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Just-World Fallacy: You Want Justice, So Pretend it Exists

By July 10, 2010

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The "Just World Fallacy" is fairly well known in psychology and the social sciences, but it's not so well known outside this field. That's a problem because the Just-World Fallacy is not only a fundamental premise behind American politics, economics, and religion, but is also arguably behind a lot of errors in thinking and reasoning we see all over the place.

Put simply, the Just-World Fallacy is the assumption that the world is just: you get what you deserve and you deserve what you get. The word "deserve" is key: this isn't a neutral, objective observation of events but a moral evaluation of the character and behavior of the people involved.

It's why rape victims are blamed for having been raped -- they must have done something wrong to deserve it. It's why people who survive accidents say it was God's will -- they must have deserved to be one of the few to live. It's why the poor are at fault for being poor while the rich are to be praised for being rich -- they must all deserve their current financial situation.

David McRaney writes:

In a 1966 study by Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons, 72 women watched a woman solve problems and get electric shocks when she messed up. The woman was actually pretending, but the people watching didn't know this.

Lerner based these studies on the things he had seen working with the mentally ill. He noticed how he and other doctors, nurses and orderlies would sometimes insult people who were suffering or come up with assumptions about what kind of people they were, or joke about their illness. Lerner thought this behavior might be an attempt to protect the psyche of people facing an abysmal, unrelenting amount of misery and despair.

In his study, when asked to describe the woman getting shocked, many of the observers devalued her. They berated her character and her appearance. They said she deserved it.

Lerner also taught a class on society and medicine, and he noticed many students thought poor people were just lazy people who wanted a handout. So, he conducted another study where he had two men solve puzzles. At the end, one of them was randomly awarded a large sum of money. The observers were told the reward was completely random.

Still, when asked later to evaluate the two men, people said the one who got the award was smarter, more talented, better at solving puzzles and more productive.

The Just-World Fallacy is highly susceptible to pre-existing prejudices because if you already assume bad things about a person, you'll be far more likely to assume that they deserve their misfortune. You are also probably more likely to remember misfortunes among members of that group to reinforce your prejudice that there is something fundamentally and inherently bad about that group -- after all, why else would so many of them suffer so many misfortunes?

Adoption of the Just-World Fallacy is, as you might expect, strongly correlated with religiosity and authoritarianism. McRaney quotes Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez from an essay at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

"Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of UCLA have conducted surveys to examine the characteristics of people with strong beliefs in a just world. They found that people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to 'feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims.'"

The Just-World Fallacy is a human problem, but it's far more prevalent in American than elsewhere in the world:

It seems likely that America's commitment to meritocracy contributed to its ascent as an economic superpower (Fukuyama, 1995; Landes, 1998, 2000). It is clearly the case that historically Protestant nations dominate the world economically. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some Asian companies are actively seeking to abandon practices such as seniority-based hiring in favor of the individualistic American business model.

And as noted earlier, the Protestant work ethic may be adaptive in the sense that it leads individuals to pursue educational and vocational success. However, the legacy of Protestant faith in earthly punishments and rewards has multifold effects, not all of which are clearly welcome. The (often implicit) belief that bad people are punished on earth contributes to ideologies that justify social inequality ( Jost & Banaji, 1994; Katz & Hass, 1988; Lerner, 1980; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999).

Americans are more likely than members of many other cultures, including other wealthy democracies, to endorse the belief that people get what they deserve (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1998). Eighty-two percent of Americans believe that what happens to people is their own doing, as compared to only 33% of Venezuelans, and 39% of Chinese. It is of course relatively unsurprising that people in poor countries--where life is arguably less fair than it is in America--view the world as unfair. However, more Americans believe in a just world than do Japanese, Germans, and Swedes (63%, 66%, and 71%, respectively).

- Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification, edited by John T. Jost, Aaron C. Kay, Hulda Thorisdottir

It's obviously false that everything which happens to you, happens because you deserve it. Even in cases where you are at least partially responsible for the events in question, that's a far cry from saying that you deserve what happened to you. Saying "you bear some responsibility for your problem" is a relatively neutral observation; saying "you deserve your problem" is a moral evaluation.

A person who gets drunk and tries to walk home bears some responsibility if they become a victim of a crime. A person who leaves their car unlocked bears some responsibility if their car is stolen. A person who commits a crime bears all the responsibility for being imprisoned with other criminals who might commit crimes against that person (from assault to rape). In none of these cases, however, do these people deserve to be victims of crimes.

Then there are plenty of examples where people don't even bear much if any responsibility for the problems they are dealing with. Where you are born, where you are educated, the education of your parents, your race, and your family's social status all have great influences on how well you do in life and there is nothing you can do about any of them.

It's easy to understand why more religious people would fall victim to this fallacy: if you start out by assuming there is a perfect god in charge of anything, it's implausible that good things would happen to bad people and bad things would happen to good people -- at least in the general scheme of things. It's also easy to understand why authoritarian-minded people would be quick to adopt this: it's a great cudgel to use to get people to adhere to authoritarian rules. If you step out of line, you'll end up being punished somehow.

But how do we get people to drop this fallacy -- especially in America where it's reinforced by just about every dominant ideology in every arena of life? We also have to ask just how far we would want to go in dispelling it. After all, this fallacy goes hand-in-hand with the feeling that you are in control of your life and this feeling can produce a lot of good behavior. We don't want to push the pendulum in the other directly too far and make people feel fatalistic. So, can we dispel the attitude of "you deserve what you get" while retaining some measure of "but you are still in control"?

July 10, 2010 at 1:05 pm
(1) Cristin says:

With regards to solving the problem, we can just point to some people, like Paris Hilton, who obviously did not deserve the wealth and station they have, or babies who are born with with Tay-Sachs disease, who start deteriorating at 6months and usually die before reaching four years old. There are obvious examples where a person is party to a fate without any moral involvement, good or bad.

July 10, 2010 at 4:05 pm
(2) P Smith says:

Other people call it rationalization. The “just world” garbage is the attempted justification of those who came to their wealth dishonestly and those who sociopathically take pleasure in others’ misfortune.

July 12, 2010 at 5:49 pm
(3) Dean says:

Yeah, and if their kids die or their mother has a stroke, the fat, rich bastards deserved it.


July 17, 2010 at 7:50 am
(4) Dan says:

Dean- no, then it’s Karma.

Regarding those statistics, I wonder how they have changed over time. I would imagine that with greater internationalization (through the spread of the internet), Bernie Madoff et al, and the recession and various scandals leading from it, the number of Americans professing belief in a “Just World” will go down. Perhaps this gives us a clue about the current social divisiveness in America (eg. the Tea Party). Finding those numbers at the high point of an economic boom and at the current low would be very enlightening, imo.

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