The just world hypothesis

The Yoda fountain in the Presidio of San Francisco, a place that I used to frequently visit

When you’re writing a novel, you never know what line of research you might get pulled into. Writing Oratorio in Ursa Major required that I think a great deal about justice. I’ve posted previously on this subject in “A little moral reasoning,” about Cecil the lion, and “Should we tolerate the intolerant.” One of the questions that interests me is why we tend to be so bad at moral reasoning and how much harm that does in the world.

Just recently at a meeting of the Walnut Cove town board, I heard a bitter old fundamentalist preacher haranguing the board about its prayer policy, saying that atheists have no moral foundation. How strange, to think that a species that can produce a Mozart or an Einstein is unable to grapple with the principles of moral philosophy without referring to ossified old texts.

Just a couple of weeks ago, there were stories in the media about research (also here) showing that the children of religious families are meaner and less altruistic than the children of non-religious families. This obviously is the opposite of what religionists would have us believe.

But religion certainly is not the only factor that distorts thinking. The just world hypothesis is another big one. It might be better to call it the just world fallacy.

It was the social psychologist Melvin J. Lerner who came up with the term, based on research going back to the 1960s. It boils down to a cognitive bias toward thinking that people deserve what they get and get what they deserve. It is particularly damaging to the social fabric when people believe that some people deserve misfortune because they somehow brought it on themselves.

For example, the Republican Party — and many religious people — believe that poor people are poor because they’re lazy, or there’s something wrong with their culture. The flip side of that is believing that rich people possess some kind of virtue that makes them deserve to be rich.

The writer Barbara Ehrenreich has written some popular books that touch on the just world fallacy — for example, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

In a YouTube video of a reading she gave at the Harvard book store, she talks about how preachers of prosperity doctrine such as Joel Osteen teach their poor followers mantras such as, “I admire rich people, I bless rich people, I love rich people, and I am going to be one, too.” According to this theology, “God wants to prosper you.”

It follows that, if you’re poor, it’s your own fault. You’re crossways with God. And, if you’re rich, you’ve pleased God and God is “prospering” you. Many rich people seem to believe that. Lots of essays and op-eds have been written about rich people strutting as though they’re the masters of the universe, automatically deserving of our deference and respect.

But the just world fallacy is not by any means limited to Republicans and religious charlatans such as Joel Osteen. New Age types buy into it, too. Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for years, this type of magical thinking is everywhere: “Do what you love, and the money will come … You control your destiny.” Think of self-help books such as, How to Get the Love You Want in 48 Hours. Everywhere there is the idea that you always get what you attract to yourself, that your thoughts and attitude have some sort of magical power to reshape the universe according to your desire. To be “negative” is to open the door to the devil. We’re told to avoid “negative” people, because their attitude is holding them back, and it’s contagious.

The concept of karma, actually, in Buddhism and Hinduism is a codification of the just world hypothesis. It helps sustain the Indian caste system.

I don’t know about you, but I hate seeing people get what they don’t deserve when so many people don’t get what they do deserve. Just-world doctrine would say that my attitude must be condemned as envy. Lerner’s big concern about the just world hypothesis is that it blinds us to the real sources of inequality and injustice and stands in our way of being motivated to do what we can to achieve greater justice.

It happens that John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, has a good bit to say about envy. He acknowledges, of course, that envy in many circumstances can be toxic to the social environment. But Rawls describes a type of envy that he calls justifiable envy — envy of goods that some people acquire (and that others are deprived of) because of unjust or unequal social arrangements:

Yet sometimes the circumstances evoking envy are so compelling that given human beings as they are no one can reasonably be asked to overcome his rancorous feelings. A person’s lesser position as measured by the index of objective primary goods may be so great as to wound his self-respect; and given his situation, we may sympathize with his sense of loss. Indeed, we can resent being made envious, for society may permit such large disparities in these goods that under existing social conditions these differences cannot help but cause a loss of self-esteem. For those suffering this hurt, envious feelings are not irrational; the satisfaction of their rancor would make them better off.

