Believing life is fair leads to lower self-esteem and worse behavior in children, a new study suggests. The findings, published in Child Development, suggests that adolescents from disadvantaged backgrounds who believe that they live in a fair social system display lower self-esteem, higher rates of delinquency, and perform worse in the classroom by the time they reach the 8th grade.
Studying this phenomenon in adolescents is “really interesting,” coauthor on the study Erin Godfrey, an assistant professor of applied psychology at New York University, told Fatherly. Because that period of time “is characterized by huge cognitive advances that allow children to understand power and privilege and the systemic nature of discrimination.”
Prior studies have shown links between system-justifying beliefs and lower self-esteem and higher depressive symptoms in adults. That may be because, as the American Psychological Association recognizes, we tend to mistakenly attribute poverty and wealth solely to factors under our control, such as ability and effort. In other words, when disadvantaged people believe the system is fair, they become depressed because they think that their suffering is somehow justified, or their own fault. But that’s only for adults. Until now, researchers hadn’t studied how adolescents perceive inequality, and how this impacts their mental health.
So Godfrey and her team looked at longitudinal data from 257 middle school students, obtained from the Arizona Department of Education, National School Lunch Program, and School Breakfast Program. They focused on children with lower socioeconomic statuses, a sample that also happened to be 90 percent racial and ethnic minorities. Godfrey says they selected this population because system justification theory predicts negative effects not just for people who believe the system is fair, but also for those who are marginalized by the system. “We focused, therefore, on youth who experience economic marginalization in our system.”
Although they found that belief in the system had positive effects initially, through the 6th grade, the results suggest that by 7th grade students who continued to trust the fairness of the system had lower self-esteem, engaged in more risky behaviors, and were less attentive in class. They also found that students who experienced the most discrimination were at highest risk. And yet, most of them continued putting their faith in the inherent fairness of their country, government, and society. Godfrey suspects that’s probably because adolescents often want to hold themselves (and their social spheres) in a favorable light. “People are motivated to believe that the world and the systems are fair,” Godfrey says. “Because it serves a helpful psychological purpose.”
Godfrey recommends teaching young people about the social, economic, and historical factors that contribute to marginalization and discrimination, so they develop a healthy skepticism of the fairness of society and learn on their own that life often isn’t fair. Showing adolescents how the system works—and when it doesn’t—could help disadvantaged youth cope with their situations.
Future studies, Godfrey says, should address how belief in the system impacts kids with higher socioeconomic statuses, too. As a mother of a three-year-old that she describes as “very privileged,” Godfrey suspects that her own kid isn’t off the hook. “The danger of more advantaged youth believing in the fairness of the system is the tendency it gives them to blame those who are disadvantaged for their own disadvantage,” she says. “It helps them to explain away inequities as the fault of the people who have them rather than taking a close look at the systemic forces that hurt some and privilege others.”
That’s a pretty heavy conversation to have with a three-year-old. But perhaps a crucial one to have with a 6th grader.