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The just world hypothesis describes a cognitive bias in which people believe that the world they live in is one in which actions have appropriate and predictable consequences. This phenomenon has been widely studied by social psychologists since Melvin J. Lerner conducted seminal work on the belief in a just world in the early 1960s. Since that time, research has continued, examining the predictive capacity of the hypothesis in various situations and across cultures, and clarifying and expanding the theoretical understandings of just world beliefs.
The phenomenon of belief in a just world has been observed and considered by many philosophers and social theorists. Psychologist Melvin Lerner's work made the just world hypothesis a focus of social psychological research.
Melvin Lerner was prompted to study justice beliefs and the just world hypothesis in the context of social psychological inquiry into negative social and societal interactions. Lerner saw his work as extending Stanley Milgram's work on obedience. He sought to answer the questions of how regimes that cause cruelty and suffering maintain popular support, and how people come to accept social norms and laws that produce misery and suffering.
Lerner's inquiry was influenced by repeatedly witnessing the tendency of observers to blame victims for their suffering. During his clinical training as a psychologist, he observed treatment of mentally ill persons by the health care practitioners with whom he worked. Though he knew them to be kindhearted, educated people, they blamed patients for their own suffering. He also describes his surprise at hearing his students derogate the poor, seemingly oblivious to the structural forces that contribute to poverty. In a study he was doing on rewards, he observed that when one of two men was chosen at random to receive a reward for a task, observers' evaluations were more positive for the man who had been randomly rewarded than for the man who did not receive a reward. Existing social psychological theories, including cognitive dissonance, could not fully explain these phenomena. The desire to understand the processes that caused these observed phenomena led Lerner to conduct his first experiments on what is now called the just world hypothesis.
In 1966, Lerner and his colleagues began a series of experiments that used shock paradigms to investigate observer responses to victimization. In the first of these experiments conducted at the University of Kansas, 72 female subjects were made to watch a confederate receiving electrical shocks under a variety of conditions. Initially, subjects were upset by observing the apparent suffering of the confederate. However, as the suffering continued and observers remained unable to intervene, the observers began to derogate the victim. Derogation was greater when the observed suffering from shock treatments was greater. However, under conditions in which subjects were told that the victim would receive compensation for her suffering, subjects did not derogate the victim. Lerner and colleagues replicated these findings in subsequent studies, as did other researchers.
To explain the findings of these studies, Lerner theorized the prevalence of the belief in a just world. A just world is one in which actions and conditions have predictable, appropriate consequences. These actions and conditions are typically individuals' behaviors or attributes. The specific conditions that correspond to certain consequences are socially determined by the norms and ideologies of a society. Lerner presents the belief in a just world as functional: it maintains the idea that one can impact the world in a predictable way. Belief in a just world functions as a sort of "contract" with the world regarding the consequences of behavior. This allows people to plan for the future and engage in effective, goal-driven behavior. Lerner summarized his findings and his theoretical work in his 1980 monograph The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion.
Lerner hypothesized that the belief in a just world is crucially important for people to maintain for their own well-being. However, people are confronted daily with evidence that the world is not just: people suffer without apparent cause. Lerner explained that people use strategies to eliminate threats to their belief in a just world. These strategies can be rational or irrational. Rational strategies include accepting the reality of injustice, trying to prevent injustice or provide restitution, and accepting one's own limitations. Non-rational strategies include denial or withdrawal, and reinterpretation of the event.
There are a few modes of reinterpretation that could make an event fit the belief in a just world. One can reinterpret the outcome, the cause, and/or the character of the victim. In the case of observing the injustice of the suffering of innocent others, one major way to rearrange the cognition of an event is to interpret the victim of suffering as deserving of that suffering. Specifically, observers can blame victims for their suffering on the basis of their behaviors and/or their characteristics. This would result in observers both derogating victims and blaming victims for their own suffering. Much psychological research on the belief in a just world has focused on these negative social phenomena of victim blaming and victim derogation in different contexts.
An additional effect of this thinking is that individuals experience less personal vulnerability because they do not believe they have done anything to deserve or cause negative outcomes. This is related to the self-serving bias observed by social psychologists.
Many researchers have interpreted just world beliefs as an example of causal attribution. In victim blaming, the causes of victimization are attributed to an individual rather than a situation. Thus, the consequences of belief in a just world may be related to or explained in terms of particular patterns of causal attribution.
Others have suggested alternative explanations for the derogation of victims. One suggestion is that derogation effects are based on accurate judgments of a victim's character. In particular, in relation to Lerner's first studies, some have hypothesized that it would be logical for observers to derogate an individual who would allow herself to be shocked without reason. A subsequent study by Lerner challenged this alternative hypothesis by showing that individuals are only derogated when they actually suffer; individuals who agreed to undergo suffering but did not were viewed positively.
Another alternative explanation offered for the derogation of victims early in the development of the just world hypothesis is that observers derogate victims to reduce their own feelings of guilt. Observers may feel responsible, or guilty, for a victim's suffering if they themselves are involved in the situation or experiment. In order to reduce the guilt, they may devalue the victim. Lerner and colleagues claim that there has not been adequate evidence to support this interpretation. They conducted one study that found derogation of victims occurred even by observers who were not implicated in the process of the experiment and thus had no reason to feel guilty.
Following Lerner's first studies, other researchers replicated these findings in other settings in which individuals are victimized. This work, which began in the 1970s and continues today, has investigated how observers react to victims of random calamities, like traffic accidents, as well as rape and domestic violence, illnesses, and poverty. Generally, researchers have found that observers of the suffering of innocent victims tend to both derogate victims and blame victims for their suffering. Thus, observers maintain their belief in a just world by changing their cognitions about the character of victims.
