- Just-world hypothesis — Biases & Heuristics
- Belief in a just world creates a seemingly predictable environment
- We often avoid or distort information that challenges our cognitive framework
- By understanding the two systems of thinking, we are better equipped to resist biases
- We can fight victim-blaming tendencies by cultivating empathy
- Why it happens
- Example 1 – How the just-world hypothesis changes our reaction to situations of luck
- Example 2 – How the just-world hypothesis can skew our perception of leaders
- How to avoid it
- Just-World Hypothesis
- Just-World Hypothesis Background and History
- More Recent Research on Just-World Hypothesis
- Just-World Hypothesis Implications
- What Is This Hypothesis?
- Hypothesis Research
- Pros Of This Hypothesis
- Cons Of This Hypothesis
Just-world hypothesis — Biases & Heuristics
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.
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.
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 ly to take action and fight for change.
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”.
3 Basically, we are more ly to work towards our goals if we feel 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.
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.
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 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 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 ly 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.
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”.
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 ly 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 ly 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”.
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 ly 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.
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 ly 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 ly 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.
The just-world hypothesis is the belief that, in general, the social environment is fair, such that people get what they deserve. The concept was developed in part to help explain observations that to preserve a belief that the world is a just place, people will sometimes devalue a victim.
A just world is defined as a world in which people do get what they deserve. The just-world hypothesis is important because it suggests that people may treat certain victims badly, oddly enough, a desire to sustain their belief in justice.
It also suggests that people may go to great lengths to maintain a sense that the world is just, giving evidence that the human motivation for justice is very strong.
Just-World Hypothesis Background and History
The seminal experiment illustrating this phenomenon was conducted by Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons in the 1960s. In this experiment, people watched on a television monitor a woman who appeared to be receiving painful electric shocks from a researcher.
In actuality, the footage was prerecorded and the events were only simulated by actors. As the woman did nothing to deserve the shocks she was receiving, she can be seen as suffering unjustly.
People who watched this unjust suffering described the victim’s character quite negatively if they could not compensate her (or at least were not sure they could compensate her) and if they thought that they would continue to see her suffer.
People described the victim’s character most negatively when they also believed that she was behaving altruistically; that is, she chose to suffer for their sake. The findings were explained by suggesting that people have a strong need to believe that the world is a just place in which individuals get what they deserve.
Victims who continue to suffer through no fault of their own (and especially very good people, the altruistic woman in the early experiment) threaten this belief in a just world. As a way of dealing with that threat and maintaining a belief in a just world, people may try to restore justice by helping or compensating victims.
When it is not possible to help or compensate victims, people may reinterpret the situation by, for example, claiming that a particular victim is a bad or otherwise unworthy person. By devaluing or derogating the victim in this way, his or her fate seems more deserved and people’s sense of justice is maintained.
There was much controversy about how to interpret the results of the original experiment. For example, some researchers suggested that people devalued the victim to reduce their own feelings of guilt at letting her continue to suffer.
However, further experiments showed that people sometimes devalue a victim of injustice even when they could not have played any role in the victim’s situation.
This and other proposed alternatives were, for the most part, dealt with through further study and argumentation, leading to a general acceptance of the notion that people will sometimes devalue a victim of injustice because they need to believe in a just world.
More Recent Research on Just-World Hypothesis
Since the early period of experimentation in the 1960s and 1970s, social psychologists have continued to conduct research on the just-world hypothesis. There have been two main traditions in this later research.
First, researchers have continued to conduct experiments to study how people respond when they see, read about, or are otherwise exposed to victims who presumably threaten the need to believe in a just world. This research has tended to focus on victims of HIV/AIDS, rape, and cancer.
Although some researchers have claimed that a number of these experiments have flaws that make it difficult to interpret the results, there is agreement that several of the investigations generally support the just-world hypothesis.
Another tradition in the later research on the just-world hypothesis has involved using a questionnaire to measure the extent to which people actually believe that the world is a just place. Researchers then test whether people who believe more strongly in a just world, according to the questionnaire, hold certain attitudes.
These studies have shown, for example, that the more people claim that they believe the world is just, the more negative attitudes they have toward the poor, groups of people who are discriminated against in society, and other people who might be seen as victims of injustice.
These findings are consistent with the just-world hypothesis.
Just-World Hypothesis Implications
The just-world hypothesis has several important implications for reactions to victims of injustice. For example, the research suggests that if people feel they cannot help or compensate victims of injustice who continue to suffer, they may react defensively.
They may reason that the victims deserved their fate either because of the kind of people they are or because of the way they behaved.
If people respond in this way, they may be less ly to react in a more positive manner, working toward minimizing injustice or offering emotional support.
It is important to note that the just-world hypothesis is actually part of a broader theory called justice motive theory or just-world theory.
The theory includes propositions about how and why a belief in a just world develops in children, the different forms that a belief in a just world might take, the many strategies (aside from blaming and derogating victims of injustice) that people use to maintain a belief in a just world, and the various ways in which justice is defined for different kinds of social relationships.
- Hafer, C. L., & Begue, L. (2005). Experimental research on just-world theory: Problems, developments, and future challenges. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 128-167.
- Lerner, M. J. (1980). The belief in a just world: A fundamental delusion. New York: Plenum.
- Lerner, M. J., & Miller, D. T. (1978). Just-world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin, 85, 1030-1051.
What Is This Hypothesis?
So, what is a just-world hypothesis? A brief definition is that it's a belief the world is fair, and that everyone will receive what they deserve, either on earth or in some afterlife.
