The Just-World Theory is the worldview that everything happens for a reason and that, in general, the universe works out fairly. In this worldview, good people generally are rewarded and bad people typically are punished by bad things happening to them. Common figures of speech representing this view are “what comes around goes around”, “you reap what you sow”, “you get what’s coming to you.”
The Just-World view results because people feel most comfortable when they have a sense of control over their lives. According to psychologists at Santa Clara University, “people have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve. Such a belief plays an important function in our lives since in order to plan our lives or achieve our goals we need to assume that our actions will have predictable consequences.”
The Just-World worldview is common because a primary motivation driving human behavior is the quest for certainty. For more on this see here and here. Mindsets and worldviews that allow us to reduce our sense of uncertainty are cognitively and emotionally satisfying. Belief in a just world can reduce feelings of uncertainty, preserve self-esteem, reduce feelings of fear and allows people to remain more optimistic about the world.
The Just-World worldview, while having some positives as mentioned in the prior paragraph, also has some big negatives. Research has found that people with a belief in a just world often attribute unjustified character traits to people (including themselves) based on their circumstances. For example, Melvin Lerner, a leading Just-World Theory researcher, has found that people who believe in a Just World tend to blame innocent victims for their misfortunes in order to protect their own beliefs that the world is a fair and safe place. Likewise, they tend to ascribe positive attributes to those who are seen to prosper and assume that they must have done something to lead to their good fortune. It is important to note that these tendencies often result from the subconscious.
Here are examples of belief in a Just-World experiments:
- Where students were told that a fellow student had won a prize in a lottery, the students tended to conclude that the winning student is a harder worker than another student who did not win.
- Those with stronger beliefs in a just world have been found to be more tolerant of inequality and less disturbed by the suffering of others.
- Volunteers observed subjects being subjected to electric shocks when they got answers to questions wrong (the shocks were fake and the subject was an actress). Some groups of volunteers could stop the tests for the subjects and usually did so. Other groups could not stop the test and merely had to observe the subject being shocked repeatedly. Shockingly (pun intended), the volunteers who could not stop the test formed much lower opinions of the victimized subjects when they could not stop the test than when they could. The researchers concluded that “the sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character.”
- Studies have found that belief in a just world leads people to blame victims of rape, AIDS and even pedestrians hit by automobiles for their bad situations. For example, those who believe in a just world are more likely to conclude that rape victims were “asking for it” due to wearing revealing clothing, being flirtatious or merely being attractive. Belief in a just world may lead us to think that the homeless are lazy, addicted to drugs or otherwise deserving of their plight.
- Volunteers who score high on scales measuring their belief in a Just World tend to have less anger about seemingly unfair or unjust situations presumably because they think things will all even out in the future. While this may help their own psyches, such views have been found to discourage people’s motivation to work for justice. Thus, ironically, belief in a just world may lead to less of a commitment to justice as it is assumed that forces beyond our control hand out justice to the good and bad.
- When bad things happen to ourselves, sometimes it leads to us degrading ourselves in order to balance the scales. In other words, if we think of ourselves as a good person and something bad happens, subconsciously we may suffer discomfort at that dichotomy. In order to cling to our views of a just world we may think bad thoughts about ourselves, including self-loathing, self-defeating behaviors and may even engage in self-harm. See here for studies on this point.
Knowledge of the Just-World Theory can make us more empathetic towards others and even ourselves. Knowing of this worldview can help us catch ourselves victim blaming thinking less of those in unfortunate situations.
See this paper for a comprehensive list/discussion of just-world theory experiments.