political worlds.
Based on various social psychological theories and notions (see, e.g., Festinger, 1954; Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Hogg & Mullin, 1999; Lopes, 1987; Sorrentino & Roney, 1986; Weary, Jacobson, Edwards, & Tobin, 2001), uncertainty management models assume that people have a fundamental need to feel certain about their world and their place within it, that uncertainty can be threatening, and that people generally feel a need either to eliminate uncertainty or to find some way to make it tolerable and cognitively manageable (for some exceptions to this rule, see, e.g., Sorrentino & Roney, 1986). (p.188) Consider the threats that can accompany uncertainty: uncertainty deprives one of confidence in how to behave and what to expect from the physical and social environment within which one finds oneself. Uncertainty about one’s attitudes, beliefs, feelings, and perceptions, as well as about one’s relationship to other people, is generally aversive, and uncertainty therefore often motivates behavior that reduces subjective uncertainty (Van den Bos & Lind, 2002). Furthermore, epistemic motives related to uncertainty are important social psychological phenomena. Festinger (1954), for example, based social comparison theory on the proposition that knowing that one is correct is a critical human motivation that drives people to make interpersonal social comparisons when nonsocial means are unavailable.
Thus, uncertainty management models assume that managing uncertainty is an important motive that often drives people’s reactions and behaviors. This is not to say that people want to reduce uncertainty all the time or that all uncertainties are the same. Of course, being completely certain about all or many aspects of one’s life may make one’s life rather dull, and there are clearly instances in which people strive for uncertainty rather than seek to reduce it. For example, sometimes people want to experience new, uncertain events, and on occasion some of them even seek the thrill of possible danger, like bungee jumping or parachuting. This may be true, but still, uncertainty management theories argue that even when uncertainty is sought, it usually is still managed, at least to some extent. Thus, bungee jumping or parachuting can be thrilling experiences, but most people who engage in these kinds of activities make damn sure that they have information that the ropes and parachutes they are using are safe and can be trusted.
PERSONAL UNCERTAINTY AND WORLDVIEW DEFENSE
Based on the above-reviewed literature, I propose that people want to protect themselves from being in or thinking of situations in which they were uncertain about themselves. One way in which people can do this is by adhering to their cultural norms and values (e.g., Van den Bos et al., 2005). That is, work that others and I have been doing proposes that an important psychological function of cultural worldviews is that these worldviews provide certainty and stability (e.g., Van den Bos, Euwema, Poortvliet, & Maas, 2007; Van den Bos, Van Ameijde, & Van Gorp, 2006). Worldviews make the world a more predictable place and constitute buffers against threats, thus giving people an opportunity to cope with threats to their socio-political system and corresponding ideologies. An implication of the psychological function of worldviews may be that experiences that are supportive of people’s cultural (p.189) worldviews lead people to be less uncertain about themselves or to be able to better tolerate the uncertainty (e.g., Van den Bos, Heuven, Burger, & Fernández Van Veldhuizen, 2006). As a result, uncertainty management theories hypothesize that people who are uncertain about themselves or who have been reminded about their personal uncertainties will react very positively toward worldview-supportive experiences (e.g., Van den Bos, 2001). In contrast, experiences that threaten or impinge on people’s worldviews do not help people to cope with their uncertainties, hence people will respond very negatively toward these worldview-threatening experiences (e.g., Van den Bos et al., 2005).
In this respect, it is noteworthy that fairness may be one of the most important social norms and values in human life (Folger, 1984; Folger & Cropanzano, 1998; Tyler & Smith, 1998). In most situations, most people judge unfair treatment to be in violation of cultural norms and values, and think of fair treatment as being in correspondence with norms and values of good behavior and conduct (Lind & Tyler, 1988; Tyler, Boeckmann, Smith, & Huo, 1997). In other words, unfair treatment violates people’s cultural worldviews, whereas fair treatment bolsters people’s cultural worldviews (Van den Bos & Miedema, 2000; see also Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Lyon, 1989). This is not to say that people always expect or even appreciate fair events in the world. In fact, evidence suggests that sometimes unfairness best fits people’s worldviews (Major, Kaiser, O’Brien, & McCoy, 2007) and that sometimes unfair treatment may have good aspects (Van den Bos, Bruins, Wilke, & Dronkert, 1999). That said, most of the time, people want to be treated fairly and detest being treated in an unfair manner. Combining this observation with the earlier mentioned uncertainty management hypothesis led me, in 2001, to test the prediction that people would react more strongly toward variations of fair and unfair treatment under conditions in which personal uncertainty was (versus was not) made salient (Van den Bos, 2001).
