Perception of Economic Distributive Justice: Exploring Leading Theories

Article excerpt

This study assessed the power of four theories in predicting individuals' perception of economic distributive justice: Self-interest Theory, Belief in a Just World, Attribution Theory, and Ideology. On the basis of a community survey of 487 adults, regression analyses showed that Self-interest Theory and Belief in a Just World provided moderate predictions of economic distributive justice perception; and Attribution Theory and Ideology yielded the strongest predictions. This finding has implications for future theoretical development.

A chief concern of governments and other policy makers is the extent to which the economy distributes resources fairly, and how the electorate perceives the distribution. With respect to the perception of economic distributive justice, theorists have provided different explanations of how individuals judge the fairness of distributions in the general economy. Four leading theories emerge from the extensive literature, of which a representative sample would include Cohen (1982), Diekmann, Ross, Samuels and Bazerman (1997), Furnham and Gunter (1984), Greenberg (1990), Kravitz (1995), Messick and Sends (1979, 1993), Pratto, Tatar and Conway-Lanz (1999), Rubin and Peplau (1975), Summers (1995), and Truxillo and Bauer (1999). The four theories are: Self-interest Theory, Belief in a Just World, Attribution Theory, and Ideology. According to Self-interest Theory, individuals' perception of economic distributive justice depends on how much they personally benefit from the allocation. Belief in a Just World Theory contends that some people need to believe the world is stable, orderly and just, and this need entices them to perceive greater economic distributive justice. Attribution Theory suggests that a distributive justice perception relies on whether the individual attributes the economic outcome to an internal or external cause. According to the Ideology perspective, people are socialized into ideologies that prescribe values, attitudes and behavior in various content domains, including justice judgments.

Previous research has not compared the predictive powers of these four theories. Hence, the present study examines each theory's prediction of individuals' distributive justice perception. As will be reviewed in the next section, each theory provides insights and has robust empirical support. Each theory is likely to explain and predict individuals' distributive-justice perception, and so the aim of the present study is not to endorse one theory over another. Instead, the more modest aim is to explore two questions. Do any two (or more) theories overlap in the portion of economic distributive-justice variance for which they can account? Can all four theories when combined fully account for individuals' perception of economic distributive justice? The answers could guide future theoretical development by showing which two theories share conceptual overlap, and - just as important - by indicating whether or not alternative theories and constructs are needed in order to more fully account for individuals' perception of economic distributive justice.


Proponents of Self-interest Theory suggest that people are materialistic, pursue self-centered goals, and make choices to maximize expected utilities (e.g., Sears & Funk, 1991). That is, individuals would rank all possible alternatives according to how much personal benefit they will bring, and then choose the alternative with the greatest benefit. According to this theory, the reproduction of one's genes and the evolutionary imperative for survival motivate self-interested action. The position that self-interest drives behavior forms the basis of many theories, including neoclassical models of economic behaviour (e.g., Ng, 1984; Smith, 1776/1937), theories of political party preference (e.g., Mansbridge, 1990), classical conditioning principles in which organisms prefer objects that reward over those that punish (e. …


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