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Eduardo J. Rivera Pichardo
John T. Jost  
Verónica Benet Martínez  

Colonial Mentality and System Justification:
The Puerto Rican Status Dilemma

Eduardo J. Rivera Pichardo, New York University
John T. Jost, New York University
Verónica Benet Martínez, Universitat Pompeu Fabra

This summer, for the first time, I (EJRP) presented my research on the psychological and ideological consequences of colonialism on the island that led me to this line of inquiry as a colonial subject. It felt like a homecoming, a reconnection with the community that paved the way for these social psychological inquiries. A lot has occurred over the past four years in Puerto Rico, during the time I have worked toward my doctoral degree abroad. From prolonged recoveries from Hurricanes Irma and Maria; a collapsed energy system infrastructure; and the entrenchment of an antidemocratic fiscal control board (la junta) that has put the well-being of Puerto Ricans on hold to finance the interest of vulture investors. Nevertheless, one thing has remained constant, as it has since the military invasion of 1898: the long-standing debate over the question of U.S. hegemonic rule.

The colonial situation of Puerto Rico, commonly referred to as the "status dilemma," has long been present not only in local elites' debates, but most importantly, at every dinner table as part of Puerto Ricans' collective experience. Historically, Puerto Ricans have been divided among three status options: (a) achieving political independence, (b) becoming the 51st state of the U.S., and (c) maintaining the territorial status quo. Regarding legal considerations, U.S. statehood and national independence represent alternatives to the current territorial arrangement. However, our work offers a psychological analysis that suggests that pro-statehood and pro-independence sentiments differ significantly regarding ideological motives. In doing so, we drew upon system justification theory and the work of decolonial theorist Frantz Fanon. 

Fanon was one of the first to conceptualize colonialism as a means of appropriating the mind and culture, as well as appropriating land and resources. From a system justification perspective, these dynamics include the development of a sense of inferiority, which may inhibit true insight into one's social and economic plight (Jost, 2020). Exploring these ideas in the context of Puerto Rico, we investigated the role of internalized inferiority, colonial mentality, political orientation, and system justification in explaining preferences for political status options.

In a first study, we surveyed 344 adults in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We found that Puerto Ricans who evaluated their group less favorably than U.S. Americans on stereotypical characteristics (e.g., intelligence, laziness, irresponsibility, and violence), and those who were more politically rightist (vs. leftist), justified the colonial system in place. In turn, Puerto Ricans who justified the colonial system were more likely to support the territorial status quo and U.S. statehood for Puerto Rico (Rivera Pichardo et al., 2022). Those who challenged the colonial system supported national independence. We replicated these findings in a follow-up study (= 2,162) conducted weeks before the 2020 political status referendum. Adherence to colonial mentality (perceptions of cultural inferiority and an uncritical preference for the colonizers' ways of being) and assimilation to U.S. culture were also associated with voting "Yes" for Statehood.       

These results suggest that the pro-statehood option is best understood in colonial terms—at least on a social psychological level—rather than a decolonial and system-challenging preference, insofar as it is linked to the internalization of inferiority, colonial mentality, and system justification. The rejection of the colonial system and its cultural narratives of negative stereotypes can mobilize Puerto Ricans to think beyond the limits of colonialism at the individual, group, and societal levels—a decolonial response that identifies national independence as a political tool for decolonization.

We believe that our Fanon-inspired application of system justification theory illuminates the dynamics of internalized inferiority and their relevance for understanding contemporary political attitudes and behaviors. Taking a political psychological perspective is necessary for illuminating ongoing expressions of colonial mentality and its myriad consequences. We thank all attendees of our presentation and invite all to further engage with our article and the other important contributions that comprised the special issue on "Decolonial Approaches to the Psychological Study of Social Issues," published in the Journal of Social Issues


Jost, J. T. (2020). A theory of system justification. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rivera Pichardo, E. J., Jost, J. T., & Benet-Martínez, V. (2022). Internalization of inferiority and colonial system justification: The case of Puerto Rico. Journal of Social Issues, 78, 79-106.

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