Just World Theory: Do We Get What We Deserve?

The blame of the victim, a bias that drives us to believe in universal justice.

Malvin J. Lerner, father of the Just World Theory, stated that people: “have a need to believe that they live in a world where everyone generally gets what they deserve.” (1982).

The belief in a just world manifests itself,  in the form of cognitive bias, in the idea that good things will tend to happen to good people and bad things will tend to happen to bad people. This way of seeing the world tends to be maintained in a large part of the population, despite the fact that this is not usually the case.

Psychological function of belief in a just world

In many cases, good and respectful people do not have the luck in life that they deserve. In many others, those who live at the cost of taking advantage of others succeed and their lives are going from strength to strength. Faced with these facts, which, when viewed coldly, are unfair, the human being has developed a bias that allows him to assimilate it in a positive way.

Therefore, thinking of the world as a fair place in which everyone has what they deserve, as Furnham (2003) states, will serve as a protective factor against the stress caused by the unpleasant events that we witness. Lerner argues that this belief allows us to see our environment as a stable and orderly place and that, without it, the motivational process that allows us to set long-term goals would be difficult since it makes us think that we really control our own destiny.

This belief is really difficult to remove due to how harsh the perception of reality would be without its protective effect. Therefore, our cognition uses a certain method to maintain and reinforce this idea.

Blaming the victim

The most frequent process is blaming the victim for an unfair situation. For example, it is not uncommon to hear from some people that if someone is poor it is because they have not tried hard enough in their life. There are also those who, when faced with a rape, argue that the woman should have been accompanied or should wear clothing that provokes less rapists. 

These dangerous arguments protect those who have this biased belief, since, by thinking that they are not doing anything that could have negative consequences, the perception of vulnerability and the risk of suffering certain situations will be reduced.

A posteriori effect

The afterthought would also reinforce these thoughts. This effect is a cognitive illusion that makes us think, when knowing the results of an event, that we would have known how to solve it much better than the victim. 

A simple example of this is that of the “bar counter experts” who, having seen Sunday’s soccer game, know (better than the coach himself) the tactics that would have led their team to victory.

Confirmatory bias

Another bias that would maintain these prejudices is the confirmatory one. This refers to the tendency of human beings to seek arguments that support their theories, ignoring those that contradict them.

The control zone

The belief in a just world also helps  protect one’s self-esteem and is based on a self-interest bias. When attributing the reasons for a success, an individual will think that these are due to factors that are within their control zone, such as the effort they have made or their own abilities. Conversely, when a failure occurs, it is attributed to environmental characteristics such as bad luck. These perceptions, as we have seen, are different when we observe the behavior of other people.

When viewing the situation from the outside, the observer looks more closely at the personality characteristics and actions of the person who suffers (Aronson, 2012). In this way , due to lack of knowledge, the characteristics of the environment that affected that person are ignored. For example, in the case of a homeless person, a narrow focus would be unaware that that person was able to get there because of an unpredictable sequence of events and not because of their own laziness. The economic crisis, an event that no ordinary person could predict, has been able to put this person out of work. This could lead to an accumulation of debt, family tensions, mental illnesses such as a depressive disorder, etc.

What personality factors influence this belief?

Nobody likes living in an environment of uncertainty and thinking that, by chance, this could happen to them. Therefore, there are people who resort to these biases in their thinking patterns. For Marvin Lerner, the belief that everyone has what they deserve would be a delusion, that is, a self-delusion. It would be a false belief motivated by a desire for security and control (Furnham, 2003).

The main personality trait that would define these ideas is the locus of control, specifically the internal one. People with this locus of control perceive that the consequences of their behaviors are contingent upon them, that is, they assume responsibility for their actions. On the contrary, those with an external locus of control tend to attribute what happens in their environment to factors such as luck or chance.

Other personality factors that modulate the belief in a just world and moderate it are altruism and  empathy. The similarity or not between the subject and the victim also influences. This can lead to discriminatory behaviors such as sexism or racism. Other studies have associated these beliefs with  conservative and authoritarian ideologies (Furnham, 2003).

How does this belief affect society?

The belief in a just world would not be inherent to the human being, as language can be, but would be acquired as part of the culture in which the individual develops. This can be reflected in an element of society such as religion.

In traditional Catholic belief, as well as in others, the existence of God is upheld, who would be responsible for rewarding good guidelines while punishing those who break his law. These punishments and rewards would be carried out both in life and after death, which is why they motivate the individual who follows this doctrine to keep their beliefs stable. Faith in religion and in an omnipresent force could serve as a psychological mechanism for coping with stress.

The influence of the “just world” on shared values

The belief in a just world, for one reason or another, does not have effects only on the way of seeing an individual’s life, on their self-esteem and on their prejudices, but it can affect the behavior of society at the collective level. A political ideology that is sustained on the basis that each individual has what they deserve will lead to practices that support these ideas.

Alluding to the French expression laissez faire , for a person with these beliefs, the State should not be in charge of distributing the resources of society and correcting inequalities of opportunities caused by the environment, but rather the person in charge of this should be the individual himself with his effort. Beliefs about the relationship between effort and the reward deserved would affect both tax policies, as well as the redistribution of wealth and the form of remuneration of employees by their company (Frank et al., 2015).

The idea of ​​the just world also affects other aspects such as prison policy. If we only observe the actions and consequences of someone who has committed a crime, the practice to follow would be to deprive him of life in society for the established time. In contrast, taking into account that there may be environmental circumstances such as poverty, low educational level, disruption in the family, etc. that predispose to the commission of crime, the policies could be oriented to the prevention, intervention and readaptation to the society of a great part of the convicts. 

These ideas vary between countries and are easily maintained over time, being difficult to modify, both in one sense and the other. Therefore, a holistic view of a person’s situation could help change attitudes towards it and facilitate understanding.

Bibliographic references:

  • Aronson, E. & Escohotado, A. (2012). The social animal. Madrid: Alliance.
  • Frank, DH, Wertenbroch, K., & Maddux, WW (2015). Performance pay or redistribution? Cultural differences in just-world beliefs and preferences for wage inequality. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 130, 160-170.
  • Furnham, A. (2003). Belief in a just world: research progress over the past decade. Personality And Individual Differences, 34 (5), 795-817.
  • Lerner, Melvin J. (1982). The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

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