In the three experiments reported in this article (Van den Bos, 2001), personal uncertainty was made salient by asking university students to complete two simple questions: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your being uncertain arouses in you,” and “Please write down, as specifically as you can, what you think physically will happen to you as you feel uncertain.” People in the uncertainty nonsalient conditions were not asked these questions, or were asked to think about their watching television (an issue that does not make personal uncertainty salient among most university students). In some experiments, the uncertainty salience manipulation was followed by giving people an opportunity to voice their opinions about a decision that had to be made or not giving them such an opportunity. In another experiment, participants responded to a job selection process in which (p.190) either all of the relevant information was carefully taken into consideration (accurate procedure) or only some of the relevant information was taken into account (inaccurate procedure). Participants judged both the voice and accurate procedures to be more fair than the no-voice and inaccurate procedures. More interestingly, when personal uncertainty had been made salient, participants reacted with more positive affect toward the fair procedures and with more negative affect toward the unfair procedures. In correspondence with what was predicted by the uncertainty management hypothesis, this suggests that, when personal uncertainty is salient, people react more positively toward events (such as fair procedures) that bolster their cultural norms and values, and they respond more negatively toward events (such as unfair treatment) that violate their cultural norms and values.
In further correspondence with uncertainty management predictions, other research findings suggest that the experience of fairness can have ameliorative effects on uncertainty by making uncertainty more tolerable. We (Van den Bos, Heuven, et al., 2006) interviewed employees at a chemical business company who had survived an influential reorganization process in which the majority of the company’s employees had been laid off. As expected on the basis of the uncertainty management hypothesis, the experience that the outcomes of the reorganization process were fair made people feel less uncertain about their current jobs. Thus, after reorganizations, outcome fairness can have ameliorative effects on job uncertainty, and this provides suggestive evidence for the uncertainty management model’s claim that people may use fairness judgments to cope with the uncertainty resulting from reorganizations and co-worker lay-offs.
Because people’s reactions to cultural norms and values encompass more than how they react to fair and unfair treatment, we also studied other worldview defense reactions in other research studies. More specifically, we noted that social groups and the values that they convey enable individuals to alleviate important human concerns by providing self-esteem resources, as well as epistemic knowledge (e.g., Dechesne, Janssen, & Van Knippenberg, 2000; Greenberg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997; Hogg, 2000). In correspondence with this notion, we (Van den Bos, Euwema, et al., 2007, Study 1) showed that asking (as opposed to not asking) people to think about their uncertainties may lead them to react more negatively toward a person who has been communicating negative things about their home country.
Uncertainty concerns also influenced how a representative sample of over 1200 citizens of Dutch society reacted to encounters with homeless persons. We argued that, for those citizens who hold negative attitudes about vulnerable people in society, homeless people deviate from the citizens’ ideas about how people should behave in their socio-political system, (p.191) possibly representing a threat to their cultural worldviews. We further proposed that, especially when emotional uncertainty is a concern for those citizens, they would show strong negative responses toward homeless individuals. As hypothesized, findings reveal that especially those persons who have a relatively negative attitude toward vulnerable people and who consider uncertainty to be a relatively emotionally threatening experience react most negatively in terms of both affective and protest reactions toward interactions with a homeless individual (Van den Bos, Euwema, et al., 2007, Study 2). Uncertainty salience may also lead people with negative attitudes toward homeless people to objectively distance themselves from belongings and materials associated with homeless individuals (Van den Bos, Euwema, et al., 2007, Study 3), indicating that uncertainty concerns can reliably affect human behavior.
Furthermore, building on the observation that extremely antireligious statements may threaten most people’s religious beliefs and/or may violate their views of how one should communicate about religious issues, we (Van den Bos, Van Ameijde, & Van Gorp, 2006) hypothesized and showed that personal uncertainty may also moderate the social psychology of religious worldview defense. an Internet study including more than 1500 respondents and a more controlled laboratory experiment among university students provided evidence for the hypothesis that salience of personal uncertainty concerns may lead people to have more negative affective reactions toward extremely negative statements about religion, especially when people are inclined to think of personal uncertainty as an emotionally threatening experience and when they are strongly religious.
