The Just-World Belief System

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 or association that when you do good things, you get rewarded and when you do bad things, you get punished.

This might explain 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. Comparably, 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.

Just-World Hypothesis: Definition

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. Ever since Lerner formulated this hypothesis in 1960s, it has been extensively researched to examine its capacity in different contexts and across cultures.

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. Interestingly, research shows that accident victims are held more responsible for their fate when the damages from the accident are severe, when the victim’s situation is similar to the perceiver’s, when the perceiver is anxious about threats to the self or identifies with the victim. This implies that 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.

Roots to Victim-Blaming

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. One of the problems in a just-belief system is that when it’s shattered, we experience trauma. Trauma is not physical, it’s the shattering of a just world belief system.

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. It shatters. 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 such a careful driver that puts the seatbelt on? I don’t drink and drive, how could I be in a car accident and be paralyzed? A minute earlier, I thought that I will be fine. 

The problem is that the nature of life doesn’t work that way. 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 but you can do nothing about it. You might 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.

On a daily basis, people are confronted with evidence that the world is not just, especially when they suffer without apparent cause. Lerner explained that people use rational or irrational strategies to eliminate threats to their belief in a just world. Rational strategies include accepting the reality of injustice, trying to prevent injustice or provide restitution, and accepting one’s own limitations. Non-rational strategies include denial, withdrawal, and reinterpretation of the event.

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”.

Although she thought she was just an observer, it was only until she was diagnosed with cancer till she realized how invested in the prosperity gospel. She said, “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.

Bowler notes that although she had suffered trauma and pain, she also felt loved by the people around her. She grew so accustomed to it that she feared losing the loving feeling. She comes 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. Finally, 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.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Anomaly_27 says:

    Great read!

    I work in a posh part of Winter Park, Florida. It is full of shops, restaurants, and million-dollar homes. People drive though there in Lamborghini’s, Ferrari’s and such.

    However, at night, a different kind of social status is reflected. A homeless population shows up. One night, I talked with one of them. Now, if there was a time where I knew not to judge a person by their appearance, I learned it this night.

    We talked about all sorts of things, but one thing we talked about was how he came to the streets.

    It wasn’t because of drugs, it wasn’t because of the lack of work ethic, and losing all of his money. He was on the street because he was kicked out of trailer home that he was taking care of himself. One of the men managing the trailer park made a move on him and he refused. So he was kicked out because of that.

    There was no indication that he was lying, trying to make himself look or feel better. It seemed matter-of-fact.

    I was quickly reminded that sometimes we are in the situations that we are in only because of the results of outside influences, not because of what we believe or what we have done to deserve that situation. I agree that this is a faulty aspect of the prosperity gospel.The prosperity gospel has a few things right but I know that believing in it can be dismal to someone’s faith and shake up the foundation of their lives, like those of Katie. I think it is merely impossible to not believe in anything and I think it is healthy to have some beliefs be challenged by dialogue or written text. It is when situations decide to challenge our beliefs, that is where we are more vulnerable to drastic change.

    Like

  2. Anonymole says:

    Good stuff! Thought provoking.

    More people might benefit from adopting a Stoic belief system. My own is a hodgepodge of Stoicism, Nihilism mixed with a deep analysis of existence.

    A Just World belief system would require that we rationalize an irrational universe. That there is universal meaning and that the universe has a purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    A Just Society is another thing. We should be able to fabricate an artificial, rational layer on top of the chaos that are Universal mores, and expect our artifice to support our beliefs. You do bad things and it won’t be the Universe that punishes you, society will attempt to right your wrongs.

    Expecting “fate” to balance injustice? “What goes around, comes around” is, as you’ve pointed out, a delusional charade invented to assuage our feeble, dogmatic minds.

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