What is psychological injustice? | psychology today
To each, his, her, or their due. This is how justice is traditionally defined. This, of course, begs the question, what is due to people? What do society, family members, workplaces, friends, teachers, leaders or government officials owe us?
This is a very important question that has generally been answered only in political and philosophical terms. For example, distributive justice concerns the fair and equitable distribution of goods, resources and services. These can include access to health care, housing and public education. Procedural justice, in turn, relates to fairness in decision-making processes. We usually say that procedural justice requires a voice and a choice. In the disability rights movement, a common refrain is “nothing about us without us”. Thus, what is due in procedural justice is representation, participation, impartiality and integrity. Correction, another important form of justice, is concerned with redressing harm inflicted on individuals or entire groups. The sums owed in restorative justice can be financial reparations or apologies (Sabbagh & Schmitt, 2016).
In addition to these conceptual approaches, there are contextual approaches to justice. They are types of (in)justice that take place at a particular time and place or towards a particular group of people. An example of the first is organizational (in)justice, and of the second, racial (in)justice. What are employees owed by employers? What are some racial and ethnic groups owed by others? A specific type of organizational justice is informational. Employees expect to be treated with respect and to be informed of important decisions that affect their lives. It can be said to be a form of procedural justice in a particular context. Some minority groups, in turn, feel they are owed apologies, reparations, resources, goods and services. These can be seen as a combination of distributive, procedural and corrective justice. Similar requests can be made regarding injustice related to gender or disability.
Psychological injustice: the missing link
There is a basic human need that is violated in all cases of unfair treatment, and that is the need to matter (Kruglanski et al., 2022; Prilleltensky & Prilleltensky, 2021). Importance is about feeling valued and adding value.
When we commit an injustice, we not only deprive individuals of some good or service, but we also deprive them of their humanity, dignity, importance, respect, and social value. I argue that the core mechanism of all forms of injustice is a violation of significance by making people feel devalued and disrespected, and preventing them from adding value and contributing , whether for themselves or for others. When some minorities are told they are not good at math or science, we both devalue their talents and deprive them of opportunities to excel in these areas (Steele, 2010). The rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is a response to historical injustices that have made black people feel devalued and prevented them from being full members of society (Taylor, 2016). In fact, for centuries the struggle for recognition has been about claiming dignity, importance and significance (Honneth, 1995).
Psychological injustice is a violation of the basic need to count
When we violate the basic need to be important, we are committing an act of psychological injustice. Thus, we can define psychological injustice as the violation of another’s basic need to be important. Violation can occur by making people feel devalued or by preventing them from adding value. Psychological justice, in turn, is an act that empowers other people, regardless of gender, race, class, age, disability, power, occupation, or immigration status, to feel valued and offers them the opportunity to add value and make a contribution to themselves and others.
I argue that psychological injustice is present in most, if not all, cases of injustice because unfair treatment undermines our social worth, dignity, and respect (Kruglanski et al., 2022). The source of the violation can be our disability or our gender, but either way we feel devalued and even excluded or marginalized. For some people, the exclusion may be linked to their religious identity or their physical size. Some overweight children are bullied at school while Muslim or Jewish students are mocked in the playground.
In the context of families and relationships, power differentials underlie psychological injustice. Domestic or child abuse is degrading and even violent behavior towards the weakest members of the family. The dominant figure humiliates others by calling them derogatory names or by physically holding them back or hurting them. In all these cases, many forms of injustices are committed, including legal, religious, gender, developmental, racial and economic, but also psychological.
The costs of psychological injustice
The psychological trauma generated by making you feel devalued and deprived of added value has considerable costs in terms of physical and mental health problems, not to mention relationship, professional and social problems (Flett, 2022). It can take years of suffering and treatment to overcome the psychological harm caused by repeated acts of psychological injustice. Certainly, in response to the lack of importance, some people become anxious and depressed, but others become aggressive, with enormous costs in terms of lost lives and family suffering that can last for decades. Some victims of bullying become mass murderers (Leary et al., 2003). Lack of importance at work leads to disengagement, lack of productivity and silent abandonment (Clifton, 2022). In financial terms, the cost of disengagement in the United States is approximately $500 billion (Gallup. 2017). While the monetary costs of psychological injustice related to the disengagement, treatment and rehabilitation of traumatized people are staggering, the emotional suffering is incalculable.
Call to action
The pain and agony inflicted by psychological injustices can and should be avoided. There is an urgent need to address structural, economic, racial, gender, class and political injustice, but also psychological injustice. Programs, policies, and practices affecting families, schools, workplaces, and entire communities must educate participants about ways to make people feel valued and enable them to add value (Cohen, 2022). We must do what we can to create psychologically just relationships, families, workplaces, communities, and societies where everyone feels valued and everyone adds value (Prilleltensky, 2020). It is a matter of fairness with big implications for well-being (Prilleltensky, 2012). As studies have shown, the more people enjoy equitable conditions, the higher their level of dignity and well-being (Di Martino et al., 2021; Scarpa et al., 2021).
Psychological injustice makes us feel devalued
Source: John Hain/Pixabay
We can start by building equitable and just spaces in our homes, playgrounds, schools, communities and jobs. The more we feel valued, and the more we feel seen, respected and appreciated, the more likely we are to add value to ourselves and to others in society. Likewise, the more we promote importance, the more we prevent suffering, depression, aggression, and grandiosity. Psychological justice is a type of justice worth fighting for. We should all care about dignity, because it is important for well-being and equity.