The "Just World" Theory

I see this "Just World" idea at work often -- it remains an appalling concept:

Santa Clara University
Markkula Center of Applied Ethics
The Just World Theory
By Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez
Issues in Ethics V. 3, N. 2 Spring 1990
Afterwards, they said that the 22-year-old woman was bound to attract attention. She was wearing a white lace miniskirt, a green tank top, and no underwear. At knifepoint, she was kidnapped from a Fort Lauderdale restaurant parking lot by a Georgia drifter and raped twice. But a jury showed little sympathy for the victim. The accused rapist was acquitted. "We all feel she asked for it [by] the way she was dressed," said the jury foreman.

The verdict of the jurors in the Fort Lauderdale rape trial may have been influenced by a widespread tendency to believe that victims of misfortune deserve what happens to them. The need to see victims as the recipients of their just deserts can be explained by what psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis. According to the hypothesis, people have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve. Such a belief plays an important function in our lives since in order to plan our lives or achieve our goals we need to assume that our actions will have predictable consequences. Moreover, when we encounter evidence suggesting that the world is not just, we quickly act to restore justice by helping the victim or we persuade ourselves that no injustice has occurred. We either lend assistance or we decide that the rape victim must have asked for it, the homeless person is simply lazy, the fallen star must be an adulterer. These attitudes are continually reinforced in the ubiquitous fairy tales, fables, comic books, cop shows and other morality tales of our culture, in which good is always rewarded and evil punished.

Melvin Lerner, a social psychologist, has conducted a series of experiments to test this hypothesis. In an impressive body of research, he documents people's eagerness to convince themselves that beneficiaries deserve their benefits and victims their suffering. In a 1965 study, Lerner reported that subjects who were told that a fellow student had won a cash prize in a lottery tended to believe that the student worked harder than another student who lost the lottery. In another study a year later, Lerner and a colleague videotaped a simulated "learning" experiment in which it appeared that the "participants" were subjected to electric shocks. Lerner found that subjects who observed the videotapes tended to form much lower opinions of these "victimized" participants when there was no possibility of the victim finding relief from the ordeal, or when the victim took on the role of "martyr" by voluntarily remaining in the experiment despite the apparent unpleasantness of the experience. Lerner concluded that "the sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character."

If the belief in a just world simply resulted in humans feeling more comfortable with the universe and its capriciousness, it would not be a matter of great concern for ethicists or social scientists. But Lerner's Just World Hypothesis, if correct, has significant social implications. The belief in a just world may undermine a commitment to justice.

Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of UCLA have conducted surveys to examine the characteristics of people with strong beliefs in a just world. They found that people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to "feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims."

Ironically, then, the belief in a just world may take the place of a genuine commitment to justice. For some people, it is simply easier to assume that forces beyond their control mete out justice. When that occurs, the result may be the abdication of personal responsibility, acquiescence in the face of suffering and misfortune, and indifference towards injustice. Taken to the extreme, indifference can result in the institutionalization of injustice. Still, the need to believe that the world is just can also be a positive force. The altruism of volunteers and of heroes who risk their lives to help strangers in need is a result of people trying to restore justice to insure that the world remains just. As Melvin Lerner writes, "We have persuasive evidence that people are strongly motivated by the desire to eliminate suffering of innocent victims."

Neither science nor psychology has satisfactorily answered the question of why the need to view the world as just exerts such a powerful influence on human behavior and the human psyche. But the research suggests that humans have a need to bring their beliefs about what is right into conformity with the objective reality they encounterand that they will work to achieve consistency either by modifying their beliefs or attempting to modify that reality. By becoming more conscious of our own tendencies, we may be more inclined to take the latter approach.

The need to see victims as the recipients of their just deserts can be explained by what psychologists call the "Just World Hypothesis."

Further reading:
Melvin J. Lerner, The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion, (New York: Plenum Press, 1980).

Melvin J. Lerner and Sally C. Lerner, editors, The Justice Motivce in Social Behavior: Adapting to Times of Scarcity and Change, (New York: Plenum Press, 1981).

Zick Rubin and Letita Anne Peplau, "Who Believes in a Just World," Journal of SOcial Issues, Vol. 31, No. 3, 1975, pp. 6589.

The views expressed on this site are the author's. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics does not advocate particular positions but seeks to encourage dialogue on the ethical dimensions of current issues. The Center welcomes comments and alternative points of view.
* c 2008 Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
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  • BrokenDevilDog 2010/02/17 04:51:38
    Terrific post. I guess I'm somwhere in the middle here. I understand the unfairness at work here but I do believe to some degree in the concept of "you reap what you sow".

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  • emmamess ~ In My Conscience... 2010/02/17 05:11:03
    emmamess ~ In My Conscience I Trust ~`
    I do not believe in the just world theory. I believe that many people are rewarded socially for 'going with the program' and those of us who do not - are marginalized and then blamed - despite the fact that we broke no laws - but probably did break moral codes of conduct.

    An example is speaking out for those who are systematically oppressed - one who recognizes the systematic oppression through personally witnessing it on many levels - is stripped from any priviliage they were born into - if they do not agree with the status quo concerning the marginalization of certain groups of people and the negative effects that this marginalization has on society as a whole.
  • IndyLinda emmames... 2010/02/17 05:14:28
    I agree completely.
  • madjack emmames... 2010/02/17 05:55:29
    I couldn't agree more. Going along with the program has probably stifled as much thinking as any dictatorship.A highly successful commodities trader put it well.They hate me when I win,they despise me when I lose.It's the same in every field I'm familiar with.
  • BrokenDevilDog 2010/02/17 04:51:38
    Terrific post. I guess I'm somwhere in the middle here. I understand the unfairness at work here but I do believe to some degree in the concept of "you reap what you sow".
  • IndyLinda BrokenD... 2010/02/17 04:59:12
    I believe in "as you sow, so shall you reap," but I do not believe in punishing victims for the crime committed against them -- think of the Muslim women murdered to cleanse the family honor.
  • BrokenD... IndyLinda 2010/02/17 14:44:39
    That's where I'm on the other side. No one should ever be punished for being a victim, yet, if a junkie dies in in the street from an overdose so what?
  • IndyLinda BrokenD... 2010/02/17 19:11:08
    I would not view a junkie as a *victim* but as a self-abuser who made a stupid choice, *knowing* what the consequences might be. Like a game of "chicken." Stupid to bet your life on something like that -- Russian roulette. Also, along a slightly different line, while I believe that I should be able to walk down the street alone at night without fearing attack, I'd be a damned fool to do so in certain neighborhoods. A woman I highly respected once told me, "God cannot help a fool." I think that covers it. What say, sir?
  • BrokenD... IndyLinda 2010/02/17 19:53:16
    That's a great point and I have to agree. The problem is when everyone becomes identified as a victim by the tree huggers of the world, even if it's their own fault. That's the line I walk with this. Sometimes you really do get what you deserve. Some "victims" are only victims of their own stupidity.
  • IndyLinda BrokenD... 2010/02/17 20:05:12
    Oh yes! If one assumes personal responsibility and accountability for one's own actions ALL the time and every time, one is not so likely to be a fool or to become the victim of self-inflicted stupidity.

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