Why do we believe that we get what we deserve?

The 

Just-World Hypothesis

, explained.

What is the Just-world Hypothesis?

The just-world hypothesis refers to our belief that the world is fair, and consequently, that the moral standings of our actions will determine our outcomes. This viewpoint causes us to believe that those who do good will be rewarded, and those who exhibit negative behaviors will be punished.

Where it occurs

Imagine that it is a Friday evening and you and your friends are leaving your favorite restaurant. Spirits are high as you walk back to the side street where you parked your cars. Your friend Paul’s lively demeanor quickly changes as his car comes into view with the passenger door wide open. He runs to assess the damage, finding that his car radio and laptop have been stolen. You console Paul and ask how this could have happened, and he says he has no idea. You continue to comfort your friend, but you can’t help but feel that he must have left his doors unlocked and laptop in plain sight. You start to think about how Paul is always so absent-minded and maybe needed a bit of a wake-up call.

Here we can see how the just-world hypothesis can shape our perception. You assume that what goes around comes around, and thus, rationalize Paul’s misfortune as a consequence of his negative actions or characteristics. You even distort your perception of Paul to find a reason that he was robbed instead of you.

Individual effects

On an individual level, there are ups and downs to the just-world hypothesis (also referred to as the just-world bias or just-world fallacy). Belief in a just world can motivate us to act with morality and integrity, which is commonly thought of as ‘keeping good karma’. However, the world is not always as righteous as we would hope. By holding tightly to the just-world hypothesis in the face of injustice, we are susceptible to making inaccurate conclusions and judgments about the world around us. UCLA social psychologists Zick Rubin and Letitia Ann Peplau aptly state, “People often exert tremendous effort in order to help right social wrongs and thus help restore justice in the world. At other times, however, people’s desire to live in a just world leads not to justice but to justification”.1 The firm belief in a just world yields a cognitive bias and can result in us justifying a person’s suffering through painting them negatively or minimizing their suffering altogether.

Let’s look at how this could apply in our everyday lives. For example, we might look at someone with a low-paying job and assume they are less hard-working than someone deemed more successful. Our judgments may ignore socioeconomic barriers that this person may face, as well as the long, hard hours they may work. We create these false narratives to protect our world theory. We want to believe that the world is fair and if you work hard you will get ahead, It can be easier to label someone as lazy or unmotivated rather than admit that the world can be unfair.

We can see in this example how this outlook is also driven by the fundamental attribution error, which refers to our tendency to focus on people’s traits rather than situational factors. This causes us to assume that those who deserve success will achieve it, but forget that the playing field is not always even.

Systemic effects

The way we decide what deserves punishment and what merits reward dictates how we see the world. This outlook, shared by most people to varying degrees, has significant effects on political and legal outcomes. Individual variances in the cognitive strength of the just-world hypothesis (how much we believe that the world is truly just) and response to apparent injustices (i.e. rationalizing, ignoring, or intervening) are echoed in political opinions, especially regarding attitudes towards political leaders, attitudes towards victims, and attitudes towards social activism. Research by Rubin and Pelau showed an inverse correlation between the just-world hypothesis and social activism.1 If you believe the world is fair as it is, you will be less likely to take action and fight for change.

Why it happens

We are socialized to believe that good is always rewarded and evil is punished. From early childhood, we read stories of courageous heroes saving the day and being rewarded with keys to the city, while villains are slain or banished. In these stories, the characters always reap what they sew. Rubin and Peplau cite research in childhood development, stating that we develop this sense of justice expected to be inherent in the world relatively early on.2

As humans, we are often faced with an overwhelming amount of information. To make sense of our surroundings, we construct cognitive frameworks to guide our decision-making and predict outcomes. The just-world hypothesis serves as one of these frameworks, creating an understanding of positive and negative occurrences by attributing them to a larger karmic cycle.