In the early 1970s, social psychologists Zick Rubin and Letitia Anne Peplau developed a measure of belief in a just world. This measure and its revised form published in 1975 allowed for the study of individual differences in just world beliefs. Much of the subsequent research on the just world hypothesis utilized these measurement scales.
Researchers have looked at how observers react to victims of rape and other violence. In a seminal experiment on rape and belief in a just world by Linda Carli and colleagues, researchers gave two groups of subjects a narrative about interactions between a man and a woman. The description of the interaction was the same until the end; one group received a narrative that had a neutral ending and the other group received a narrative that ended with the man raping the woman. Subjects judged the rape ending as inevitable and blamed the woman in the narrative for the rape on the basis of her behavior, but not her characteristics. These findings have been replicated repeatedly, including using a rape ending and a 'happy ending' (a marriage proposal).
Other researchers have found a similar phenomenon for judgments of battered partners. One study found that observers' labels of blame of female victims of relationship violence increase with the intimacy of the relationship. Observers blamed the perpetrator only in the most significant case of violence, in which a male struck an acquaintance.
Researchers have employed the just world hypothesis to help understand bullying. Given other research on beliefs in a just world, it would be expected that observers would derogate and blame victims of bullying. However, the opposite has been found: individuals high in just world belief have stronger anti-bullying attitudes. Other researchers have found that strong belief in a just world is associated with lower levels of bullying behavior. This finding is in keeping with Lerner's understanding of belief in a just world as functioning as a "contract" that governs behavior. There is additional evidence that belief in a just world is protective of the well-being of children and adolescents in the school environment, as has been shown for the general population.
Other researchers have found that observers judge sick people as responsible for their illnesses. One experiment showed that persons suffering from a variety of illnesses were derogated on a measure of attractiveness more so than healthy individuals were. Victim derogation was found to be higher for those suffering from more severe illnesses, except in the case of cancer victims. Many studies have looked at derogation of AIDS victims specifically. Higher beliefs in a just world have been found to be related to greater derogation of AIDS victims.
More recently, researchers have explored how people react to poverty through the lens of the just world hypothesis. High belief in a just world is associated with blaming the poor, and low belief in a just world is associated with identifying external causes of poverty including world economic systems, war, and exploitation.
The self as victim
- See also: Psychological response to rape and Self blame
Some research on belief in a just world has examined how people react when they themselves are victimized. An early paper by researcher Ronnie Janoff-Bulman found that rape victims often engage in blaming their own behaviors, but not their own characteristics, for their victimization. It was hypothesized that this may be because blaming one's own behaviors makes an event more controllable.
These studies on victims of violence, illness, and poverty and others like them have provided consistent support for the link between observers' just world beliefs and their tendency to blame victims for their suffering. As a result, the just world hypothesis has become widely accepted as a psychological phenomenon.
Subsequent work on measuring belief in a just world has focused on identifying multiple dimensions of the belief. This work has resulted in the development of new measures of just world belief and additional research. Hypothesized dimensions of just world beliefs include belief in an unjust world, beliefs in immanent justice and ultimate justice, hope for justice, and belief in one's ability to reduce injustices. Other work has focused on looking at the different domains in which the belief may function; individuals may have different just world beliefs for the personal domain, the sociopolitical domain, the social domain, etc. An especially fruitful distinction is between the belief in a just world for the self (personal) and the belief in a just world for others (general). These distinct beliefs are differentially associated with health.
Researchers have used measures of belief in a just world to look at correlates of high and low levels of belief in a just world.
Limited studies have examined ideological correlates of the belief in a just world. These studies have found sociopolitical correlates of just world beliefs, including right-wing authoritarianism and the protestant work ethic. Studies have also found belief in a just world to be correlated with aspects of religiousness.
Studies of demographic differences, including gender and racial differences, have not shown systematic differences, but do suggest racial differences, with Black and African Americans having the lowest levels of belief in a just world.
The development of measures of just world beliefs has also allowed researchers to assess cross-cultural differences in just world beliefs. Much research conducted shows that beliefs in a just world are evident cross-culturally. One study tested beliefs in a just world of students in 12 countries. This study found that in countries where the majority of inhabitants are powerless, belief in a just world tends to be weaker than in other countries. This supports the theory of the just world hypothesis because the powerless have had more personal and societal experiences that have provided evidence that the world is not just and predictable.
Positive mental health effects
Though much of the initial work on belief in a just world focused on the negative social effects of this belief, other research on belief in a just world suggests that belief in a just world is good, and even necessary, for the mental health of individuals. Belief in a just world is associated with greater life satisfaction and well-being and less depressive affect. Researchers are actively exploring reasons that belief in a just world might have these relationships to mental health; it has been suggested that such beliefs could be a personal resource or coping strategy that buffers stress associated with daily life and with traumatic events. This hypothesis suggests that belief in a just world can be understood as a positive illusion.
Correlational studies also showed that beliefs in a just world are correlated with internal locus of control. Strong belief in a just world is associated with greater acceptance of and less dissatisfaction with the negative events in one's life. This may be one pathway through which belief in a just world affects mental health. Others have suggested that this relationship only holds for beliefs in a just world that apply to the self. Beliefs in a just world that apply to others are related instead to negative social phenomena of victim blaming and victim derogation observed in other studies.
Over forty years after Lerner's seminal work on belief in a just world, researchers continue to study the phenomenon. Work continues primarily in the United States, Europe, Australia, and Asia. Researchers in Germany have contributed disproportionately to recent research. Their work resulted in a volume edited by Lerner and a German researcher entitled Responses to Victimizations and Belief in a Just World.
- Fundamental attribution error
- Hindsight bias
- Best of all possible worlds
- Mean world syndrome
- System justification
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