Many social movements including the Civil Rights movement have been at least partly driven by justifiable envy for undeserved goods and privileges that some have and others don’t have (and — admit it — can’t get no matter how hard they try). And note Rawls’ references to self-respect and self-esteem. Not only are we blind to ways in which people are deprived of goods and privileges that others take for granted, we also put down the have-nots. We believe in the inferiority of the have-nots and expect them to believe in their own inferiority. They are children of a lesser God, creatures of a separate (and not equal) moral universe. Some will be crushed; it’s just too much for them. Among the stronger, sooner or later, rebellion is guaranteed, even if it’s a lonely rebellion of one.

In the world as it really is, most of us will never be rich. Sometimes what goes around does not come around. Sometimes what comes around is not what is fair and just. This is one reason we love stories — stories are a compensation for an unjust world. Stories (this is especially true of science fiction) are a vehicle for trying out ideas about how things might be otherwise.

In fiction and in stories, the just world hypothesis usually applies. In the end, protagonists get their heart’s desire, but not until they have striven and suffered to get it — not until they deserve it or have defeated the forces that stood in their way. And at the end of the story, bad actors get the punishment they deserve. I realize that there are dissident or experimental forms of fiction in which the just world hypothesis does not apply, but in “classical” form storytelling, the just world hypothesis applies. The justice we find in stories serves as an escape from, and a compensation for, our inability to write the story of our own lives however we please. Yoda was right about the Force, but only because Yoda lives in a story.

There is a substantial body of academic research and literature on justice and the social psychology of justice. Lerner’s books, for reasons I have not been able to figure out, are very expensive. As far as I can tell, though, this material is scattered and is often behind paywalls. Though Barbara Ehrenreich’s books have helped bring the just-world fallacy to our attention, I’m afraid the world is still waiting for a popular book that pulls all this research together and shows how it affects our world.

4 thoughts on “The just world hypothesis”

  1. I struggle with the just world fallacy myself. I find myself often trying to justify things that happen to me or others based on how we treat one another, how we respond to stimuli, what we do for others, and what we don’t do.

    The other day, I brought a small smoothie with me to work. I arrived at the same time as another man who was carrying a large box of chips, obviously to refill the office breakroom. Under the over-hang of the entrance, a homeless person was sleeping. The man that arrived just as I did said, “Come on now, get up and get out of here.” He didn’t yell it, just said it sternly. The homeless woman stood up, got her blankets and bags, and started to walk away. I paused for a brief moment, then approached her and offered her my smoothie. She looked at it and turned it down. The man I arrived with held the door for me and gave me a stern almost disapproving look.

    I don’t know what to think about that. I’m not all that religious although I often find myself struggling with that side of me, but to have this happen brought up conflicting feelings. They were obviously homeless at least for that night, and chilly one, and that smoothie, though small, would be a sufficient breakfast for an adult to get them by for a couple hours. Was it because it wasn’t money? I had $7 in my wallet but never thought to give it to her.

    I can’t decide if that’s indicative of why she may be homeless, in that she doesn’t take what’s available, or maybe she didn’t want a smoothie for breakfast. It contradicted my expectations of the event, and I briefly felt sorry for myself for trying and failing to help someone.

  2. I think it’s very hard to grapple with the just world fallacy. Sometimes people really do bring things on themselves, and that tempts us to generalize.

    On the other hand, on the question of homelessness, one can argue that in this environment a certain number of people are bound to fall through the cracks.

  3. Such a thought-provoking post and subsequent comment and reply. I have read these a couple of times. These thoughts of mine tend to grow arms and legs (a Southern term I think), but I keep returning to thinking the income disparity cannot be healthy for our country. Somehow,there has to be a better balance.
    Outrageous incomes generated by sports and entertainment contribute greatly to this.
    Where does it end?

  4. You are describing/explaining the popularity of Donald Trump among Republican voters. Very thoughtful post. A lot to ponder.


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