What is… the just world fallacy

Mental Health @ Home Insights into Psychology: The just world fallacy - the world's actually a lot less fair than we want it to be

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term: just world fallacy.

The just world fallacy, also known as the just world hypothesis, is a common type of cognitive bias – a shortcut that the mind unconsciously takes when considering the world around us.

Do you think we live in a fair world where good things happen to good people and bad things only happen to bad people?  Whether you believe this on a conscious level or not, chances are your brain wants to organize the world into neat and tidy boxes that way.

The problem is, the world doesn’t actually work that way, and horrible things happen to wonderful people every day.

This cognitive bias was first described in the 1960s by psychologist Melvin J. Lerner.  Some of his work examined the common phenomenon of victim-blaming.

Wikipedia explains: “Belief in a just world functions as a sort of ‘contract’ with the world regarding the consequences of behavior.”  If someone breaks their contract with the world, they will get what they deserve.  Because people don’t want to believe they are at risk of being harmed, they actively reject information that’s not congruent with the just world belief.  By attributing fault to the victim not living up to their side of the contract rather than blaming the situation, the situation remains subjectively safe for the onlooker.

An article from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics shares this story:

“… 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.”

This is a particularly egregious example, but this is an example of the just world fallacy in action.  Blaming the victim makes room for the belief that good girls who behave themselves and follow their contract with the world are safe.  The jury members’ daughters are safe.  Except in this case, they’re less safe because a rapist is roaming about freely.

People who are religious, conservative, or authoritarian tend to have strong beliefs in the just world hypothesis.  The same is true for people who tend to have negative views of underprivileged groups.  I suspect that the religious just-world line of thinking is why some faith groups will criticize people with mental illness as not being faithful enough or not praying enough; they don’t want to believe that mental illness could happen to anybody, so you must have done something to deserve it.

While there are downsides to the just world fallacy, it is also associated with better mental health.  People with this belief tend to have an internal locus of control, meaning they see themselves as having a high degree of control over what happens to them.  Belief in a just world facilitates planning as it is easier to have confidence that our actions will have predictable effects.

While there may be both positives and negatives, becoming more aware of our own cognitive biases is a useful exercise in self-reflection.  And the next time that you perhaps notice your mind going down a victim-blaming path, try to check yourself on where that’s actually coming from.


You can find the rest of my What Is series here.



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32 thoughts on “What is… the just world fallacy

  1. kachaiweb says:

    The best thing is to have experienced yourself that you have no control of some things that happened to you. Once you know that, it’s easy to have more understanding for other situations. Being held accountable for things you can’t control makes you hurt double.

  2. Joshua Shea says:

    This is great, and as a control freak, accepting this was one of the biggest steps in recovery. Radical acceptance still isn’t easy for me, but it makes watching the news a lot less frustrating.

  3. limitlessmare says:

    LOVE THIS Thank you for sharing 🙂 The older I get the more I’m letting go. We’re all doing the best we can and making decisions that feel correct at the time based on the filter we happen to see life through. There is no space to place judgment on where someone is in their life. We can’t possibly know all the decisions and experiences that led to where they are.
    My mother recently sent me a 7 pager full of bible verses about my “sinful” life. It’s the first I’ve heard from her in over 2 years as I thought I had successfully ghosted her, those darn sisters of mine giving out my address 🙂 I didn’t respond of course. I merely have to accept the filter she sees life though, and know my filter is way different!

  4. Meg says:

    Great blog post! As you probably already know about me, I do victim-blame because it’s hard for me to accept that the world is a scary place. I’ll be like, “Oh, well, he should’ve been wearing his seatbelt,” or, “Oh, well, he should’ve avoided that dangerous highway where wrecks keep happening,” etc. And I KNOW I do it because I’m scared that, like, bad things can happen to anyone pretty much at any time. So I don’t even judge myself for doing it, I just try to keep quiet about sharing those thoughts with anyone directly involved (unless I’m in lecture mode, like, “Why the heck weren’t you wearing your seat belt?”).

    • ashleyleia says:

      There are definitely basic safety precautions people should take, but at the same time someone not wearing a seatbelt is no more likely to get hit by another vehicle than someone wearing a seatbelt, although of course they’re more likely to get hurt if they do get hit.

  5. Michelle says:

    This is interesting. I have always seen the world as a place where actions have consequences. We have to do something that is considered wrong for a consequence to take place. The way a woman dresses doesn’t mean she was asking to be raped. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We have the freedom to dress how we want.

      • Michelle says:

        This is a hard one to know. I would say if it’s a choice you make on your own that is in your own hands, it is our own consequence. If more people are involved, it would be the consequences of someone else.

  6. Alexis Rose says:

    Its great that you wrote these ebooks outlining some different therapies. In therapy, I have been focusing on ACT. Because if where I am in my healing journey it makes sense to me right now and has really helped me grow. It helped take a lot of the shame away, and has helped me with my self-talk. Which I still have to watch.
    Have a good weekend, Ashley. Thanks for all you do! ❤️

  7. Kate says:

    What an interesting post!
    We all crave control so deeply because it is something that is so widely out of our grasp, society has rules we can change, nature does not. It makes sense that we try to make our most unsettling experiences feel within our control in any way we can. Helps us feel less insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

  8. crushedcaramel says:

    I found this really interesting Ashley.
    I have some friends with a strong belief in karma. When I was attacked, I felt a little provoked at the thought of them thinking I must have done something to deserve what happened to me.
    I’ll stop there because it is a difficult subject to be tactful about, but I wondered if they realized what they were insinuating.

    • ashleyleia says:

      It’s the same kind of thing with the law of attraction, that underlying suggestion that if something bad happened to you then you must have done sonething to bring it about, which is absolutely ridiculous.

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