What Is… the Just World Fallacy

the just world fallacy - a cognitive bias that can play a role in victim blaming

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

The just world fallacy, also known as the just world hypothesis, is a common type of cognitive bias โ€“ 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.

Just world fallacy as social contract

Wikipedia explains: “Belief in a just world functions as a sort of ‘contract’ with the world regarding the consequences of behaviour.” If someone breaks their contract with the world, they’ll get what they deserve.

Because people don’t want to believe they’re at risk of harm, they actively reject information that’s incongruent with the just world belief. Attributing fault to the victim not living up to their side of the contract keeps the situation subjectively safe for the onlooker.

The just world fallacy in action

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.

Who does this bias tend to affect?

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

The more injustice that people have experienced, the less likely they are to endorse just world beliefs. People with greater social privilege (like wealthy white men), on the other hand, are more likely to endorse such beliefs, as are people with high levels of self-perceived physical attractiveness.

Pros and cons

Strong just world beliefs are associated with more stigmatizing attitudes towards mental illness, blaming social problems like homelessness on the people who are affected by them, and evaluating people’s competence based on social status, which can reinforce inequality and oppression. The just world fallacy can also negatively impact the individuals who have those beliefs by skewing the way they evaluate risk to themselves, making them more likely to engage in risky behaviour.

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

Becoming more aware of our own cognitive biases is a useful exercise in self-reflection. And the next time you notice an inclination to blame the victim, try to check yourself on where that’s actually coming from.


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

27 thoughts on “What Is… the Just World Fallacy”

  1. 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. 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. LOVE THIS Thank you for sharing ๐Ÿ™‚ 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 ๐Ÿ™‚ 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. 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 doesnโ€™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.

    1. I wonder, though, would the consequences necessarily result from one’s own acctions, or could consequences result entirely from someone else’s actions?

      1. 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.

  5. 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! โค๏ธ

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. 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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