Study: Belief That System Is Fair Leads To Risky Behavior, Self-Esteem Issues In Youth

NEW YORK — Disadvantaged youth who are led to believe that they get what they deserve in life are more likely to grow cynical, a new study finds.

Researchers at NYU surveyed 257 middle schoolers of low socioeconomic status, hoping to find whether holding the belief that society produces fair and just outcomes affected a given child’s academic and social performance.

Disadvantaged child behind fence
Disadvantaged students who believe the American system is fair are more likely to have low self-esteem and take part in risky behaviors, a study finds.

As sixth graders, the students were asked to respond as to whether they thought the American social system was fair, and if they thought anyone could get ahead in society.

Throughout their time in middle school, the researchers measured the students’ self-esteem, encounters with prejudice, and depressive symptoms. The students’ willingness to take risks (e.g., lying or cheating on a test), and display courteous classroom behavior (e.g., following teacher instructions) were also measured.

While there were initial benefits for underprivileged students who thought the system was fair when they began middle school, by the end of 7th grade, this group demonstrated lower self-esteem, a higher propensity to engage in risky behaviors, and a lessened willingness to follow directions.

The more a youth experienced discrimination, the more these traits manifested themselves.

“One explanation for this pattern may be that 6th graders have not yet developed a full understanding of status differences or do not yet identify as a member of a marginalized group,” says lead researcher Erin Godfrey, an assistant professor in applied psychology, in a university news release.

She adds: “However, early beliefs about the fairness of the system may become a liability over time as youth become increasingly cognizant of how the larger socioeconomic system puts them and their group at a disadvantage, and as their identity as a marginalized group member becomes more and more salient.”


The study’s participants, 90 percent of whom were racial or ethnic minorities, served as case studies in one of the first academic studies to examine the effect of subjective views on development in underprivileged youth.

To effectively address the adverse outcomes identified, the researchers recommend that after-school and community programs create awareness of these issues, while schools also address the causes of the outcomes.

The study’s findings were published in the journal Child Development.