Other studies also provide supportive evidence for the predictions of related uncertainty management models. Hofstede (2001), for example, showed that, compared to people who are low in uncertainty avoidance, those high in uncertainty avoidance are more conservative, less tolerant of diversity, less open to new experiences and alternative lifestyles, want immigrants to be sent back to their countries of origin, and reject people from other races as their neighbors. McGregor and colleagues (e.g., McGregor, 2004; McGregor & Marigold, 2003; McGregor, Zanna, Holmes, & Spencer, 2001) revealed that people who are made uncertain about themselves react more defensively toward events that threaten their cultural worldview, and that people do so because, in this way, they can restore their sense of self (i.e., being persons who can be certain about themselves; see also Martin, 1999). Related to this, Hogg showed in various publications that extreme self-uncertainty can motivate people to believe more strongly in ideological belief systems related to orthodoxy, hierarchy, and extremism (e.g., Hogg, 2000, 2004, 2005; see also Towler, 1984). Furthermore, some recent research findings suggest that, at (p.192) least sometimes, the uncertainty management model may better predict cultural worldview defense than a viable alternative model. I now turn to a discussion of these findings.
UNCERTAINTY AND TERROR MANAGEMENT
The uncertainty management model provides an important social psychological explanation of people’s reactions to violations and bolstering of their cultural worldviews. However, when developing a theoretical framework (and our work is clearly work in progress), it is crucial to test the model against other accounts. In a 2005 publication, we set out to achieve this goal (Van den Bos et al., 2005). Toward this end, we contrasted the predictions of uncertainty management theories, suggesting that personal uncertainty is one of the key determinants of people’s reactions toward transgressions and upholding of cultural norms and values, with another important framework that I admire and that has been very important for the understanding of ideology and system justification: TMT. An extensive review of this theoretical framework is beyond the limits of this chapter, and I refer the reader to Anson et al. (this volume) and other published reviews to gain further insight into the details of TMT (see, e.g., Greenberg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1999; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991). This section focuses on one of the core topics of the theory: namely, that TMT highlights the impact of mortality salience as a key antecedent of people’s reactions to upholding and violations of cultural norms and values (see, e.g., Greenberg et al., 1997; Rosenblatt et al., 1989).
Combining insights from the terror management studies we conducted (Van den Bos & Miedema, 2000) with insights from our earlier work on the social psychology of fairness judgments (e.g., Van den Bos, Lind, Vermunt, & Wilke, 1997; Van den Bos, Wilke, & Lind, 1998) led to the proposition that important elements of TMT seemed to fit into a broader framework of uncertainty management (Van den Bos, 2004; Van den Bos & Lind, 2002). Furthermore, this proposition converged with ideas aired in other papers published around the same time (especially Martin, 1999; McGregor et al., 2001). I argued, therefore, that it would be interesting to investigate within one experimental set-up the impact on worldview defense reactions of both uncertainty and mortality salience, the latter being another, perhaps even more influential antecedent of people’s reactions toward transgressions and upholding of cultural norms and values (cf. Greenberg et al., 1997; Pyszczynski et al., 1999; Solomon et al., 1991).
In fact, the manipulation described earlier to make personal uncertainty salient in experiments (van den Bos, 2001) was inspired by the mortality salience (p.193) manipulations most often used in terror management studies. That is, in most previous terror management studies, participants in mortality salient conditions are asked to respond to two open-ended questions concerning their thoughts and feelings about their death (e.g., Arndt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Schimel, 1999; Dechesne et al., 2000; Greenberg et al., 1990; Harmon-Jones, Simon, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, & McGregor, 1997; Van den Bos & Miedema, 2000): “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your death arouses in you,” and “Please write down, as specifically as you can, what you think physically will happen to you as you die.”
