Do you think that life is fair and that generally speaking, people get what they deserve? If so, you may have fallen victim to the Just-World Hypothesis.

What Is the Just-World Hypothesis?

The just-world hypothesis is a tendency to believe that the world is a just place and that we all end up with what we deserve. It theorises that because we think the world is a just place, we look for reasons to explain away injustice.

This effort on our part to rationalise injustice in this way often leads to us blaming the victims of injustice. We do this even when the victim could not have any control over their own misfortune. This automatic tendency of ours to blame the victim makes us question the victim’s behaviour, instead of looking at the circumstances befalling them.

It is easy to see how some people could fall into this trap of a mental bias. It fits in with our memories of childhood. As children, we were always told ‘work hard and you’ll achieve successes’, ‘eat all your greens and you’ll grow up big and strong’. We believe our fate to be in our own hands.

But not only that, but we also believe that good things come to those who are good. Consequently, bad things happen to bad people. It fits in nicely with our narrative of the world.

So we automatically assume that good people have earned their success. They deserve their good luck. We label good people with other good attributes, such as hard-working, honest, and intelligent. On the other hand, bad people will get what they deserve. After all, you get out of life what you put in. We label these bad people as lazy, stupid, and dishonest.

Examples of Just-World Hypothesis

We blame women for their own sexual assaults because of what they were wearing at the time of the attack, where they were at the time of the attack, or their previous sexual behaviour is called into question.

We look at homeless people and think to ourselves ‘that would never happen to me’, they must have done something to get to this situation. Not realising that the majority of us are just 3 pay months away from becoming homeless ourselves. Addicts are blamed for their addictions without us knowing the full background of the individual. And despite us knowing that addiction is a disease, not a choice.

We view poor people as lazy and without ambition. They are deemed to have just as many chances to succeed in life, but they chose not to study. We don’t even think about how money affects families and that many poorer children don’t have the opportunity to go to university because they are helping with household bills.

Where Does the Just-World Hypothesis Come from?

Melvin Lerner is a social psychologist and coined the term Just-World Theory or Hypothesis. He took the research of Stanley Milgram one step further. You’ll remember that Milgram conducted the now infamous ‘Obedience to Authority’ study. Lerner wanted to find out how people came to agree with cruel regimes that promoted suffering, and why they were willing to accept laws and norms in society that lead to a miserable outcome for many.

Lerner expanded Milgram’s’ experiments. In his study, he gave a woman electrical shocks for making mistakes on a memory task. The woman was his accomplice and no actual shocks were administered. However, two groups watched the woman. Some groups could help the woman whereas others could not.

Lerner found consistently that the group who could do something to alleviate the woman’s suffering were much more sympathetic to her ordeal. The group that could only watch had a far lower opinion of the woman.

“The sight of an innocent person suffering without the 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.” Lerner et al.

Why Do We Believe in a Just World?

We have control over our lives

No one likes to hear about suffering around the world, or indeed in our own neighbourhood. So when we do come across something disturbing, it is easier to blame the victim for their fate. That way, we have control over what happens to us. We are not vulnerable in the same way that the victims are.

For example:

  • Walk through the park late at night and you’ll be assaulted.
  • Buy a house in that area and you’ll be flooded.
  • Wear that short shirt out and you’re asking to be raped.

It makes us feel safe

When there’s nothing we can do about a situation, we try to rationalise in our heads so it makes sense. In other words, ‘There’s no such thing as an innocent victim’. By doing this, we reduce any anxiety we may have felt. We feel secure again because once we know that those victims ‘deserved’ what was coming to them we don’t need to feel fearful anymore.

After all, only bad things happen to bad people, right? And we are nothing like these bad people, so we are going to be ok. Moreover, we need the world to be a just and safe place. Because the alternative is just too scary for us to comprehend.

When we feel powerless to do something about a wrong, we turn to the next best thing and blame the victim. We want to think that things happen for a reason. It gives us a sense of control over the world.

Final Thoughts

We need to understand that life isn’t fair. However, this unfairness is foisted upon us for no apparent reason. It matters not whether you’re a good or bad person. There is no rhyme or reason for why bad things happen, but it does happen to all of us.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can do to avoid the unfair nature of life. But at least, we’re all in it together.

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