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«Annual Review of Psychology, Volume 52 ©February 2001 by Annual Reviews, Annual Review of Psychology Vol. 52: 527-553 ...»

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Annual Review of Psychology

Vol. 52: 527-553 (Volume publication date February 2001)



Dale T. Miller

Department of Psychology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08540;

e-mail: dmiller@princeton.edu


This review analyzes research and theory pertaining to the psychology of injustice, using as its organizing theme the role that the perception of disrespect plays in the experience of injustice. The analysis focuses primarily on the links between disrespect and anger, disrespect and injustice, and anger and injustice. Determinants of the intensity of people's reactions to injustices are also reviewed. In addition, the review examines the goals of retaliation as well as the forms that retaliation can take.

Parallels between justice reactions to those acts of disrespect directed toward the self and those directed toward others are noted. Finally, the review discusses the implications of justice research for understanding the specific and general entitlements that people believe are their due.


Of fascination to philosophers since Aristotle, the topic of justice has only recently engaged the interest of psychologists. The fourth edition of the Handbook of Social Psychology (Gilbert et al 1998) devotes a chapter to justice (Tyler & Smith 1998), but the third edition (Lindzey & Aronson 1985) does not even have an entry for justice in the subject index. To some extent, this neglect is more apparent than real, because a number of research traditions with long-standing interest in justice have only recently started to sail under the flag of “justice research.” Research on relative deprivation (Crosby 1976, Merton & Kitt 1950, Olson et al 1986, Stouffer et al 1949) and prosocial behavior (Batson 1998, Krebs & Miller 1985, Lerner 1980) are two cases in point. Not even these latter research traditions, however, can boast a long history of direct investigation of justice reactions. Relative deprivation and equity researchers, for example, traditionally have not asked participants how just their outcomes or circumstances are, but rather how satisfied the participants are with them (Adams 1965, Crosby 1976). What qualifies such research as justice research is the assumption that outcome satisfaction is mediated by perceptions of outcome fairness. The tendency to view perceived justice primarily as a mediating or moderating variable rather than as a dependent variable continues to the present, although contemporary justice researchers are much more likely to probe people's perceptions of fairness and justice directly.

Strongly influenced by exchange theorists (e.g. Blau 1964, Homans 1961, Thibaut & Kelley 1959), early justice researchers focused primarily on distributive justice. In particular, they focused on people's relative preference for three different principles of resource distribution: need, equity, and equality. The two most common means of assessing this preference were by examining the rules people followed when allocating resources to others and by examining people's reactions to the resources they received from others (see Adams 1965, Deutsch 1985, Walster et al 1978). Distributive justice as a topic has diminished in popularity in recent years (Tyler & Smith 1998); perhaps more significantly, the topic has been appropriated to a considerable extent by researchers in the judgment- and decision-making tradition (Elster 1992, Mellers & Baron 1993, Mitchell et al 1993). From the decision-analytic perspective (Mellers et al 1998), questions about distributive justice are viewed most appropriately as judgmentand decision-making tasks.

Without question, the most popular topic in justice research over the past 2 decades has been “procedural justice.” Procedural justice refers to the fairness of the methods, mechanisms, and processes used to determine outcomes as opposed to the fairness of the outcomes themselves (Lind & Tyler 1988). Initial work on this topic focused on the formal, structural aspects of fair procedure (Leventhal 1976, Thibaut & Walker 1975), whereas more recent work has focused on the less formal, interpersonal aspects of fair procedure (Bies 1987, Greenberg 1990, Folger & Cropanzo 1998, Tyler 1990).

The shift in the focus of procedural justice research is illustrated best by the history of the variable of, “voice” (Folger & Cropanzo 1998, Tyler 1987). Thibaut & Walker (1975) introduced the concept they termed “process control,” later renamed voice (Folger 1977), to describe the extent to which the formal structure of a legal proceeding provided the disputants with the opportunity to have a say in how their case was presented. Legal disputants are said to have this type of voice to the extent that the formal structure of the proceedings permits them to convey their interests to the judge or decision maker.

Legal disputants, however, also may or may not be afforded a second, more informal type of voice.

Specifically, they may or may not be listened to when they choose to exercise the voice option that the formal structure affords them. The presence of both types of voice, sometimes referred to as “instrumental” and “value expressive” voice, respectively (Tyler & Bies 1990), enhances the perception of procedural fairness (Lind et al 1990).

The shift in focus from formal to informal aspects of procedural justice (Tyler et al 1997) reflected a more fundamental transformation in the way justice was perceived, or at least experimentally assessed, by researchers. Early procedural justice theorists (Leventhal 1976, Thibaut & Walker 1975) characterized people's concern with fair procedures as instrumental in nature. Pursuit of principles of procedural justice was assumed to maximize the individual's outcomes in the same way as pursuit of the principles of distributive justice (Homans 1961, Walster et al 1978). From this perspective, the main challenge for researchers was not explanations of why people care about procedural justice (self-interest was the assumed motivation) but identification of the criteria that people use in deciding whether a procedure is just (Leventhal 1976).

By the late 1980s the tenor of procedural justice research had changed. Procedural concerns were no longer viewed as important simply because their effects were independent from those of distributive concerns. Procedural concerns were now seen as important because they revealed the human actor to be less utility-maximizing and more justice-seeking than was assumed by the dominant neoclassical economic model. People care about procedural justice, it was now asserted, not as a means to an end (better outcomes) but as an end in itself. With this assertion, procedural justice researchers joined a growing chorus of social scientists who expressed dissatisfaction with the rational-actor model (Etzioni 1988, Lerner 1977, Mansbridge 1990, Miller 1999).