Belief in a just world creates a seemingly predictable environment

Social psychologist and pioneer of just world research, Dr. Melvin J Lerner, describes how the just-world hypothesis installs an image of a “manageable and predictable world [which are] central to the ability to engage in long-term goal-directed activity”.Basically, we are more likely to work towards our goals if we feel like we can predict the result. Also, studies have shown that viewing the world as predictable and fair also protects people from helplessness, which is detrimental to human psychological and physical well-being. 4

We often avoid or distort information that challenges our cognitive framework

When we feel physically uncomfortable, it is almost second nature to do whatever it takes to put ourselves at ease. This happens mentally too. We can all probably relate to the feeling of discomfort when our beliefs are challenged or we are proved wrong. Sometimes this can cause us to get defensive or find ways to invalidate opposing information. Social psychologist Leon Festinger coined this phenomenon as cognitive dissonance, stating that, “ if a person knows various things that are not psychologically consistent with one another, he will, in a variety of ways, try to make them more consistent” 5. The just-world hypothesis causes mental distortions in order to cope with the apparent inconsistencies of the world.

Why it is important

How strongly the just-world hypothesis manifests in us can truly shape our entire understanding of the world. It changes our perception of others. It creates certain expectations for ourselves. The desire for justice is not the same as the belief that the world is just. To create social change, we must have the clarity to see where a situation may be unfair or take the time to truly understand someone’s circumstances before casting judgment. The just-world hypothesis can create harmful and delusional modes of thinking with serious consequences socially, politically, and legally.

How to avoid it

Lauded behavioral scientists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky propose two disparate modes of thinking6. System 1 refers to our knee-jerk responses, our quickly-made judgments, our emotional reactions. System 2 refers to a slower, more rational, more calculated thinking process. Many of our biases are elicited through System 1 thinking, including the just-world hypothesis.

By understanding the two systems of thinking, we are better equipped to resist biases

Understanding the dual-processing mode of thinking can help us consciously hone in on the more analytic, System 2 type of thinking. A survey of various debiasing techniques found that they all shared a common thread of deliberately moving from System 1 thinking to System 2.7 Slowing down the process by which we make our judgments and considering all of the information at hand allows us to make better decisions.

With the just-world hypothesis, System 2 thinking means taking a step back to prevent ourselves from making distorted assessments. Sometimes after looking at the full picture we will still support our initial conclusion. Maybe we still feel that the punishment or reward at hand was warranted, and that is okay too. Working on de-biasing the just-world hypothesis does not mean telling ourselves that the world is never just. What we want to open our minds to is a new way of dealing with cognitive dissonance instead of always taking the easiest route. By simply using System 2 thinking, we can think critically, rather than instinctually. This will allow us to clearly see injustices and better prepare ourselves and the world around us to combat them.

So how do we slow down and start using System 2 thinking? Well, the answer to this is less clear-cut. Just like when we are learning a new physical skill, building positive mental practices takes time and repetition. We now know what the just-world hypothesis is and how it happens, so we can be more aware of it in ourselves. At first, we might retroactively realize when we are thinking in a biased manner, per se making a quick judgment about someone. Through examining our intuitive judgments and looking at the larger picture, we can cultivate proactive System 2 thinking.

We can fight victim-blaming tendencies by cultivating empathy

One tool we can use to combat the negative attitudes towards victims sometimes unknowingly yielded by the just-world hypothesis is empathy. In one experiment led by researchers Aderman, Brehm, and Katz from Duke University, participants were asked to watch a video of a woman receiving electric shocks based on her performance in a learning task. 8 Before watching this tape, participants were either asked to imagine themselves in the scenario or just asked to simply watch the woman in the tape. Those who were in the empathy-inducing group were much less likely to derogate the victim, demonstrating less influence of the just-world hypothesis. So, if we can remember to think critically rather than instinctually, and put ourselves in the shoes of others, we can more accurately assess the situation.

