Our Research

People confront social inequality and unfairness every day. Intuitively, one might think that instances of unfairness would, in the words of social activist and psychologist Morton Deutsch, "awaken a sense of injustice," and that people would work hard to rectify unfairness. Yet mobilizing social change is notoriously difficult.

Despite widely touted egalitarian ideals, inequality and unfairness does not always spark the desire for change. My program of research investigates how and why social inequality is maintained, examining processes at both individual and institutional levels.

Ultimately my work examining how inequality is maintained at individual and instuitional levels provides insight into how to promote a variety of benefits: social change, redress, and the re-engagement of members of vulnerable groups into the system.

Sampling of Representative Publications

Evidence that Gendered Wording in Job Advertisements Exists and Sustains Gender Inequality

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 109-128
Gaucher D, Friesen J, Kay AC (2011).

Abstract: Social dominance theory (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999) contends that institutional-level mechanisms exist that reinforce and perpetuate existing group-based inequalities, but very few such mechanisms have been empirically demonstrated. We propose that gendered wording (i.e., masculine- and feminine-themed words, such as those associated with gender stereotypes) may be a heretofore unacknowledged, institutional-level mechanism of inequality maintenance.

Employing both archival and experimental analyses, the present research demonstrates that gendered wording commonly employed in job recruitment materials can maintain gender inequality in traditionally male-dominated occupations. Studies 1 and 2 demonstrated the existence of subtle but systematic wording differences within a randomly sampled set of job advertisements. Results indicated that job advertisements for male-dominated areas employed greater masculine wording (i.e., words associated with male stereotypes, such as leader, competitive, dominant) than advertisements within female-dominated areas. No difference in the presence of feminine wording (i.e., words associated with female stereotypes, such as support, understand, interpersonal) emerged across male- and female-dominated areas.

Next, the consequences of highly masculine wording were tested across 3 experimental studies. When job advertisements were constructed to include more masculine than feminine wording, participants perceived more men within these occupations (Study 3), and importantly, women found these jobs less appealing (Studies 4 and 5). Results confirmed that perceptions of belongingness (but not perceived skills) mediated the effect of gendered wording on job appeal (Study 5). The function of gendered wording in maintaining traditional gender divisions, implications for gender parity, and theoretical models of inequality are discussed.

Difficulties awakening the sense of injustice and overcoming oppression: On the soporific effects of system justification.

In P. Coleman (Ed.), Conflict, interdependence, and justice: The intellectual legacy of Morton Deutsch
Gaucher, D., & Jost, J. (2011).

Morton Deutsch (Social Justice Research, 19, 7–41, 2006) identifies "awakening a sense of injustice" as a necessary precursor of social change. Building on Deutsch's theorizing, we propose that system justification, the motivation to defend and justify existing social, economic, and political institutions, and to derogate or dismiss alternatives to the status quo (Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, Political Psychology, 25, 881–920, 2004), operates as an obstacle to awakening the sense of injustice. In this chapter, we summarize recent research findings illustrating the soporific effects of system justification motivation, that is, the ways in which it inhibits the awakening of a sense of injustice. Furthermore, we observe that social change is most likely to be embraced when it is system-sanctioned and therefore imbued with the legitimacy of the overarching social system. Although disruptive social protest may sometimes be necessary, broad system-level changes may be more readily accomplished through interventions and appeals that do not directly challenge the status quo, but instead garner psychological support through their association with the current system.

Compensatory rationalizations and the resolution of everyday undeserved events

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 109-118
Gaucher, D., Hafer, C., Kay, A. C., & Davidenko, N. (2010).

Abstract: People prefer to perceive the world as just; however, the everyday experience of undeserved events challenges this perception. The authors suggest that one way people rationalize these daily experiences of unfairness is by means of a compensatory bias. People make undeserved events more palatable by endorsing the notion that outcomes naturally balance out in the end—good, yet undeserved, outcomes will balance out bad outcomes, and bad undeserved outcomes will balance out good outcomes. The authors propose that compensatory biases manifest in people's interpretive processes (Study 1) and memory (Study 2). Furthermore, they provide evidence that people have a natural tendency to anticipate compensatory outcomes in the future, which, ironically, might lead them to perceive a current situation as relatively more fair (Study 3).These studies highlight an understudied means of justifying unfairness and elucidate the justice motive's power to affect people's construal of their social world.

Compensatory control: In the mind, in our institutions, in the heavens

Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 264-268
Kay, A. C., Whitson, J., Gaucher, D., & Galinsky, A. D. (2009).

Abstract: We propose that perceptions of personal control are one means to protect the belief in a controllable, nonrandom world. Accordingly, people respond to losses of personal control by imbuing their social, physical, and metaphysical environments with order and structure. We demonstrate that when personal control is threatened, people can preserve a sense of order by (a) perceiving patterns in noise or adhering to superstitions and conspiracies, (b) defending the legitimacy of the sociopolitical institutions that offer control, or (c) believing in an interventionist God. We also present evidence that these processes of compensatory control help people cope with the anxiety and discomfort that lacking personal control fuels, that it is lack of personal control specifically and not general threat or negativity that drives these processes, and that these various forms of compensatory control are ultimately substitutable for one another. Our model of compensatory control offers insight into a wide variety of phenomena, from prejudice to the idiosyncratic rituals of professional athletes to societal rituals around weddings, graduations, and funerals.

Inequality, discrimination, and the power of the status quo: Direct evidence for a motivation to view what is as what should be

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 421-434
Kay, A. C. Gaucher, D., Peach, J. M., Friesen, J., Laurin, K., Zanna, M. P., & Spencer, S. J. (2009).

Abstract: How powerful is the status quo in determining people's social ideals? We propose (a) that people engage in injunctification, that is, a motivated tendency to construe the current status quo as the most desirable and reasonable state of affairs (i.e., as the most representative of how things should be); (b) that this tendency is driven, at least in part, by people's desire to justify their sociopolitical systems; and (c) that injunctification has profound implications for the maintenance of inequality and societal change. Four studies, across a variety of domains, provided supportive evidence. When the motivation to justify the sociopolitical system was experimentally heightened, participants injunctified extant (a) political power (Study 1), (b) public funding policies (Study 2), and (c) unequal gender demographics in the political and business spheres (Studies 3 and 4, respectively). It was also demonstrated that this motivated phenomenon increased derogation of those who act counter to the status quo (Study 4). Theoretical implications for system justification theory, stereotype formation, affirmative action, and the maintenance of inequality are discussed.

Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.

— Cesar Chavez