Procedural justice researchers, turning increasingly from laboratory to field settings, also sought to show that concerns with procedure were often more powerful than—and not simply independent from— concerns with outcomes (Tyler 1990). Furthermore, in light of the mounting evidence that people's concern with fair treatment was independent of its effects on outcomes, theories of procedural justice began to propose noninstrumental accounts of procedural justice motivation. The most influential of these theories was Lind & Tyler's (1988) group value theory. According to this theory, people care whether their treatment (and not simply their outcomes) is fair because fair treatment indicates something critically important to them—their status within their social group.

The Right to Respect

The shift in empirical and theoretical attention from distributive to procedural justice signified a more general shift in justice research from a concern with abstract rules of resource distribution to a concern with interpersonal rules of conduct (Hogan & Emler 1981, Tyler et al 1997, Vidmar 2000). This change paralleled the increasing attention that moral philosophers were devoting to humanitarian standards of justice (Furby 1986, Moore 1978, Rawls 1971). An especially relevant example of the latter is the claim by Rawls (1971) that one of the entitlements that individuals are due by virtue of their humanity is the right to be treated in a way that fosters positive self-regard.

Respect, it should be noted, also can play an important role in the perception of distributive justice. As many have noted, the indignation with which people respond to unfavorable outcomes (e.g. lower than expected salary offers) often reflects the fact that their prestige or status has been threatened more than the fact that their purchasing power has been diminished (Berger et al 1972, Homans 1976). Status and prestige, therefore, are conveyed both by the resources people receive and by the procedures used to determine and administer those resources. The fact that the perception of distributive fairness often has less to do with an outcome's exchange value than with its symbolic or status value is one reason it has proven so difficult to draw a sharp distinction between procedural and distributive injustice (Folger & Cropanzo 1998, Van den Bos et al 1997).

Injustice in Everyday Life

The growing importance that formal justice theories accord to respectful treatment comports with findings from investigations of the layperson's understanding of everyday injustices. The most commonly reported experiences of everyday injustice involve some form of disrespectful treatment (Lupfer et al 2000, Messick et al 1985, Mikula 1986, Mikula et al 1990). For example, consider the responses Mikula (1986) elicited from college students when he asked them to describe the unjust experiences they experienced in daily life. The three events most frequently mentioned by students were (a) unjustified accusation and blaming, (b) unfair grading or lack of recognition for performance or effort, and (c) violations of promises and agreements. Less frequently mentioned events included failure to admit an error, giving orders in an inappropriate tone, meddling in one's business, and ruthless or illegal misuses of one's status and power. Violations of interpersonal codes of conduct are also a common source of feelings of injustice in organizations. Instances of injustices reported by workers include the violation of codes of conduct (Aram & Salipante 1981), betrayal by coworkers (Bies 1993), and humiliation and wrongful accusation by superiors (Bies & Tripp 1996).


In the case of research on retributive and distributive justice, the nature of the offending action traditionally has been some blatant form of physical, economic, or psychological maltreatment and, as such, tends not to be a big part of the study's story. The situation is very different in the case of procedural justice research. Procedural justice researchers typically are as interested in providing demonstrations of what constitutes just procedures as they are in demonstrating that procedural justice matters. For this reason, procedural justice research has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the range and nature of the actions that give offense and arouse feelings of injustice in informal as well as formal relationships.

Specific Entitlements

To ask people what acts they consider disrespectful and unjust is, basically, to ask them what they consider people to be entitled to from others. The entitlement that has received the most attention, as noted earlier, is voice. People believe they are entitled to have their say and to be listened to in their dealings with others, whether these dealings are formal or informal (see Lind & Tyler 1988 for a review).

An illustration of the importance of voice is provided by studies of perceptions by fathers of the fairness of custody court cases. Fathers virtually always lose such cases, but if they believe they were permitted to make their case to the judge and that the judge listened to them, they often leave the court thinking they were treated fairly (Emery et al 1994). Tyler (1987, 1990;, Tyler et al 1985) has found that voice considerations similarly affect the perceived fairness of dealings with police officers and other participants in the legal system. In fact, voice has been shown to affect perceptions of fairness even when there is little possibility that it could affect outcomes—for instance, if the opportunity to express oneself comes after the outcome has been decided (Lind et al 1990).

No other entitlement has received the degree of empirical attention that has been accorded voice, but various theorists have sought to identify the different components of the respect people think that they are due from others. Tyler & Lind (1992), for example, have attempted to specify the types of considerations that people believe they are entitled to from those in positions of authority. Recent work on what has been termed “interactional justice” (Bies & Moag 1986, Cropanzo & Greenberg 1997, Skarlicki & Folger 1997) has shown particular interest in identification of the forms of consideration that people believe they are due from others. On the basis of this work, it appears that people's sense of entitlement comes down to two broad requirements. The first requirement is interpersonal sensitivity (Greenberg 1994). People believe they are entitled to polite and respectful treatment from others (Baron 1993, Bies & Moag 1986). The second requirement is accountability. People think they are entitled to explanations and accounts for any actions that have personal consequences for them (Bies & Shapiro 1987, Bobocel et al 1998, Shapiro et al 1994).

Psychological Contracts

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