How it all started

Dr. Melvin J Lerner was the first to explicitly define and research the just-world hypothesis. Lerner was doing his postdoctoral work in clinical psychology at a major mental institution when he discovered an interest in the phenomena. 9 He worked alongside psychologists and therapists as they cared for patients and assessed if the patients were ready to be reintegrated into society. Yet, he noticed an unsettling pattern in the attitudes of the workers towards their patients. He saw these medical professionals relentlessly cross-examining patients in therapy sessions, which caused emotional distress, and he would hear them talking about patients in an incredibly derogatory manner.

After watching these strange behaviors elicited by otherwise compassionate and intelligent people, Lerner came to an interesting conclusion. Lerner found that the psychologists and therapists’ demeaning attitude towards patients functioned as a defense mechanism against feeling the patients were helpless. It also allowed them to cope with the patients’ suffering. From these observations and additional experimental research, Lerner formulated the just-world hypothesis as a way of “making sense of how people make sense of the world”.

Example 1 - Reactions to luck

In one study by Rubin and Peplau, participants’ responses to drawings of the National Draft Lottery for the Vietnam War were recorded and analyzed. 10 Groups of drafted men were asked to listen to the live broadcast in which their lottery numbers were assigned either high priority or low priority. Those with high priority lottery numbers were more likely to be inducted and face a more dangerous fate than those with low priority numbers. The drawings were entirely random, thus, no predetermining factors indicated the mens’ outcomes.

They found that for the most part participants acted with sympathy towards those with a high priority drawing. However, the results differed in those who scored highly for the just-world hypothesis. These participants had more resentment for the losers (those who received a high priority number and were more likely to be sent into war), even though the losers were entirely victims of circumstance. The researchers suggested that this resentment was yielded by the need to “justify an underlying moral order”.

Example 2 - Perceptions of leaders

In a 1973 study at UCLA, Peplau investigated how the just-world hypothesis influenced political attitudes. 11 They found that high scores in belief in a just world indicated higher approval ratings for major political institutions, such as the “US Congress, Supreme Court, military, big business, and labor unions”.

Incidentally, this study took place during the Watergate Scandal, where the Nixon administration was accused of organizing a break-in to the Democratic National Committee office. The researchers ended up finding that participants scoring highly on a measure for strength of the just-world hypothesis were less likely to believe that President Nixon was guilty. These participants associated such high levels of success with a strong character and moral compass, thus, they did not believe that Nixon was capable of such deceptive acts.

Summary

What it is

The just-world hypothesis refers to the belief that the world is fair and how morally we act will determine our outcomes. With the just-world hypothesis comes a tendency to rationalize information around us to fit this belief.

Why it happens

For us, a just world is a predictable world; we expect a reward when we work hard and we expect punishment for wrongdoings. The just-world hypothesis is a lens for understanding the world around us that provides stability. So when we are faced with a situation that seems unjust, this results in cognitive dissonance between our beliefs about the world and reality. We mitigate this dissonance by finding ways to justify the injustice.

Example 1 –  How the just-world hypothesis changes our reaction to situations of luck

In a study done on the drawing of priority numbers for men drafted into the Vietnam War, men with high scores for the just-world hypothesis were more likely to have negative feelings towards those who had a higher chance of being sent to war.

Example 2 – How the just-world hypothesis can skew our perception of leaders

Those who have a strong belief in a just world may have higher approval for political leaders due to the assumption that you achieve success through high merit and moral strength. In a study surveying political attitudes during the Watergate Scandal, the participants with high scores for the just-world hypothesis were more likely to deny Nixon’s guilt.

How to avoid it

We can learn to avoid judgments clouded by the just-world hypothesis by moving from System 1 thinking (quickly made, intuitive responses) to System 2 (slower, analytical processing). Additionally, we can visualize ourselves in someone else’s position to encourage empathy and prevent victim-blaming.

Sources

  1. Rubin, Z., & Peplau, L. A. (1975). Who Believes in a Just World? Journal of Social Issues, 31(3), 65–89. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1975.tb00997.x
  2. Ibid.
  3. Lerner, M. J. (1980). The Belief in a Just World. Springer US.