A new psychological assessment has been developed to measure the endorsement of attitudes related to critical social justice. Findings from its application in a Finnish study reveal that stronger alignment with these so-called "woke" beliefs correlates with heightened instances of anxiety and depression, as detailed in a publication in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology.

The rise of critical social justice, which focuses on identifying and addressing systemic inequalities across various identity groups, has prompted discussions on its influence in academia, politics, and everyday life. This particular orientation towards social justice — often associated with concepts like intersectionality, antiracism, and, colloquially, "wokeness" — has been both lauded for its recognition of systemic barriers faced by marginalized groups and critiqued for its approach to identity and free speech.

Yet, despite the debate surrounding critical social justice, there has been a noticeable gap in empirical data regarding the extent and impact of it. Recognizing this, the author of the new study aimed to create a reliable tool for assessing critical social justice and to explore its prevalence and effects.

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"I had been paying attention to a development in American universities, where a new discourse on social justice became prevalent in the 2010s," said study author Oskari Lahtinen, a senior researcher at the INVEST Research Flagship Centre at the University of Turku and author of the book Onko mindfulnessista mihinkään? ("Is there any point in mindfulness?").

"While critical social justice (or intersectional or 'woke') discourse draws mainly from dynamics within American society it has now surfaced in other Western countries as well. The arrival of a critical social justice (often called 'woke') discourse sparked much debate in Finnish media in the last couple of years."

"This debate was largely data-free and it could thus be considered a worthwhile question to study how prevalent these attitudes are. No reliable and valid instrument existed prior to the study to assess the extent and prevalence of these attitudes in different populations, so I set out to develop one."

The initial phase of the research was dedicated to creating a pilot scale for assessing critical social justice attitudes. This process began with a thorough review of the literature on intersectional feminism, critical race theory, queer theory, and other relevant academic disciplines that inform critical social justice. Based on these theoretical frameworks, Lahtinen drafted candidate items for the scale related to beliefs about systemic oppression.

The pilot scale was then tested with a sample of 851 participants, comprising university staff and students primarily from the University of Turku, along with a smaller number of participants from other Finnish universities and the general public.

Following the pilot study, Lahtinen conducted a second study focusing on refining the scale based on the initial findings and validating it with a larger, more representative sample. This phase involved drafting additional items to better capture the ideas that embody critical social justice.

The refined scale was then administered to over 5,000 participants through a nationwide survey distributed via Helsingin Sanomat, Finland's largest newspaper. This approach aimed to reach a broad cross-section of the Finnish population, enhancing the generalizability of the findings.

The final version of the Critical Social Justice Attitude Scale demonstrated high reliability and a good model fit. This means that the scale was dependable across different samples and contexts, and effectively captured the underlying construct of critical social justice attitudes. The scale also demonstrated good convergent and divergent validity, suggesting it is an effective tool for measuring critical social justice attitudes.

Final scale consisted of seven items:
  • "If white people have on average a higher level of income than black people, it is because of racism."
  • "University reading lists should include fewer white or European authors."
  • "Microaggressions should be challenged often and actively."
  • "Trans* women who compete with women in sports are not helping women's rights." (reverse scored)
  • "We don't need to talk more about the color of people's skin."
  • "A white person cannot understand how a black person feels equally well as another black person."
  • "A member of a privileged group can adopt features or cultural elements of a less privileged group." (reverse scored)
One of the central revelations of the study was that critical social justice attitudes are not as widespread in Finland as might be inferred from public and media discussions. Overall, the findings suggested a cautious reception towards critical social justice among the general population. This observation was particularly pronounced among male participants, who showed considerably lower agreement with the statements compared to their female counterparts.

"The gender divide was probably most surprising to me," Lahtinen told PsyPost. "Three out of five women view 'woke' ideas positively, but only one out of seven men. This was the case in Finland, at least."

Comment: Not so surprising. The same holds true in the U.S. Woke ideas appeal to the simplistic harm/care aspect of moral foundations theory as expounded by psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues.

The study also uncovered variations in critical social justice attitudes across different demographic and social groups. Higher levels of agreement with critical social justice were notably present among individuals who identified with left-wing political parties and female university students in fields such as social sciences, education, and humanities. On the other hand, individuals associated with STEM fields and right-wing political affiliations tended to show lower agreement with critical social justice principles.

An intriguing aspect of the study was its exploration of the relationship between critical social justice and mental well-being. Lahtinen found a correlation between higher agreement with critical social justice attitudes and increased reports of anxiety and depression. Agreement with the statement "If white people have on average a higher income than black people, it is because of racism" exhibited the largest positive correlation with anxiety and depression, and the largest negative correlation with happiness.

However, these associations were more strongly correlated with participants' political orientation than with critical social justice attitudes per se. Specifically, being on the political left was more predictive of lower mental well-being than high critical social justice scores alone. This suggests that the link between critical social justice attitudes and mental health is complex and may be mediated by broader political and ideological beliefs.

The new research provides unique insight into critical social justice attitudes and their implications in contemporary society. But the study's focus on Finland necessitates caution when generalizing its findings to other contexts.

"The studies were quite robust with a sample size above 5,000 and good psychometric properties," Lahtinen said. "However, the scale would need to be validated in North American samples in order to know how these attitudes manifest there. I encourage colleagues in the United States to study the prevalence of these attitudes in the country where they originate from."

The study, "Construction and validation of a scale for assessing critical social justice attitudes," was published March 14, 2024.
Eric W. Dolan is the founder, publisher, and editor of PsyPost. He has more than 10 years of experience working in journalism and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Bradley University.