Relative Standards and Distributive Justice: How Social Comparison Orientations Moderate the Link between Relative Earnings and Justice Perceptions
Theories of distributive justice claim perceptions of justice have a comparative basis. They suggest the degree to which individuals perceive their earnings as just or unjust depends on the degree to which their earnings differ from those of similar others. Drawing on recent research on social comparisons, we argue social comparison orientations—the general tendency of individuals to compare themselves with others—moderate the link between relative earnings and justice perceptions. The empirical analysis is based on large-scale survey data for 3,744 German employees. Structural equation analyses confirm the relevance of social comparison orientations for the justice evaluation process. Individuals who earn less than similar others tend to perceive their earnings as more unjust if they also report an orientation toward social comparison. In contrast, relative earnings are less important for justice perceptions if individuals do not compare themselves with others. Our findings may explain why people in similar situations often differ substantially in their justice perceptions.