In all five experiments reported (Van den Bos et al., 2005), we compared conditions in which participants were asked to complete the two mortality questions with conditions in which they were asked the two questions pertaining to personal uncertainty (Van den Bos, 2001). By replacing “death” with “uncertain” in the most commonly used manipulations of mortality salience, and leaving everything else the same, the uncertainty salience conditions were constructed in such a way that they very closely resembled the mortality salience conditions. As a result, the influence these two types of conditions may have on people’s reactions toward transgressions and upholding of important cultural norms and values could be investigated in a scientifically important way to yield a very clean comparison between the two types of conditions. In two of the experiments, we also had a third condition in which participants thought about watching television (an issue that typically does not induce mortality or uncertainty thoughts among student participants and that did not instigate these thoughts among our participants).
In all five experiments, the salience manipulation was followed by having participants respond to worldview-supportive or worldview-threatening experiences. In some experiments, this constituted experiences of fair or unfair treatment, such as giving or withholding voice from participants or having them respond to accurate or inaccurate procedures. Earlier research findings had shown that both mortality salience (Van den Bos & Miedema, 2000) and uncertainty salience (Van den Bos, 2001) may moderate people’s affective reactions toward fair and unfair events. In other experiments, participants read and responded to articles in which a student from an important rival university was either positive or negative about the participants’ own university. Earlier terror management research had suggested that praise of students’ own university constitutes a bolstering of their cultural worldviews, whereas criticism of the university represents a violation of participants’ worldviews, and had shown that mortality salience moderates students’ reactions to praise and criticism pertaining to their university (e.g., Dechesne et al., 2000).
(p.194) In all experiments, we assessed participants’ affective reactions to the worldview-supportive or worldview-threatening experiences. In some of our experiments, we also measured to what extent participants agreed or disagreed with the opinions aired in the articles or during the fairness experiences. Agreement or disagreement with opinions aired often is used in terror management research to assess worldview defense (see, e.g., Dechesne et al., 2000).
What is interesting is that all five experiments reported (Van den Bos et al., 2005) show that both mortality and uncertainty salience influence people’s reactions to violations and bolstering of their cultural worldviews, yielding evidence for both terror and uncertainty management theories. Interestingly, the five experiments consistently reveal that uncertainty salience has a bigger impact on people’s reactions than mortality salience. The consistent findings of all five experiments indicate that mortality salience is important in predicting people’s reactions to cultural worldview defense, but that uncertainty salience can be even more important—and, in fact, was more important in all studies presented (Van den Bos et al., 2005). The results thus provide supportive evidence for uncertainty management model’s reasoning that uncertainty-related thought is a key cause of people’s reactions toward events that bolster or threaten people’s cultural worldviews, and even suggest (see also Martin, 1999; McGregor et al., 2001) that uncertainty salience, at least sometimes, can be a more important cause of people’s reactions to these experiences than a strong other account (viz. TMT).
Even more interestingly, in all five experiments, uncertainty salience did not instigate death-related thoughts. Furthermore, in four out of five experiments, we found that, among participants in whom mortality salience spontaneously triggered uncertainty-related thought, reactions were more strongly influenced by the fairness or ingroup information manipulations. In contrast, for participants in whom mortality salience did not spontaneously activate uncertainty-related thought, weaker or nonsignificant differences between the procedure or ingroup information conditions were obtained. These findings show that—although mortality salience effects may not always be purely the result of uncertainty concerns (see, e.g., Landau et al., 2004; Routledge, Arndt, & Goldenberg, 2004)—at least sometimes it may be the uncertainty component of mortality salience manipulations that drives people’s reactions to violations or bolstering of cultural worldviews. This suggests that, at least sometimes, processes of uncertainty management may be underlying the effects reported in the terror management literature. At a minimum, our (Van den Bos et al., 2005) findings indicate that uncertainty management processes are important when trying to understand the social psychology of people’s worldviews.
(p.195) I emphasize here that we remain very enthusiastic about TMT and believe that those social-cultural issues the theory studies are important, insightful, and among the best in modern social psychology (Van den Bos, 2004; Van den Bos & Miedema, 2000). Therefore, my purpose is certainly not to falsify or attack TMT. Rather, I want to see how and to what extent we can build on and extend the theory to encompass other issues (such as personal uncertainty) previously not explicitly explored by the theory. It is my belief that only such an open attitude may further the social psychology of ideology, system justification, and related issues (Van den Bos & Lind, in press).