According to the just-world hypothesis, if you behave badly, you will be punished for your behavior, and if you have good intentions and morals, you will be rewarded. It is rooted in the belief that the world is a fair and just place.
A man can smoke for 60 years and never get lung cancer, yet another man might get lung cancer without ever having smoked at all. A student can work as hard as she s and does great at school, yet that doesn't guarantee her a high paying and successful job.
At the same time, someone who does none of that work might end up with a job no one ever thought he was smart enough to do. The just-world hypothesis, however, would imply that the student who works hard will have more success coming for them, since they deserve it.
Life has a way of complicating what may seem to be an obvious and simple answer. The just-world hypothesis ignores the complexity of life and focuses on what makes us feel better. And, sometimes, it's necessary to believe that the world is just. On the other hand, the just-world hypothesis has been shown to cause some problems, too.
The most famous research studies conducted to examine the just-world hypothesis have revealed some interesting behavior patterns among people who believe in a just world.
Lerner And Simmons
In 1965, Melvin Lerner developed the Just-World Hypothesis. He and Carolyn Simmons created an experiment to test it. The goal was to see how people would respond to the appearance of injustice.
A group of volunteers was asked to watch what they were told was a closed-circuit feed. They watched as a woman was brought into a room, where electrodes were attached to her body. Then, she was asked to take a test.
Although the woman was actually a grad student who was simply acting the part, the viewers thought she was being zapped with electricity every time she gave a wrong answer on the test. The woman writhed in pain, while the volunteers watched.
Next, the volunteers were given some choices. One group could end the woman's suffering and choose to let her learn in another way. They felt she was innocent, so they wanted to end her suffering.
The other group was told they couldn't release her. Instead, the volunteers in this group were told different stories about the woman, ranging from that she was getting paid to do it to that she was a martyr, doing it to prevent others from suffering her fate.
Interestingly, those who couldn't end her suffering didn't tend to see her as an innocent victim. Instead, they based their opinion of her on why she was allowing it, the story each was told.
Those who thought she was doing it for a large amount of money thought better of her than those who thought she was going through the torture without being paid anything. The volunteers who were told she was sacrificing herself for others thought much less of her.
When they couldn't help the victim, they blamed her. They assumed she was getting what she deserved. No innocent victim here, they thought, she deserves to be shocked. They called her stupid, made fun of her appearance, and talked about her low moral character.
Lerner concluded that people who had no way to help someone who was suffering unjustly would think of them as deserving of their fate.
Rubin And Peplau
Lerner continued to study the just-world phenomenon and produced a large body of work. Many others have researched the hypothesis since then. Two of the most notable researchers are Zick Rubin and Letitia Anne Peplau. These two have worked together, studying how people who believe in a just world think and behave.
Rubin and Peplau used surveys to study the responses of people who have a very strong belief that the world is just, as shown by the Just-World Scale they devised. They found out several things about these people. They were:
- More religious
- More conservative
- More authoritarian
These people tended to:
- Admire political leaders
- Admire established institutions
- Look down on people from underprivileged groups
They tended to feel:
- Little need to work to change society.
- Little need to end the suffering of these underprivileged victims.
Andre and Velasquez
Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez are scholars and ethicists. They have written about the Just-World Theory and how it relates to ethics.
Andre and Velasquez explain that people have a very strong need for the world to conform to their just vision of it, and they'll find a way to see it as just, even if they must distort the facts. They suggest that understanding and being more aware of ourselves can help us choose to make positive changes to our environment instead.
Pros Of This Hypothesis
We can get some benefit from believing in the Just-World Theory. Here are a few of the reasons people hold so tightly to this belief:
- The world seems less chaotic.
- We feel less vulnerable because only people who are bad deserve to be hurt.
- We feel less anxious and fearful because we feel certain that we won't be harmed
- It can help us feel better about ourselves.
- It's easier to be optimistic if you see the world as a place where people only get what they deserve.
- It may be easier to be motivated if you strongly believe your efforts will pay off at some point.
Cons Of This Hypothesis
The negative aspects of the Just-World Theory may make you think twice before using it as your fallback position. When you hang onto your belief that the world is just you might:
- Blame innocent victims. When you do, you contribute to the injustice in the world.
- Fail to feel empathy for or help people in need, such as homeless people, victims of crimes, or those with substance use disorder.
- Limit your personal development by not noticing the complexity of the social environment.
- Delude yourself into believing you're safe when you aren't. This can leave you unprepared when something unexpected happens.
- Live in a false reality. While some people don't mind looking beyond what's easy, others prefer to find the most accurate version of the truth they can.
Making A Choice
We may all start out with a just-world hypothesis. Some people grow it as they get older, while others hold onto it all their lives.
Deciding whether to live your life the just-world hypothesis usually isn't a one-time thing. We may make that decision over and over throughout our lives.
Our need to believe that the world is just is such a strong part of human nature that it may keep coming back, no matter how committed we are to overcome it.
Sometimes, it's difficult to know what the truth is. Other times, we know, but find it really very hard to deal with when we look at it clearly. For this and other dilemmas, though, you can get help by talking to a counselor at BetterHelp.com.
Your therapist can support you and offer strength and guidance as you find better ways to handle the problems life throws at you, and work you through the navigation of a just-world theory.
With the right help, you can make a sound decision about when to allow the Just-World Hypothesis to guide you and when to stop, check yourself, and find a better way to respond.