The just-world hypothesis is a cognitive bias that causes people to assume that people’s actions always lead to fair consequences, meaning that those who do good are eventually rewarded, while those who do evil are eventually punished. For example, the just-world hypothesis could cause someone to assume that if someone else experienced a tragic misfortune, then they must have done something to deserve it.
This cognitive bias affects people’s thinking and actions in many domains, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the just-world hypothesis, understand why people experience it, and see what you can do in order to account for its influence.
Understanding the just-world hypothesis
The just-world hypothesis is used by people in order to justify many of the positive and negative outcomes that they and others experience in life, by suggesting that there must be a direct, absolute, and moral-based link between those outcomes and people’s actions, so that good things happen to good people while bad things happen to bad people. This belief can influence people’s thinking even in cases where concrete evidence suggests otherwise, meaning that there is no significant link between the moral nature of a person’s actions and the outcomes that they experience.
There are several types of just-world beliefs, which are categorized based on two main criteria:
- Intrapersonal/interpersonal bias. An intrapersonal bias refers to the expectation of a just world with regards to yourself (e.g. “I’ll get what I deserve”), while an interpersonal bias refers to the expectation of a just world with regards to someone else (e.g. “they’ll get what they deserve”).
- Retrospective/prospective bias. A retrospective bias refers to the expectation of a just world with regards to past events (e.g. “you got what you deserved”), while a prospective bias refers to the expectation of a just world with regards to future events (e.g. “you will get what you deserve”).
Essentially, the distinction between retrospective/prospective bias can be seen as the distinction between believing that present consequences must have occurred as a result of past actions (a retrospective bias), as opposed to believing that present actions will have fitting future consequences (a prospective bias).
Note that some people display different levels of the different types of just-world beliefs. For example, some people display different levels of belief in a just world for themself than they do for others, though these two beliefs are strongly correlated with one another. This is important to take into account, since each of these beliefs can affect people’s behavior in different ways. For example, one study on the topic showed that belief in a just world for others can reduce the likelihood that people will donate to a street beggar, while belief in a just world for the self can increase the likelihood that people will donate to a street beggar.
In addition, note that the belief in a just world is contrasted with other types of beliefs. These include, most notably, a belief in a random world, where there is no consistent relationship between good deeds/bad deeds and rewards/punishments. Furthermore, there is also the belief in an unjust world, where good deeds are punished while bad deeds are rewarded, though this term is sometimes also used to refer to a belief in a random world.
Note: the just-world hypothesis is sometimes referred to as the belief in a just-world (BJW), the just-world belief, the just-world bias, and the just-world fallacy.
Examples of just-world beliefs
Lerner’s experiments on just-world beliefs
The scientific formalization of the just-world hypothesis is generally attributed to Professor Melvin J. Lerner, who discovered evidence for it in the 1960’s.
For example, in his first study on the topic (published in 1965), Lerner let people observe a pair of workers who were trying to complete a certain task.
The observers were told that one of the workers was selected at random to receive a sizable monetary reward for his efforts, while the other worker was selected, also at random, to receive nothing. The observers were also told that the workers were ignorant of this random selection process, and that both had agreed to do their best on the task.
However, once the task was completed and the payoff delivered to the lucky worker, the observers tended to persuade themselves that that worker who received the money received it because he earned it, rather than because he was chosen by chance.
In another study by Lerner, students observed a supposed peer who was participating in a learning task. The peer, who served as the victim in the experiment, appeared to receive painful electric shocks as punishment for making errors in the task.
When describing the suffering victim after watching her perform the task, the observers tended to reject and devalue her by saying that she deserved what was happening, in cases where they were led to believe that they would continue to see her suffer in a second session, and in cases where they felt powerless to alter her fate.
Furthermore, the tendency to reject and devalue the victim was strongest when the victim was viewed as suffering for the sake of the observers; this was known as the “martyr” condition, and occurred when observers were led to believe that the victim only agreed to continue the experiment so that they could earn their course credits.
Other examples of just-world beliefs
In addition to Lerner’s experiments, there are various other examples of ways in which belief in a just world can affect people’s thinking.
For example, just-world beliefs are used by people to justify the status quo in unequal societies, and accordingly, belief in a just world is often associated with negative attitudes toward the poor. Furthermore, this belief is also associated with an increased tendency to blame victims of rape, abuse, and illness for their suffering.
Furthermore, those who believe in a just world tend to admire successful people and look down on those who fail or experience misfortune, even in situations where people’s positive or negative outcomes have little to do with their actions. Similarly, believers in a just world tend to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, while looking down on underprivileged groups.
Why people believe in a just world
There are several cognitive mechanisms which cause people to believe in a just world:
- Belief in a just world can serve as motivation for making long-term efforts. Believing that they will be rewarded for their actions can help people motivate themself to put in the necessary effort and make the necessary sacrifices, especially in situations where the rewards for their actions are not immediate.
- Belief in a just world can serve as a coping mechanism for everyday struggles. For example, when people believe that if they do good things then they will be rewarded later can help them feel better when encountering obstacles. As such, believing that the world will be just can sometimes improve people’s mental health, in terms of factors such as emotional wellbeing, life satisfaction, reduced stress, and lower levels of depression.
