The Just-World Fallacy

The Misconception: People who are losing at the game of life must have done something to deserve it.

The Truth:
The beneficiaries of good fortune often do nothing to earn it, and bad people often get away with their actions without consequences.

A woman goes out to a club wearing stilettos and a miniskirt with no underwear. She gets pretty drunk and stumbles home in the wrong direction. She ends up lost in a bad neighborhood. She gets raped.

Is she to blame in some way? Was this her fault? Was she asking for it?

People often say yes to all three in studies asking similar questions after presenting similar scenarios.

It is common in fiction for the bad guys to lose and the good guys to win. It is how you would like to see the world – just and fair. In psychology the tendency to believe this is how the real world actually works is a known cognitive bias called the Just-World Fallacy.

More specifically, this bias is a lens through which you tend to see the world, and seeing things in this way often leads to a predictable reaction to horrible misfortune like homelessness or drug addiction – believing the people stuck in horrible situations must have done something to deserve it.

The key word there is deserve. This is not an observation bad choices lead to bad outcomes.

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.

Research since Lerner seems to show evidence for your tendency to want the world to be fair. When in doubt, you pretend it is.

“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.’”

- Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez from an essay at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

You’ve heard “what goes around comes around” before, or maybe you’ve seen a person get what was coming to them and thought, “that’s karma for you.” These are shades of the Just World Fallacy.

It sucks to think the world isn’t fair. It feels better to believe in karma and justice, in fairness and reward. A world with the righteous on one side of the scale, and evil on the other – that seems to make sense. You want to believe those who work hard and sacrifice get ahead, and those who are lazy and cheat do not.

This, of course, is not always true. Success is often greatly influenced by when you were born, where you grew up, the socioeconomic status of your family and random chance. All the hard work in the world can’t change those initial factors, which is not to say you should just give up if you were born poor.

The Just-World Fallacy can also lead to a false sense of security. You want to feel in control, so you assume as long as you avoid bad behavior, you won’t be harmed. You feel safer when you believe those who engage in bad behavior end up on the street, or pregnant, or addicted, or raped. It is infuriating when lazy cheats and con artists get ahead in the world while firemen and policemen put in long hours for little pay. Deep down, you want to believe hard work and virtue will lead to success, and laziness, evil and manipulation will lead to ruin, so you go ahead and edit the world to match those expectations.

Yet, in reality, evil often prospers and never pays the price.

There are anecdotal accounts of people seeing the prisoners of concentration camps for the first time and assuming they must have been terrible criminals. The first place the mind goes is the place where the world is just.

Why do you do this?

Psychologists are unsure. Some say it is a need to be able to predict the outcome of your own behavior, or to feel secure in your past decisions. More research is needed.

To be sure, you would like to live in a world where people in white hats bring people in black hats to justice, but you don’t.


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Sources:

  • Furnham, A. (2003). Belief in a just world: research progress over the past decade. Personality and Individual Differences; 34: 795–817.
  • Lerner, M. J., & Miller, D. T. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin, 85(5), 1030–1051
  • Lerner (1980). The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. Plenum: New York.
  • Lerner, M. J., & Simmons, C. H. (1966). Observer’s reaction to the “innocent victim”: Compassion or rejection? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4(2), 203–210.
  • Montada, L. & Lerner, M.J. (1998). Preface, in Leo Montada & M.J. Lerner (Eds.). Responses to Victimizations and Belief in a Just World. Plenum Press: New York. http://tinyurl.com/kqjepx8
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