The just-world hypothesis is the mistaken belief that actions always lead to morally fair consequences, so good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. For example, a person is displaying the just-world hypothesis when they assume that if someone experienced a tragic misfortune, then they must have done something to deserve it.
The just-world hypothesis is also called the just-world fallacy, just-world bias, just-world thinking, and belief in a just-world (BJW).
This cognitive bias can affect people’s thoughts 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 display it, and see what you can do to account for this phenomenon in practice.
Examples of the just-world hypothesis
An example of the just-world hypothesis is the belief that if someone had something bad happen to them, then they must have done something wrong to deserve it. For instance, if someone is struggling with a rare disease, then they must have done something evil for which they are now being punished.
Beliefs like this are associated with the tendency to blame victims of illness, abuse, and assault for their suffering. They’re also associated with negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups, like poor people experiencing discrimination, and are used to justify the status quo in unequal societies.
Another example of the just-world hypothesis is the belief that if someone had something fortunate happen to them, then they must have done something morally good previously to deserve it. For instance, if someone’s investment earned a lot of money, then it must be because they’re a good person who’s now being rewarded.
Beliefs like this can lead people to admire those they perceive as successful, like political leaders and existing social institutions.
Just-world thinking is also reflected to varying degrees in a number of idioms, like “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”.
The scientific formalization of the just-world hypothesis is attributed to Professor Melvin J. Lerner, who discovered evidence for it in the 1960s.
In the first of his studies on the topic, people observed 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 the worker who received the money did so because he earned it, rather than because he was chosen by chance.
In another study, 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. This happened in cases where they were led to believe that they would continue to see her suffer in another 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 “martyr” condition occurred when observers were led to believe that the victim only agreed to continue the experiment so that they could earn their course credits.
Psychology and causes of the just-world hypothesis
The just-world hypothesis is used by people to justify many of the positive and negative outcomes that they and others experience, by suggesting that there must be a direct, absolute, and moral-based link between those outcomes and people’s actions. This belief can influence people’s thinking even when it’s contradicted by evidence showing that there’s no link between the morality of someone’s actions and the outcomes they experience.
Accordingly, just-world thinking represents a flaw in causal attribution, since it involves assuming that the morality of people and their actions necessarily determines associated outcomes, even though that’s not the case.
Beyond general issues in judgment and decision-making that can lead to flawed causal reasoning, like the tendency to rely on mental shortcuts (heuristics), there are some specific reasons why people may be motivated to believe in a just world:
- It can help them cope with everyday struggles. For example, it can help people feel that others who treat them poorly will eventually be punished for it.
- It can help them cope with existential issues. For example, it 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 things like fear of death.
- It can help them feel in control. For example, it can make people feel less vulnerable to tragedies that hurt others, by convincing them that there’s a certain way to avoid those tragedies.
Accordingly, belief in a just world can help people feel safe, in control, and optimistic, and can lead to positive outcomes, in terms of factors like people’s mental health, emotional wellbeing, and life satisfaction. In addition, this belief can also encourage various forms of positive behaviors, like pursuing long-term goals and acting in a prosocial way by charitably helping others. However, this belief can also be detrimental, for example if someone believes that it’s their fault that something happened to them, even if that’s not the case.
Various personal factors—like ethnicity, religion, and personality—affect the likelihood that people will display just-world beliefs, and the degree to which they will display them. Similarly, various situational factors can also play a role in this; for example, social support can increase belief in a just world, while experiencing negative life events (e.g., traumatic bullying) can decrease it, and being in a bad mood increases people’s tendency to blame innocent victims.
In addition, people can also use the just-world fallacy in their arguments for rhetorical purposes, even if they don’t actually believe it. 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 this argument is false.
Types of just-world beliefs
There are several types of just-world beliefs, which are categorized based on several criteria:
- Intrapersonal/interpersonal bias. An intrapersonal bias is the expectation of a just world with regard to yourself (e.g., “I’ll get what I deserve”), while an interpersonal bias is the expectation of a just world with regard to someone else (e.g., “they’ll get what they deserve”). There’s also an associated distinction between personal belief in a just world (“I get what I deserve”), and a general belief in a just world (“people get what they deserve”).
- Retrospective/prospective bias. A retrospective bias is the expectation of a just world with regard to past events (e.g., “you got what you deserved”), while a prospective bias is the expectation of a just world with regard to future events (e.g., “you will get what you deserve”).
- Positive/negative bias. A positive bias is the expectation of a just world with regard to positive actions (e.g., “this good deed will be rewarded”), while a negative bias is the expectation of a just world with regard to negative actions (e.g., “this evil deed will be punished”).
