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What Happens When People Feel Deprived In A System They Believe To Be Just?

October 29, 2013

By Danny Osborne and Chris G. Sibley (University of Auckland)

With the recent protests in Egypt, Syria, and Iran—not to mention the global “We are the 99%” movement—fresh in our minds, it is easy to overlook the inequalities that exist in our own backyard. Indeed, one of the particularly striking aspects of these social movements is the rarity with which they occur. Yet we know that, when looking at inequalities from a strictly objective standpoint, there are a number of reasons to believe that many within the general public will be unhappy with their current lot in life. For example, research shows that the gap between the richest and the poorest in most Western democracies has widened substantially over the last 30 years (Atkinson, Piketty, & Saez, 2011). Moreover, the pattern of increasing levels of inequality appears to have only been temporarily disrupted by the global financial crisis (Lowrey, 2012; see “U.S. Income Gap Rose“). Thus, we are left with a challenging question: Why are social movements so infrequent?

We have been intrigued by this very question and have identified a number of key factors needed to transform discontent into social action. For one, the type of emotion people experience critically shapes how they respond to feeling deprived (see Osborne, Smith, & Huo, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2012). Within the context of real-world workplace disputes, fear tends to motivate people to try and escape the situation by seeking employment elsewhere. In contrast, whereas feeling sad about one’s deprived status leads people to withdraw from their job, some people may feel grateful that things are not as bad as they could be. In turn, feelings of gratefulness can increase people’s loyalty and commitment to their organization. As such, it is only when people experience anger that they turn to activities that (overtly) seek to redress inequality.

Surely many people are angered by outcomes that they perceive to be unfair. So why don’t they protest? We recently examined this question in a national probability sample of adults (Osborne & Sibley,  2013) who took part in the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS). In addition to asking participants how personally deprived they felt relative to others, we asked how deprived they thought their group was relative to other groups in society. To explain why feelings of discontent may not always translate into social protest, we also assessed participants’ beliefs about the overall fairness of society. We then asked a series of questions about participants’ satisfaction with their standard of living, levels of psychological distress, beliefs about the amount of discrimination faced by their group, and support for political protest.

Our first set of findings focus on the effects feeling personally deprived had on our outcome measures. Unsurprisingly, the more personally deprived participants felt, the less satisfied they were with their standard of living. Likewise, as feelings of personal deprivation went up, so did participants’ levels of psychological distress. Both of these relationships were, however, substantially weaker among participants who believed that they were living in a just system. In other words, believing that society was fair provided participants a critical buffer against the harmful effects of being personally deprived. These results show that believing in the ultimate fairness of society (despite feeling personally-deprived) may sometimes soften the blow of inequality—at least temporarily.

Our second set of findings bears directly on our question about the relative infrequency of collective action by focusing on participants’ beliefs about how deprived their group was relative to other groups. Specifically, the more participants believed that their group was deprived, the more they felt that their group was the target of discrimination. Critically, perceptions of group-based deprivation were positively correlated with support for collective action such that increases in the experience of group-based deprivation corresponded with increases in participants’ willingness to engage in social protest. We also found that beliefs about the fairness of the system tended to dampen the effects of group-based deprivation on responses to perceived inequality. That is, believing that society is fair and just was linked with lower levels of willingness to try and redress the inequalities that disadvantaged one’s group. Thus, believing that society was fair appears to benefit people in the short-term by cushioning them from the harmful effects of inequality on their mental health. In the long-run, however, such beliefs may be detrimental to their group’s well-being by undermining people’s willingness to challenge these perceived grievances.

Although it may be easy to look at the recent spike in protest activities as evidence that grievances unequivocally lead to collective action, we tend to forget that inequality has become part and parcel of many people’s everyday lives. Indeed, the relationship between inequality and people’s attempts to change the system is often thwarted by many factors including the types of emotions they experience. Moreover, as we have shown, people can be temporarily sheltered from the harmful effects of feeling personally deprived by believing that society is fair. In the long run, however, believing that they live in a just society can lead people to overlook the need to redress group-based inequalities. Thus, as the world continues to recover from the global financial crisis, the challenge for social scientists—and society as a whole—is to increase our understanding of how people respond to inequality. It is only then that we will be able to ensure that resources are distributed in a truly fair and just manner.

Author Information

Danny OsborneDanny Osborne is a lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland. His research examines the psychological processes underlying political attitudes including collective action, voting, and support for various public policies.

Chris G. SibleyChris G. Sibley is a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland. He is the lead researcher for the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study. This is a representative longitudinal study that assesses change and stability in the personality, social attitudes, and values of roughly 6500 New Zealanders each year.


Atkinson, A. B., Piketty, T., & Saez, E. (2011). Top incomes in the long run of history. Journal of Economic Literature, 49(1), 3-71. doi: 10.1257/jel.49.1.3

Lowrey, A. M. (2012, September 13). U.S. income gap rose, sign of uneven recovery. The New York Times, p. A21.

Osborne, D., & Sibley, C. G. (2013). Through rose-colored glasses: System-justifying beliefs dampen the effects of relative deprivation on well-being and political mobilization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(8), 991-1004. doi: 10.1177/0146167213487997

Osborne, D., Smith, H. J., & Huo, Y. J. (2012). More than a feeling: Discrete emotions mediate the relationship between relative deprivation and reactions to workplace furloughs. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(5), 628-641. doi: 10.1177/0146167211432766

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