Many issues pertaining to the relationship between uncertainty and terror management processes remain to be investigated. For example, ironically, it could be argued that the fact that one day we will die is the only certainty we humans have. This indeed may be the case, but contemplating your own death may still induce feelings of personal uncertainty (Van den Bos et al., 2005) and hence may trigger cultural worldview defense reactions.
Perhaps more interestingly, terror management researchers have failed to replicate stronger effects on worldview defense measures following uncertainty as opposed to mortality salience, and have found stronger effects for mortality salience instead (see, e.g., Landau et al., 2004). This may have something to do with the different sets of dependent variables used in the two studies (Landau et al., 2004; Van den Bos et al., 2005). It could also be that cross-cultural differences between the United States (where most terror management studies, including the Landau et al. work, have been done) and the Netherlands (where we have collected our data) may be partly responsible for these differential findings. Recent data suggest that occasionally quite different fairness effects can be found in these two countries (Van den Bos, Stein, Brockner, Steiner, Van Yperen, & Dekker, 2007).
I would applaud future research that focuses on the appropriate issue of when uncertainty is a prime determinant of cultural worldview defense and when other concerns (such as terror management processes) may be a stronger determinant. Furthermore, it is important to examine in considerably more detail the precise social psychological processes and mechanisms that may explain why uncertainty salience and mortality salience yield such strong effects on people’s reactions to fair and unfair events and other events that bolster or threaten their cultural worldviews (Van den Bos & Lind, in press). Helpful in this respect may be consideration of the many complex issues that terror management theorists have thoroughly explored and explained well (such as the proximal/distal and conscious/nonconscious distinctions, and the underlying processes of worldview defense; Pyszczynski et al., 1999). These issues may help to formulate and test models of psychological processes that underlie the empirical findings reviewed here.
(p.196) I emphasize here that the point of our research (Van den Bos et al., 2005) was not to argue that uncertainty salience always will or should instigate stronger effects than mortality salience concerns. I would regard it as unfortunate if the science of cultural worldview defense and the social psychology of the uncertain and mortal self were to focus too much on conducting “horse races” to see which type of salience (uncertainty or mortality salience) wins most frequently (Van den Bos & Lind, in press). Instead, I believe, as do others (e.g., Heine, Proulx, & Vohs, 2006), that it is far better to focus on investigating the social psychological processes and mechanisms that explain why and when uncertainty salience, mortality salience, or other stimuli (see, e.g., Miedema, Van den Bos, & Vermunt, 2006) lead to strong effects on people’s reactions to fair and unfair events and on their reactions to other events that bolster or threaten their cultural worldviews. That said, the results discussed in this section suggest that, at least sometimes, the uncertainty management account may work pretty well and that uncertainty management processes may be definitely worthwhile to study when one is interested in the social-cognitive and epistemic bases of ideology and system justification. We now turn to a further examination of the social psychological processes of uncertainty management.
THE SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY OF UNCERTAINTY MANAGEMENT: AFFECTIVE-EXPERIENTIAL PROCESSES
Much work has been conducted to explain the social psychological processes that may underlie uncertainty management effects (see, e.g., Hogg, 2000, 2004, 2005; Martin, 1999; McGregor et al., 2001; Murray, Rose, Bellavia, Holmes, & Garrett Kusche, 2002; Sorrentino & Roney, 1999; Van den Bos & Lind, 2002; Weary et al., 2001). My research group focuses especially on how these processes and effects may pertain to the social psychology of fairness judgments (e.g., Maas & Van den Bos, 2006a; Van den Bos et al., in press). In the next two sections, I discuss recent research lines that may be conducive to our understanding of the social psychology of uncertainty management processes.
One very interesting line of work in this respect has been developed by Marjolein Maas. A core assumption driving the line of research by Maas and Van den Bos (2006a) was that personal uncertainty often leads people to react more strongly toward fair and unfair events because being uncertain or being reminded about things one is uncertain about may instigate strong affective-experiential processes. Thus, in terms of cognitive-experiential self-theory (Epstein, 1994; Epstein & Pacini, 1999), the idea was that experiencing feelings of uncertainty may lead people to start processing information they subsequently receive in experiential-intuitive ways.