People can be prone to different types of just-world beliefs, in an asymmetric manner. For example, some people might display these beliefs only toward themselves or only toward others. However, the different types of just-world beliefs are associated, so people who display one type of this belief are also more likely to display others.
Differences in these beliefs can affect people’s behavior in different ways. For example, belief in a just world for others can reduce the likelihood that people will donate to a street beggar in situations, whereas belief in a just world for the self can do the opposite.
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 unconscious, and a conscious belief in a just world is an integral part of many religions.
This type of belief is often operationalized through concepts like karma, a form of spiritual medium through which an individual’s actions influence their future. Good deeds contribute to positive karma, which brings happiness and success, while bad deeds contribute to negative karma, which brings suffering and misery.
Belief in a random world
Belief in a random world is the expectation that there’s no consistent relationship between the morality of behaviors and the quality of associated outcomes, so people sometimes don’t get what they deserve or get what they don’t deserve. Essentially, this belief assumes that good/bad deeds don’t have an inherent association with rewards/punishments.
This belief is sometimes also referred to as belief in an unjust world, though this term can also have a different meaning.
Belief in an unjust world
Belief in an unjust world reflects the expectation that there’s a reverse link between the morality of behaviors and the quality of associated outcomes, so good deeds are punished while bad deeds are rewarded. Essentially, this belief assumes that people get the opposite of what they deserve.
However, this term is sometimes also used to refer to belief in a random world.
How to deal with just-world thinking
There are several things you can do to reduce biased just-world thinking:
- Assess the causality. For example, try to explicitly explain how a certain behavior could have caused a bad outcome for someone. This might help you see that there’s no reasonable causal relation between that behavior and the outcome.
- Consider alternative hypotheses. For example, try to come up with alternative explanations for why someone experienced a certain outcome, without relying on the morality of their behavior. You can also ask yourself how likely those explanations are, especially compared to the explanation supported by just-world thinking.
- Consider counter-examples. For example, consider a situation where someone else acted in a morally similar way, but experienced a very different outcome. The goal of this is to identify relevant cases where people were not influenced by their actions as would be expected based on the just-world hypothesis, to understand the issues with it.
- Change the frame. For example, if you’re assuming that a certain misfortune someone is experiencing was necessarily their fault, consider how you would feel if someone displayed the same type of thinking toward a similar misfortune that you experienced.
- Address the causes of the bias. For example, if you realize that you’re engaging in just-world thinking because you want to feel more in control of your situation, acknowledge this, and try finding other ways to feel in control, such as identifying ways you can overcome potential obstacles.
- Use general debiasing techniques. For example, you can take the time to slow down your reasoning process, so you can rely on more analytical reasoning.
You can use these techniques to address any of the following:
- Your own bias toward your own outcomes.
- Your own bias toward other people’s outcomes.
- Other people’s bias toward their own outcomes.
- Other people’s bias toward other people’s outcomes.
You can adapt the specific approach that you use based on the specific form of the just-world bias that you’re trying to address. For example, when reducing your own bias toward others (e.g., your expectation that if someone is suffering then it must be their fault), you can focus on counter-examples from your past, which might help you empathize with the people this bias is being displayed toward. Conversely, if you’re trying to reduce someone else’s bias toward others in a similar situation, you can focus on counter-examples from that person’s past.
When dealing with this bias, remember that completely ignoring the link between actions and consequences can also be problematic. For example, this happens when people wrongly attribute their failures to factors outside their control in order to defend their ego, which can prevent them from learning from their mistakes. This is particularly an issue when the morality of people’s actions did influence their outcomes, through mechanisms like social punishment from people who disapproved of it.
Finally, in cases where you don’t try to reduce this bias directly, it can still be useful to account for it, in order to understand and predict people’s behavior. For example, accounting for this bias can help you predict that someone will blame others for misfortunes that those people aren’t actually responsible for, because this person wants to feel better about their own situation.
Summary and conclusions
- The just-world hypothesis is the mistaken belief that actions always lead to morally fair consequences, so good people are rewarded and bad people are punished.
- People can display this bias toward themselves or others, toward past or future events, and toward good or bad outcomes.
- This reasoning can help people cope with struggles and feel in control, and is associated with various positive outcomes, like improved emotional wellbeing and increased prosocial behavior.
- This reasoning can also lead to various issues, like incorrectly blaming victims for misfortunes that they’re not responsible for.
- To reduce this bias, you can do things like show that people’s behavior couldn’t have affected a specific outcome they experienced, consider alternative explanations for what happened, and identify relevant counter-examples.