Inspirations: Does believing in a just world make the world less just?

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    Steve Calcott (CC / Flickr)

    People who believe the world is inherently just are likely to blame victims for their victimhood.

  • The same people act to help victims when they can.
  • Believing the world is just may help people to rationalise suffering they cannot alleviate.

When someone tells you ‘what goes around comes around’, how do you react? Do you nod in agreement and reflect that providence can be trusted to punish the guilty and reward the virtuous? Or do you snort in derision at the idea of cosmic justice?

Your reaction is a good indication of whether you subscribe to the just world hypothesis. Apart from being a fascinating psychological phenomenon that influences the way people interact with the world, it’s so central to many people’s characters that fiction writers like us can use it to build authentic characters.

The student who deserved to be tortured.

In 1965, 72 female psychology students at the University of Kentucky took part in a classic experiment.

They were given a chance to mingle and then told they were to participate in a study on reactions to stress. Before the experiment started, they were handed questionnaires and asked to evaluate how attractive they found each other’s personalities.


Daniel Oines (CC / Flickr)

One student was selected as the subject while the rest watched the experiment through closed circuit TV. They watched the woman they had just been chatting with receiving electric shocks every time she failed to memorise a string of nonsense syllables. They must have gritted their teeth as she screamed in agony. Perhaps they shouted the correct answers at the screen, urging her to get it right only to watch her quiver as another shock coursed through her.

What the students didn’t know was that they were actually watching a video, in which the ‘victim’ acted her agonising shocks. The real subjects of the experiment were the students who thought they were watching their peer being tortured. Their emotional state wasn’t recorded, but it’s likely there were a lot of well-chewed fingernails by the time the experimenters took them to the next stage.

One group was given the choice to change the experiment so the victim would receive a cash reward for correct answers rather than punishment for wrong answers. Another group was told they were halfway through the
experiment and would have to go on watching the victim scream. A third group watched the victim try to walk out, but agree to continue when a researcher pointed out that the watching students would lose lab credits if she did not.


xdxd_vs_xdxd (CC / Flickr)

Then the students were asked to repeat the questionnaires assessing her personality. The students who were given the chance to end the victim’s punishment all chose to do so, and they rated her personality as substantially more attractive than the students who were told they had to watch the other half of the experiment. The students who watched her accept more pain for the sake of their own lab credits rated her personality as even worse.

Yet this was the same person, and they had all watched the same video of her suffering. Why did the students judge her so differently?

If the world is just, victims must be to blame


S.Tore (CC / Flickr)

The experimenters, Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons, hypothesised that the students’ harsh judgements reflected an underlying belief that the world is inherently just. That what goes around comes around. All the students who were given the chance to restore justice by ending the torture did so. Those who had no choice but to watch her suffer preserved their beliefs by assuming that the victim somehow deserved her suffering.

Belief in a just world, or BJW as it is known to psychologists, has received a lot of attention since those students denigrated a peer for her suffering. Subsequent research has related belief in a just world to a tendency to judge people less fortunate than themselves. For example, believers were likely to blame women who had been domestically abused for their own abuse, unsympathetic toward  people with HIV and likely to believe that the poor were to blame for their poverty.

Harsh as they sound, those are logical conclusions to draw if you believe that what goes around comes around. A just world would not allow poverty, violence or illness to be accidents of situation, so people who suffer them must have done something to deserve their suffering. Victims must be to blame for their own victimhood.

Believers in a just world make the world more just when they can


Seattle Municipal Archives (CC / Flickr)

Based on those findings, it would be easy to classify belief in a just world as the prerogative of the heartless, but the belief does have a more positive side. In Lerner and Simmons’s original experiment, the students only denigrated their peer when they couldn’t help her. Believing the world is just does not prevent people from acting to bring about that justice where they can, such as by being the first to help victims in a road accident.

Believing in a just world may help people hang on to their sanity in a world that is manifestly unjust and unpredictable. Believers are less likely to regard themselves as being discriminated against, presumably thinking they deserve any slights that come their way. Believers may not be quick to fight their corner, but they are relatively happy with what is in it. Belief in a just world negatively correlates with depression, for example.

Believing in a just world leads to harsh judgments when we are powerless to help, but if it makes us happier and doesn’t stop us intervening when we can, is there any harm to it?

Who believes in a just world?

The answer to that question depends on whether we are really as powerless as we think we are. It’s unlikely that people who challenge the status quo, such as Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Malala Yousafzai, would act if they believed in a just world. The same is true of the many people behind them.
People who believe in a just world are more likely to be satisfied with the political status quo than to challenge it. Inherent justice would see any unjust political system strangled at birth. Unsurprisingly, people who are materially better off are more likely to believe the world is just.


Aurélien aka ores (CC / Flickr)

What is not clear is what makes someone believe in a just world in the first place. Does believing lead someone to conclude that the status quo must be just, or do they persuade themselves that the world is just because the status quo happens to suit them? I’d be fascinated to see the experiment that could unravel that, but no one has thought of it yet.

Where does this leave us as people? Next time I hear someone expressing a belief in karma, I won’t be lecturing them about they must be unsympathetic to people less fortunate than them. Rather, the research is a reminder to monitor my own reactions in case I protect my sensibilities by assuming a victim must have done something to deserve what happened to them.

Where does this leave us as writers? Hopefully with a better understanding of what makes up the characters we create.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

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