(p.197) In correspondence with other lines of research (e.g., Chaiken & Trope, 1999; Shweder & Haidt, 1993; Smith & DeCoster, 2000; Strack & Deutsch, 2004), cognitive-experiential self-theory distinguishes between two conceptual systems that people use to process information, namely experiential-intuitive and rational-cognitive systems (Epstein, 1994; Epstein & Pacini, 1999). The experiential way of processing information is intuitive, preconsciously encodes information into concrete images or metaphors, and makes associative connections. In experiential modes, events are experienced passively, and people can be seized by their emotions. The rational way of processing information, on the other hand, is analytic, encodes information in abstract ways, is based on making logical cause-and-effect connections, and requires intentional, effortful processing. In rational modes of information processing, people experience events actively and consciously while thinking things over and making justifications for what happened in these events, and in these modes, people are in control of their thoughts.
Cognitive-experiential self-theory also assumes that the operation of experiential mindsets is intimately associated with affect-related experiences (see, e.g., Epstein & Pacini, 1999). If experiential mindsets indeed make people’s fairness reactions more susceptible to affect-related processes, then the intensity with which people react affectively to daily life events (Larsen, Diener, & Cropanzano, 1987; Larsen, Diener, & Emmons, 1986) should interact with people’s mindsets. Earlier fairness studies have shown that individual differences in affect intensity can moderate people’s fairness reactions (Van den Bos, Maas, Waldring, & Semin, 2003). Integrating this line of work with cognitive-experiential self-theory led Maas and Van den Bos (2006a) to predict that, under conditions of uncertainty, individual differences in affect intensity (Larsen et al., 1986, 1987) should moderate people’s fairness reactions, especially when they use experiential (as opposed to rationalistic) modes of information processing.
Introducing a new manipulation of experiential versus rationalistic mindsets to the research literature, the findings of the studies reported by Maas and Van den Bos (2006a) indeed suggest that, in uncertain conditions, people who use experiential mindsets react more strongly toward fair and unfair events when they score high on the affect intensity scale (compared to those who use rationalistic mindsets and/or who score low on affect intensity).
As noted by Kay and colleagues (2007), several social psychological theories assume that human beings are motivated to believe in a predictable and controllable social world (Allport, 1966; Janoff-Bulman & Yopyk, 2004; Kluegel & Smith, 1986; Langer, 1975; Lerner, 1980; Major, 1994; Plaks, Grant, & Dweck, 2005). This motivation is thought to be so strong that when people encounter evidence that some events are uncontrollable, chaotic, or randomly (p.198) determined, they generally respond by construing things as to minimize the threat to feelings of controllability (Hafer & Bègue, 2005). Building and extending on this line of reasoning, another paper suggests that the combination of individual differences in affect intensity and experiential or rationalistic mindsets influences how people respond toward innocent victims of crimes or other misfortunes (Maas & Van den Bos, 2006b). These findings thus suggest that focusing on affect intensity (e.g., Larsen et al., 1986, 1987) and experiential versus rationalistic mindsets (e.g., Epstein, 1994; Epstein & Pacini, 1999) may be important when trying to understand the cognitive and epistemic bases of ideology and system justification (e.g., Jost & Banaji, 1994; Jost, Fitzsimons, & Kay, 2004), as well as how people use their beliefs in a just world to cope with the uncertainties they encounter (e.g., Lerner, 1980; Van den Bos & Lind, 2002).
Interesting in this respect is that the research findings we reported (Van den Bos, Euwema, et al., 2007, Study 2; Van den Bos, Van Ameijde, & Van Gorp, 2006, Study 1) show that individual differences in emotional uncertainty (as measured by the scale developed by Greco & Roger, 2001) moderated people’s worldview reactions toward homeless individuals (Van den Bos, Euwema, et al., 2007) and their reactions toward extremely negative statements about religion (Van den Bos, Van Ameijde, & Van Gorp, 2006). The Greco and Roger (2001) measure of cognitive uncertainty did not show significant effects on people’s reactions in these studies nor in other studies in which we included this scale. This suggests that the influence of uncertainty concerns on worldview defense and system justification may best be understood from a perspective that focuses on the emotional components that the experience of uncertainty entails.
