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 – 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.
- Andre, C., & Velasquez, M. (1990). The just world theory. Issues in Ethics, 3(2).
- Stanger, C., Jhangiani, R., & Tarry, H. (2022). Principles of Social Psychology – 1st International H5P Edition. BCcampus.
- Westfall, R. S., Millar, M. G., & Lovitt, A. (2019). The influence of physical attractiveness on belief in a just world. Psychological Reports, 122(2), 536-549.
- Wikipedia: Just-world hypothesis
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
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.