Do you believe that everything happens for a reason? Do you believe you reap what you sow? Or maybe, what goes around comes around? Such figures of speech, that suggest inevitable retaliation, are part of a just-world belief system.
Those who have been raised in a religious context, or are aware of it, understand that good people go to heaven and sinners go to hell. They are taught that we have consequences for our actions and thoughts.
Similarly, we have been systematically conditioned in schools that we get punished when we misbehave and we get rewarded if we’re compliant. You grow up with the assumption that when you do good things, you get rewarded and when you do bad things, you get punished.
This could account for why some people accuse poor people of being lazy. They believe that disadvantaged groups are the way they are as a consequence of their behavior. They deserve it because they don’t put so much effort in making a change. They think to themselves; if he’s poor, let him go find a job! Maybe if he works like me, he wouldn’t be so poor.
The same concept applies for blaming rape victims. Some people think that she could’ve avoided getting raped if only she was a good girl who had some respect and looked after herself. It wouldn’t have happened to her.
Social psychologist Melvin Lerner came up with term for a particular cognitive bias, the just-world hypothesis, which assumes that the actions of a person inherently bring morally fair and appropriate consequences. The base in which this belief rationalizes people’s suffering is that they deserve it.
There’s a prevalent belief in a just world; a world where particular actions and conditions have predictable consequences. The actions are typically individuals’ behaviors or attributes, and the conditions are based on the norms and ideologies of a society.
The main belief is that one can influence the world in a predictable way, which allows people to plan for the future and engage in effective, goal-driven behavior. It’s a world where hard work and clean living always pays off, laziness and sinful lifestyles are punished.
Lerner believes that we need to view the world as a just place in which we get what we deserve and vice versa. Because if we believe otherwise, we acknowledge that we, too, are vulnerable to such cruel twists and turns of fate.
Due to our deep-rooted belief in a just world, we tend to be critical of victims. The more threatened we feel about an apparent injustice, the more the need to protect ourselves from the fact that it could happen to us, and thus, the greater need to disparage the victim.
Trauma: Shattered Just-World Belief System
If I believe in a just-world and I hear that a girl got raped, I assume that she’s a “slut” who deserves it. She brought it to herself, because I don’t want to think that it could happen to me. I’m a good girl, I’m a nice person, I don’t flirt with strangers. There’s no way that rape is going to come my way because I’m a conservative who isn’t likely to be raped, while the other girl deserves it because she must have aroused the sexual desires and tendencies of men.
Suppose you were at a party and you had a couple of drinks. You’re not sure if it’s rape, but you don’t want it to be. You blame the alcohol, the situation, you double-stigmatize yourself. You’ve been raised to think that people get raped if they bring it upon themselves, if it’s done by a stranger in a dark alley somewhere.
But if you’re with your friends in a safe space, you think it’s not rape. Or if you’re with your cousin or uncle, it cannot be. It’s not part of the just-world system. Hence, the assumption that we live in a just world is shattered. This results in a traumatic experience. Trauma is not merely physical, it’s the shattering of a just-world belief system.
You’re a victim, you cannot say anything about it because people won’t accept your version of the story and aren’t willing to accept that what happened to you could’ve happened to them. Because if it can happen to them, it shatters their system as well and creates a threat. They start blaming the victim because they need to protect the threats to their self-esteem.
Doing All The Right Things Isn’t Enough
We tend to think that everything will be fine if we do all the right things. The bad people will get what they deserve, and good people will get what they deserve. But how could I have been in a car accident when I’m a careful driver who puts the seatbelt on? I don’t drink and drive, how could I be in a car accident and get paralyzed? A minute earlier, I thought that I will be fine.
The problem is that the nature of life doesn’t work that way. On a daily basis, people are confronted with evidence that the world is not just, especially when they suffer without apparent cause.
You might be someone who’s the healthiest individual on the planet in terms of eating habits, but your genetic tree is full of cancer. You’re going to get cancer and you can do nothing about it. You can be the kindest person out there, but your kindness gets punished and this upsets you because it doesn’t fit the just world hypothesis.
This will cause a shock at some point in your life. Every single one of us is going to experience this kind of shock. May it be the death of a parent, something related to you, problem, disease, car accident. This is life, and these are the odds and probabilities that apply to everyone. No one is excluded.
Useful Purpose of Just-World Hypothesis
Although belief in a just world has its negative social effects, it can be good and even necessary for mental health only when the beliefs in a just world are for oneself. Beliefs in a just world for others are related to the negative social phenomena of victim blaming and victim derogation.
Belief in a just world regarding oneself is correlated with greater life satisfaction and wellbeing, as well as a less depressive affect. The reason could be that beliefs can be a personal resource or coping strategy that buffers stress associated with daily life and with traumatic events. Also, strong belief in a just world is associated with greater acceptance of and less dissatisfaction with negative events in one’s life.
We need to believe in a just world in order to maintain our wellbeing. Walking the world without a just world hypothesis is a big threat to your self, particularly because you need to be able to live with this kind of uncertainty. Constantly being confronted with evidence that the world is not just is not an easy thing to deal with because it creates stress, especially because it is asking you to think about the world not in the same fairytale way that you grew up with on a span of years of perfect conditioning schedules.
Everything Happens For a Reason
In a TED talk, Katie Bowler shares her disappointment when she was diagnosed with cancer. She is a historian and an expert at the idea of “good things happen to good people”. She was a good person who was living the life she had always dreamed of. It seemed to her that their efforts paid off, like they should. But she never did anything “bad” to deserve falling ill.
She was a researcher of the prosperity gospel, which enforces the idea that God will reward you if you have a right kind of faith. If you’re good and faithful, God will give you health, wealth, and boundless happiness. She described the view in a nutshell, “Life is a boomerang, good things will always come back to you”.
It was only until she was diagnosed with cancer till she realized that “whether you are religious or not, it is extremely difficult to avoid falling into the trap of believing that virtue and success come hand in hand”.
She added that the mindset of the gospel of success served her well because it drove her to achieve, dream big, and abandon fear… until she was confronted with something she could not manage her way out of. It’s to accept that we are all a breath away from a problem that could destroy something irreplaceable or alter our lives completely.
We all need reasons and formulas to predict whether our hard work will pay off or whether our love and support will always make our partners happy. We want to live in a world in which not one ounce of our hard work, pain, or deepest hopes will be for nothing. We want to live in a world where nothing is lost.
She came to a conclusion that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, gorgeous and tragic. The contradiction cannot be reconciled and these opposites do not cancel each other out. Life is so beautiful and life is so hard.
She is learning to live and love without counting the cost, without reasons and assurances that nothing will be lost. Life will break your heart and take everything you have, and everything you hope for. But in the darkness, there will be beauty and there will be love.