Just-world hypothesis

“You reap what you sow.”

Definition

Humans seem to have a need to believe in a just world, where everyone reaps what they sow. This belief gives us the impression that we have a certain control on life’s events, whether they be positive or negative [1]. When something positive happens to a person, such as a promotion, we tend to think that it is due to their efforts, and not chance, even though chance often has a role to play. Likewise when a negative event occurs and we are unable to right the wrongs committed, for instance by compensating the victims, we tend to think that the victims probably did something to deserve their misfortune though in fact they may have just been unlucky. The just-world hypothesis thus corresponds to the sometimes unconscious belief that good things happen to good people and that bad things happen to bad people. This belief is sometimes used as an explanation, and sometimes as a synonym of, the victim-blaming attribution bias, which corresponds to the tendency to blame the victims for their own misfortune [2].

Example

Numerous studies have examined the relationship between the just-world hypothesis and the attribution of blame to victims of sexual abuse. Indeed, it is very common to hear that a victim of sexual abuse has put herself in that situation, namely by drinking alcohol or by wearing “sexy” clothes. These comments represent the human tendency to rationalize an unfair event in order to maintain the belief that everyone is getting what they deserve. This is obviously devastating for the victims who, in addition to having been the target of a sexual assault, are blamed for it [2].

Explanation

This bias would be caused, among other things, by a need for security. It is very stressful to think that we can live in a world where bad things can happen even to good people. We therefore adopt the belief that the world is fair, in order to be reassured in the face of the possibility that unfortunate events could happen by chance. In this way, the environment seems to us to become more predictable and we feel safe. We're reassured because if it's only the bad people who are the victims of misfortune, we just have to be good people and everything will be fine. This belief is particularly ingrained in us since from a young age, we are taught that good deeds will be rewarded and bad ones will be punished. High religiosity is often associated with a stronger just-world hypothesis since religion places great importance on moral principles [3].

Consequences

The just-world hypothesis shapes our vision of the world that surrounds us. The bias is a good source of motivation since by believing that we will reap the fruits of our efforts, we are motivated to act well and to work hard [3]. This bias can help us fight against injustices because they threaten the belief in a just world. In particular, it can push us to attempt to prevent injustices, or to restore balance when they do occur, for instance by financially compensating the victims. However, this bias is a double-edged sword since when justice cannot be restored, blaming the victim becomes the best strategy for upholding the belief in a just world. In the latter case, it can be very harmful because if we believe that a person put themselves in harm’s way, we are less inclined to lend them a helping hand. The bias leads us to attribute negative characteristics to the victims, in order to convince ourselves that they deserve what is happening to them. If we generalize those negative characteristics to certain groups, it can lead to prejudice. For instance, someone could think that all homeless people are lazy. This bias can be used and instrumentalized by lawyers to exonerate perpetrators by shifting the blame to the victim, as is often seen in sexual assault cases [1].

Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias

  • Taking a step back from the situation helps us realize the level of control a person really has over the events that happen to them.

  • Putting yourself in the other’s shoes allows us to better understand their situation.

How is this bias measured?

To experimentally measure this bias, researchers can present an unfair event and manipulate the efficiency of the strategies aiming to conserve the belief in a just world. For example, researchers can give or not the possibility of adequately compensating an innocent victim. In this case, the experimental manipulation (the possibility or not of compensation) influences the strategy used to restore belief in a just world (financially compensating the victim, or blaming them).The researchers conclude that the bias is present if the participants compensate the victim when they can, but blame the victim when they are unable to adequately compensate them [4].

This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:

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This bias has social or individual repercussions:

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This bias is empirically demonstrated:

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References

[1] Furnham, Adrian (2003). Belief in a just world : Research progress over the past decade. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(5), 795‑817. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0191-8869(02)00072-7


[2] Grubb, Amy & Emily Turner (2012). Attribution of blame in rape cases : A review of the impact of rape myth acceptance, gender role conformity and substance use on victim blaming. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 17(5), 443‑452. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2012.06.002


[3] Lerner, Melvin. J. (1987). Integrating societal and psychological rules of entitlement : The basic task of each social actor and fundamental problem for the social sciences. Social Justice Research, 1(1), 107‑125. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01049386


[4] Hafer, Carolyn. L. & Laurent Bègue (2005). Experimental Research on Just-World Theory: Problems, Developments, and Future Challenges. Psychological Bulletin, 131(1), 128-167. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.131.1.128

Tags

Individual level, Intergroup level, Interpersonal level, Need for security, Need for cognitive consonance

Related biases

Author

Magali Vigneault, Bachelor’s student in cognitive neuroscience, Université de Montreal.

Coralie Niquay, Bachelor’s student in cognitive neuroscience, Université de Montreal.

Translated from French to English by Eric Muszynski.

How to cite this entry

Vigneault, M. & C. Niquay (2020). Just-world hypothesis, trans. E. Muszynski. In E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, C. Gratton & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 2. Online: www.shortcogs.com

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