- Belief in a just world can help people cope with existential issues. For example, belief in a just world can help people feel that their actions have meaning, and provide them with a sense of purpose in life, while also helping them deal with their fear of death.
- Belief in a just world can help people feel in control. Essentially, when people believe that their future will be determined primarily by their actions, they feel that they have more stability and control in their life.
Furthermore, various situational factors can also affect the degree to which people believe in a just world. For example, being in a good mood reduces people’s tendency to blame innocent victims, while being in a bad mood increases this tendency.
Note: people can also rely on the just-world fallacy in their arguments, even if they don’t actually believe in this concept. For example, someone might argue against a certain group by saying that if they’re struggling financially then it must be entirely their fault, even if the person saying this knows that that’s not actually the case.
Just-world beliefs and religion
Just-world thinking often occurs as a result of an underlying belief in a divine or supernatural force that is responsible for justice and moral balance in the world. This belief can be either conscious or subconscious, and a conscious belief in a just world is an integral part of many religions.
For example, one religious concept which relies on just-world thinking is karma. This concept plays a similar role in various religions, and in general, karma is seen as a spiritual medium through which an individual’s actions influence their future, so that good deeds contribute to positive karma and therefore lead to future happiness, while bad deeds contribute to negative karma and therefore lead to future suffering.
However, just-world beliefs are also prevalent among non-religious people, and this form of thinking is reflected in many common idioms, some of which have religious origins or connotations and some of which do not. These idioms include, among others, “what goes around comes around”, “everything happens for a reason”, “you get what you give”, “everyone gets what they deserve”, and “you reap what you sow”.
How to account for the just-world bias
There are four main types of just-world beliefs that you need to account for:
- Your own bias with regards to your own outcomes.
- Your own bias with regards to other people’s outcomes.
- Other people’s bias with regards to their own outcomes.
- Other people’s bias with regards to other people’s outcomes.
When it comes to your own thinking, your main goal is to think through the situation in question, and analyze it in order to determine whether the individual in that situation is actually responsible for the outcomes that they experienced, or whether they are actually capable of influencing a specific future outcome by taking action now. You can accomplish this by analyzing this person’s actions, their outcomes, and any external influences which might affect those outcomes.
To improve your ability to do this in a rational manner, you can try to reduce the influence of the just-world bias by using various debiasing techniques. For example, you could try to think of examples of cases where people experienced similar outcomes to the one in question, despite the fact that they were clearly not responsible for those outcomes. Furthermore, you could also try to empathize with the person or group in question, by trying to put yourself in their shoes and see things from their perspective.
You can also attempt to implement these techniques, with a few minor adjustments, when it comes to debiasing other people’s thinking. This applies both to situations where people display just-world beliefs because they were persuaded to do so by someone else’s rhetoric, as well as in situations where people display those beliefs naturally.
The exact approach which you should use in order to debias other people depends on the circumstances at hand, as well as on personal factors, but overall, you should use the same underlying debiasing techniques that you would use to debias yourself. For example, if you would normally try to think of examples of similar past situations in an attempt to debias your just-world approach toward a present event, you can prompt someone else to do the same, by presenting them with such examples, and by asking them to think of relevant examples of their own.
Remember that the world is not entirely random or unjust
When accounting for the influence of the just-world bias, it’s important to keep in mind that an absolute belief in an unjust or random world, where good deeds are punished while bad deeds are rewards, or where none of your outcomes are determined by your actions, can be just as wrong and detrimental as believing that your actions always determine your outcomes.
For example, believing that your actions are never responsible for your outcomes can sometimes serve as a way to defend your ego, by attributing all your failures to factors entirely out of your control, which could prevent you from learning from your mistake in situations where you are at least partially responsible for the outcomes that you experience.
As such, when debiasing just-world beliefs, you shouldn’t assume that people deserve what happened to them in situations where that is clearly incorrect, but you also shouldn’t go so far as to assume that people’s outcomes are never determined by their past actions. Rather, you should try to approach the situation as unbiased as possible, so you can assess it in a rational manner.
Summary and conclusions
- The just-world hypothesis is a cognitive bias that causes people to assume that people’s actions always lead to morally-fair consequences, meaning that those who do good are eventually rewarded, while those who do evil are eventually punished.
- This bias can be either intrapersonal or interpersonal, meaning that it can affect people’s view of themselves or of others, and it can also be either retrospective or prospective, meaning that it can affect people’s assessment of the past or their predictions of the future.
- Belief in a just world can motivate people to make long-term efforts, help them feel in control, and allow them to cope with everyday struggles, which is why this belief is often associated with improved emotional wellbeing.
- Belief in a just world can also lead to various issues, most notably in situations where it causes people to incorrectly blame victims for their misfortunes, even when what happened to them clearly wasn’t their fault.
- To reduce the influence of this bias, you can attempt to negate the intuitive assumption that there is always a perfect link between actions and consequences, by using various debiasing techniques, and by examining the situation in question in order to analyze the possible action-consequence link in it in a rational manner.