THE SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY OF UNCERTAINTY MANAGEMENT: THE HUMAN ALARM SYSTEM
This final section discusses another very recent line of research that may also further our insights into the social psychology of uncertainty management, system justification, and fairness judgments. This research program was driven by the working hypothesis that people may show strong reactions following the experience of personal uncertainty because experiencing feelings of uncertainty may constitute an alarming experience for them. More specifically, in this line of research (Van den Bos et al., 2008), we examined a possible connection between, on the one hand, the augmentation of justice effects in the presence of personal uncertainty (e.g., Van den Bos, 2001; Van den Bos et al., 2005) and other self-threatening conditions (Miedema, Van den Bos, & Vermunt, 2006) and, on the other hand, related phenomena in social cognition and social neuroscience showing the possible existence (p.199) of a “human alarm system” (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004; Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003; see also Murray, Holmes, & Collins, 2005).
As noted earlier, it is well-established in the justice literature that personal uncertainty (Van den Bos, 2001; Van den Bos & Lind, 2002; Van den Bos et al., 2005) and other self-threatening conditions (Miedema et al., 2006) lead to more extreme reactions toward fair and unfair events. Interestingly, in the literature on close relationships and social neuroscience, personal uncertainty and self-threats recently have been suggested to lead to the activation of a “human alarm system,” a psychological system that people use to detect and handle alarming situations and that prompts people to process more alertly what is going on in the situations in which they find themselves. For example, Murray and colleagues (2005) suggested that personal uncertainty (Murray et al., 2002) and perceived insecurity in close relationships (Murray, 2005) activate the human alarm system so that, among other things, people process more alertly what is happening in their relationships.
Related to this, Eisenberger and colleagues (2003) have argued that being ostracized or experiencing other self-threatening events activates parts of the human brain that they labeled the human alarm system. Furthermore, Eisenberger and Lieberman (2004) proposed that the alarm system is responsible for detecting cues that might be harmful to survival and, after activation, for recruiting attention and coping responses to minimize threat. For example, Eisenberger and colleagues (2003) have argued that experiencing social exclusion or other self-threatening events may be an experience of social pain. Like physical pain, the experience of social pain may trigger the human alarm system, hence “alerting us when we have sustained injury to our social connections” (Eisenberger et al., 2003, p. 292). From an evolutionary perspective, the working of such an alarm system would be adaptive (see Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004) insofar as it prompts the human organism to act and respond more quickly to what is going on in the environment and hence make the organism’s survival more likely (see, e.g., De Waal, 1996).
We proposed (Van den Bos et al., in press) that one way to triangulate the relationships between personal uncertainty (Miedema et al., 2006; Van den Bos, 2001; Van den Bos et al., 2005), the human alarm system (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004; Eisenberger et al., 2003; Murray et al., 2005), and social justice judgments is by conceptualizing an overlap between the alarm system and the justice judgment process. A hypothesis that can be derived from such a postulated overlap is that factors that people associate with alarming conditions should enhance the sensitivity of the alarm system and thus, given the postulated overlap, potentiate sensitivity to the justice-related events people subsequently experience. So, just as Eisenberger and Lieberman (2004) postulated that the brain bases of social pain are similar to those of physical (p.200) pain and hypothesized that “factors that enhance the sensitivity to one type of pain should enhance the sensitivity of this alarm system and thus potentiate sensitivity to the other type of pain as well” (p. 297), we postulated that presenting to people alarm-related symbols should activate the human alarm system and hence potentiate sensitivity to other types of processes associated with it as well, including enhanced sensitivity to the justice judgment process, thus making people react more sensitively toward subsequently experienced fair or unfair events.
More specifically, from the literature reviewed here at least two things can be concluded: personal uncertainty and other self-threatening conditions activate the human alarm system (Eisenberger et al., 2003; Murray et al., 2005); and personal uncertainty and self-threatening conditions lead to more extreme judgments about procedural and outcome justice (Miedema et al., 2006; Van den Bos 2001; Van den Bos et al., 2005). Thus, it is known that the same conditions that may activate the human alarm system may also lead to more extreme justice judgments. this suggests that activating the human alarm system directly, by presenting alarm-related stimuli to people, may lead to more extreme reactions toward fair and unfair events.
