The Just World Theory
Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez
Afterwards, they said that the 22-year-old woman was bound to attract attention. She was wearing a white lace miniskirt, a green tank top, and no underwear. At knife-point, she was kidnapped from a Fort Lauderdale restaurant parking lot by a Georgia drifter and raped twice. But a jury showed little sympathy for the victim. The accused rapist was acquitted. "We all feel she asked for it [by] the way she was dressed," said the jury foreman.
The verdict of the jurors in the Fort Lauderdale rape trial may have been influenced by a widespread tendency to believe that victims of misfortune deserve what happens to them. The need to see victims as the recipients of their just deserts can be explained by what psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis. According to the hypothesis, 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. Moreover, when we encounter evidence suggesting that the world is not just, we quickly act to restore justice by helping the victim or we persuade ourselves that no injustice has occurred. We either lend assistance or we decide that the rape victim must have asked for it, the homeless person is simply lazy, the fallen star must be an adulterer. These attitudes are continually reinforced in the ubiquitous fairy tales, fables, comic books, cop shows and other morality tales of our culture, in which good is always rewarded and evil punished.
Melvin Lerner, a social psychologist, has conducted a series of experiments to test this hypothesis. In an impressive body of research, he documents people's eagerness to convince themselves that beneficiaries deserve their benefits and victims their suffering. In a 1965 study, Lerner reported that subjects who were told that a fellow student had won a cash prize in a lottery tended to believe that the student worked harder than another student who lost the lottery. In another study a year later, Lerner and a colleague videotaped a simulated "learning" experiment in which it appeared that the "participants" were subjected to electric shocks. Lerner found that subjects who observed the videotapes tended to form much lower opinions of these "victimized" participants when there was no possibility of the victim finding relief from the ordeal, or when the victim took on the role of "martyr" by voluntarily remaining in the experiment despite the apparent unpleasantness of the experience. Lerner 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."
If the belief in a just world simply resulted in humans feeling more comfortable with the universe and its capriciousness, it would not be a matter of great concern for ethicists or social scientists. But Lerner's Just World Hypothesis, if correct, has significant social implications. The belief in a just world may undermine a commitment to justice.
Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of UCLA have conducted surveys to examine the characteristics of people with strong beliefs in a just world. They found that people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to "feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims."
Ironically, then, the belief in a just world may take the place of a genuine commitment to justice. For some people, it is simply easier to assume that forces beyond their control mete out justice. When that occurs, the result may be the abdication of personal responsibility, acquiescence in the face of suffering and misfortune, and indifference towards injustice. Taken to the extreme, indifference can result in the institutionalization of injustice. Still, the need to believe that the world is just can also be a positive force. The altruism of volunteers and of heroes who risk their lives to help strangers in need is a result of people trying to restore justice to insure that the world remains just. As Melvin Lerner writes, "We have persuasive evidence that people are strongly motivated by the desire to eliminate suffering of innocent victims."
Neither science nor psychology has satisfactorily answered the question of why the need to view the world as just exerts such a powerful influence on human behavior and the human psyche. But the research suggests that humans have a need to bring their beliefs about what is right into conformity with the objective reality they encounter--and that they will work to achieve consistency either by modifying their beliefs or attempting to modify that reality. By becoming more conscious of our own tendencies, we may be more inclined to take the latter approach.
The need to see victims as the recipients of their just deserts can be explained by what psychologists call the "Just World Hypothesis."
Melvin J. Lerner, The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion, (New York: Plenum Press, 1980).
Melvin J. Lerner and Sally C. Lerner, editors, The Justice Motivce in Social Behavior: Adapting to Times of Scarcity and Change, (New York: Plenum Press, 1981).
Zick Rubin and Letita Anne Peplau, "Who Believes in a Just World," Journal of SOcial Issues, Vol. 31, No. 3, 1975, pp. 65-89.
This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 3, N. 2 Spring 1990