The Just World Fallacy (aka the Just World Hypothesis) is the assumption or belief that we get what we deserve, meaning that those of us who perform actions that are deemed good will be rewarded eventually, and that those of us who perform actions that are deemed bad will be punished eventually. Depending on the person judging, the reward/punishment could be in the present, the near future, the distant future or beyond death. This belief assumes that this is a “universal force that restores moral balance,” whether or not we call that force “God.” It follows from this belief that we judge the behaviour by what we think should have happened to them in this fair universe: winners deserve to win no matter how much luck had to do with it, and victims deserve to suffer no matter how blameless they are.
The more I learn about the Just World Fallacy, the more I have personally come to believe that it isn’t just a belief that the world is fair, rather it’s a belief that the world is fair towards us; I am the centre of my universe and it is that universe that is fair. So if I am rewarded by chance, it is always something I have done to deserve it, whereas somebody else could have been lucky. But if I am punished by chance, I don’t deserve it (unless I suffer from depression or did something really bad), someone else did something that caused this.
We all believe this. Just at how common it is:
The hypothesis popularly appears in the English language in various figures of speech that imply guaranteed negative reprisal, such as: “You got what was coming to you”, “What goes around comes around”, “chickens come home to roost”, and “You reap what you sow”.
The psychologist who first studied it, Melvin Lerner, phrases it this way:
The “belief in a just world” is an attempt to capture in a phrase one of the ways, if not the way, that people come to terms with – make sense out of – find meaning in, their experiences. We do not believe that things just happen in our world; there is a pattern to events which conveys not only a sense of orderliness or predictability, but also the compelling experience of appropriateness expressed in the typically implicit judgment, “Yes, that is the way it should be. (Lerner, 1980)
There is a great deal of evidence, compiled over 50 years, as the above quote indicates, that strongly suggests that most if not all of us in The West will blame others for perceived injustice, whether towards or towards others. If the injustice is meted out to us, it is the responsibility of others, and usually not those responsible for the situation, but people who do not fit our idea of a just world. If the injustice is meted out to others, it is the fault of those others – some moral failing in them that demanded the just world punish them.
The Just World Fallacy theory is one of a number of social psychological theories developed after WWII. Here are some other famous social psychology experiments:
- Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments, which showed that people bend to peer pressure when in group decision-making situations—not something we want to hear, but something I’m sure most of us would admit if we’re being honest about it;
- Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment, which was a little bit like Lord of the Flies;
- Leon Festinger’s numerous experiments into things such as confirmation bias and, most famously, cognitive dissonance, where people essentially rewrote their personal history about a boring experiment in order to justify the low reward for that experiment;
- Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiment in which subjects were instructed to “shock” people who were providing wrong answers to test questions, showing us that we just follow orders;
- Albert Bandura’s extremely controversial “bobo doll” experiments in which he tried to show that aggression and violence are learned;
- Phil Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, which showed that we readily take on social roles in certain situations, at the expense of our personality and individuality.