An intriguing hypothesis that follows from the alarm-system perspective, laid out in detail in our report (Van den Bos et al., 2008), is that the presentation of cues closely or even subtly related to alarming conditions may lead people to form more extreme judgments about subsequently presented fair and unfair events. Findings of various experiments (scenario studies, an experiential experiment, and functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI] testing) indeed provide evidence for this line of reasoning both inside and outside the psychology lab. That is, research findings reveal that viewing large exclamation points prior to making evaluations of the justice of accurate or inaccurate procedures, good or bad outcomes, and voice or no-voice procedures indeed made participants react more extremely toward the procedures or outcomes (Van den Bos et al., 2008, Experiments 1–3). Furthermore, another experimental study replicated and extended these findings by showing that a flashing warning light produced similar effects on outcome justice judgments among participants with various educational backgrounds and from different age groups who were walking in the shopping center of a typical Dutch city (Van den Bos et al., 2008, Experiment 4). In correspondence with the alarm-system view of the justice judgment process, the findings reveal that the mere presence of a flashing light can lead people to show more extreme justice judgments in response to variations in good and bad outcomes.
The studies reported (Van den Bos et al., 2008) were in part inspired by the conjecture that uncertainty management findings reported in the justice (p.201) literature (see, e.g., Van den Bos, 2001; Van den Bos & Lind, 2002; Van den Bos et al., 2005) may be explained by the notion that experiences of personal uncertainty may often constitute alarming events to people, and that it is this alarm-related component of uncertainty manipulations that may largely drive the uncertainty effects reported in the social psychological literature (e.g., Hogg, 2005; McGregor et al., 2001; Murray et al., 2002). Very interesting in this respect are some auxiliary findings from fMRI testing (Van den Bos & Rijpkema, 2007) showing that watching an exclamation point leads to a brain activation pattern that shares areas (medial frontal gyrus, Brodmann area [BA] 9) with those brain regions found to be active in personal moral judgment tasks and that is known to be sensitive to tapping the combined effects of human cognitive and emotional responses (Greene et al., 2001, 2004). This may indicate that a combination of cognition and emotion may best predict how people will form justice judgments (cf. Van den Bos et al., 2008) and make personal moral decisions (cf. Greene et al., 2001, 2004). In other words, the social psychology of uncertainty management and system justification may be a process of “hot cognition,” and not “cold cognition” (see, e.g., Abelson, 1963; Kunda, 1999; Stapel, 2003). Future research should pursue and test this line of thinking.
In closing, I would like to note that, as far as I know, the alarm-system perspective has not previously been integrated with the justice literature, so the union of the two lines of work may well give new insights into the process by which justice judgments are formed. Furthermore, there may be at least one other reason why the findings reported (Van den Bos et al., 2008) make a worthwhile contribution to the social justice literature. That is, in the literature, it has been assumed frequently that one important reason to study the concept of justice is that, compared to other social motives, there is something unique about the justice concept—something that makes the process of how justice judgments are formed stand out, when compared to the processes with which people form judgments of related yet different constructs (see, e.g., Lerner, 1977, 1980, 2003; Montada, 1998, 2002). What may be an important aspect of the line of reasoning and the findings we present (Van den Bos et al., 2008) is that they may cast doubt on whether this assumption is, in fact, warranted. That is, the continuing attempts in the justice literature to focus on what makes the justice concept different from other concepts may have come at the expense of neglecting a thorough examination of the basic processes that also may play a pivotal role in how people form justice judgments.
(p.202) The explicit goal of our research program is to focus on the basics of the justice judgment process, and an important implication of this line of thinking is that the justice judgment process may share important similarities with the processes used to determine other human judgments and responses. Thus, one explicit aim of our work is to show that the justice judgment process may be affected by sometimes subtle cues in people’s environments—cues that may not be revealed when justice judgments are unique. So, following the advice of Bem (1987) to end a paper with a bang and not a whimper, and to paraphrase a well-known justice article (Lerner, 2003) and often-repeated conference presentation (e.g., Lerner, 1997, 2002): If we continue to study the justice judgment processes as something unique, and not as something that is part of more general social psychological processes and principles (such as processes of uncertainty management, system justification, and the human alarm system), it may lead justice researchers to lose their connection with contemporary social psychology and not find this connection again. In this chapter, I have tried to show that more closely linking the justice judgment process with the social psychology of uncertainty, system justification, affective-experiential processes, and the human alarm system may be a good way to go.
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