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What are the neuranatomical correlates of system-justifying ideologies?

based on reviews by Bonni Crawford and 2 anonymous reviewers
A recommendation of:

Neuroanatomical Correlates of System-justifying Ideologies: A Pre-registered Voxel-based Morphometry Study on Right-Wing Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation

Submission: posted 19 August 2021
Recommendation: posted 16 March 2022, validated 16 March 2022


Under the tenets of system justification theory, system-justifying ideologies are beliefs held by individuals to defend and justify the status quo, even when doing do perpetuates social inequalities (Jost and Hunyady, 2005). Two such well-studied ideologies to emerge from political science and social psychology are social dominance orientation (SDO) – the belief that some social groups are superior to others – and right wing authoritarianism (RWA) – the belief that people should follow conventional traditions and authorities, avoiding rebellious ideas. Although considered to be stable traits that may have a heritable basis, there has been little investigation of the neural correlates of SDO and RWA, and it remains unknown whether they are associated with common or distinct brain systems.

In the current study, Balagtas et al propose a novel investigation of the neuroanatomical correlates of both SDO and RWA in a Chinese Singaporean sample using voxel-based morphometry. Based on previous research, the authors focus especially on relationships between SDO, RWA and the volume of the amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and anterior insula. 

The Stage 1 manuscript was evaluated over three rounds of in-depth review. Based on detailed responses to the reviewers' comments, the recommender judged that the manuscript met the Stage 1 criteria and therefore awarded in-principle acceptance (IPA).

URL to the preregistered Stage 1 protocol:

Level of bias control achieved: Level 4. At least some of the data/evidence that will be used to answer the research question already exists AND is accessible in principle to the authors (e.g. residing in a public database or with a colleague), BUT the authors certify that they have not yet accessed any part of that data/evidence.

List of eligible PCI RR-friendly journals:


1. Jost, J. T., & Hunyady, O. (2005). Antecedents and consequences of system-justifying ideologies. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 260-265.

2. Balagtas, P. M., Tolomeo, S., Ragunath, B., Rigo, P., Bornstein, M. H. & Esposito, G. (2022). Neuroanatomical Correlates of System-justifying Ideologies: A Pre-registered Voxel-based Morphometry Study on Right-Wing Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation in principle acceptance of version 4 by Peer Community in Registered Reports.

Cite this recommendation as:
Chris Chambers (2022) What are the neuranatomical correlates of system-justifying ideologies?. Peer Community in Registered Reports, .
Conflict of interest:
The recommender in charge of the evaluation of the article and the reviewers declared that they have no conflict of interest (as defined in the code of conduct of PCI) with the authors or with the content of the article.


Evaluation round #3

DOI or URL of the report:

Version of the report: v5

Author's Reply, 27 Feb 2022

Decision by , posted 18 Feb 2022

The revised manuscript was kindly assessed by one of the original reviewers, who is now largely satisfied but notes several areas requiring final attention -- including clarifying key methodological details and justifying specific choices concerning the hypotheses and analysis plans. We are now much closer to in-principle acceptance (IPA), so provided you are able to respond comprehensively to these points in a final revision and response, IPA should be forthcoming without requiring further in-depth Stage 1 review.

Reviewed by , 17 Feb 2022

Evaluation round #2

DOI or URL of the report:

Version of the report: v4

Author's Reply, 24 Jan 2022

Decision by , posted 05 Jan 2022

Two of three reviewers were available to assess the revised Stage 1 submission. As you will see, one of the reviewers is now satisfied (pending further minor revisions), and we are substantially closer to IPA, but the other reviewer remains skeptical about the assumption that right-wing authoritarianism is a sufficiently unitary construct for a VBM study to be scientifically meaningful. The reviewer provides a helpful and well-referenced review that requires careful attention. To achieve Stage 1 IPA, it is vital that this concern is addressed to my and the reviewer's satisfaction.

Reviewed by anonymous reviewer, 15 Dec 2021

The authors have now provided the missing details regarding the ROI-definition and statistical analysis.  I have still one remaining minor issue regarding "1B": Indeed, Baumgartner et al., 2013 analyzed associations of SDO and brain structure (s. also Supplementary Table S3). Apart from this issue, I have no further comments. Admittedly, I am still a bit confused regarding the assumed unidimensionality of RWA and SDO (which justifies the expected association with similar brain structures) on the one hand, and the assumed independence of RWA and SDO in the study sample on the other hand. I am really curious to see the findings here.

Reviewed by , 30 Dec 2021

Evaluation round #1

DOI or URL of the report:

Author's Reply, 08 Dec 2021

Decision by , posted 08 Nov 2021

Three expert reviewers have now evaluated the Stage 1 manuscript. All find the work to address a valid scientific question; however, as you will see, the reviews raise a number of major concerns that preclude Stage 1 in-principle acceptance (IPA) in its current form. Key shortcomings include lack of clarity and justification of the hypotheses, and the lack of suitability of the design for answering the research question -- including, especially, the use of an ROI-based approach instead of a whole-brain or combined approach and the validity of the behavioural measures for assessing system justification. The reviewers also query the logical coherence of the underlying rationale, the extent to which the design accommodates sampling characteristics, and a range of areas lacking in methodological detail such as the procedure for defining the ROIs.

For a regular manuscript, a set of reviews this critical would lead to outright rejection, but the advantage of the Registered Reports process is that it offers authors the possibility of resolving design limitations before they become roadblocks. In this case, given these assessments, I am happy to invite a Major Revision but do so with the caveat that a substantial amount of work will be needed to achieve IPA, and all criticisms must be comprehensively addressed.

Reviewed by anonymous reviewer, 13 Oct 2021

Thank you for the opportunity to review this proposed analysis. I think it is an interesting and worthwhile extension of prior neuroanatomical investigations of social and political attitudes that has the potential to expand our understanding of the universality and/or boundaries of the neurobiological bases of ideologies by examining these relationships in the Singaporean context. The authors articulate clear hypotheses and a largely clear analysis plan. I hope they will consider my comments as they continue with their work. 

Although I understand the reasoning of treating system justification theory as an umbrella for authoritarianism and social dominance orientation, I was a bit surprised (given the introductory theorizing) that the authors do not have a plan to measure system justification more directly. Insofar as the authors have an interest in SJT and consider RWA and SDO to be system-justifying ideologies, I think it would make sense to measure the 8-item SJ scale (Kay and Jost 2003) so that the authors can (a) examine the predictive value of RWA and SDO above and beyond SJ per se, and (b) assess whether the Nam et al. (2018) findings of a correlation between amygdala structure and SJ can be replicated in the Singaporean sociopolitical context. I suppose this is in some sense a partial registered report in that the data have already been collected, so perhaps there is not much room for my suggestion here. But if the authors have the ability to re-contact participants for another short survey, I would suggest that they administer SJ to consider in their analyses. Otherwise, I’m afraid that the SJT framing of the introduction is a bit misleading.

It may also be worth noting that Nam et al. (2018) did explore correlations between SDO and brain structure in a subset of their sample, but did not find significant associations (see Supplementary Discussion). The authors may want to take a look at this as further context for their hypotheses, especially considering my above point and that they have a more well-powered sample to assess the relationship. 

It would be helpful to get some more explanation about the sociopolitical context of Singapore. For example, does political ideology map onto a left-right dimension as it is often conceptualized and measured in Western contexts? I think it would make sense to explain the nature of more explicitly political ideology in Singapore, and how RWA and SDO might relate to this construct. For example, are the authors theorizing, in some sense, that RWA and SDO comprise dimensions of political orientation that can be mapped onto both shared and distinct brain regions? 

My understanding is that ethnic Chinese are the dominant ethnic group in Singapore. How does a sample composed primarily of dominant group members affect the authors’ interpretations of the correlation between brain structure and RWA/SDO? I’m wondering this especially given the theorizing regarding the Singaporean context of institutionalized multiculturalism. 

How was the 22-item subset of the RWA scale chosen from the original 32 items? Some justification for the subset would be helpful. 

Similar prior work (Kanai, Feilden, Firth, and Rees 2011; Nam et al. 2018) used a Gaussian kernel of 12 mm FWHM as part of the image preprocessing. Could the authors give some explanation of their reasoning for using a different metric (8 mm)? 

How will ROIs be determined? Using ROI masks? Specifying volumes around a set of coordinates? 

It’s a good idea to include age as a covariate in the model. I would also suggest gender/sex and global brain volume as baseline covariates (following previous work).  

Reviewed by , 15 Oct 2021

Reviewed by anonymous reviewer, 01 Nov 2021