Fair World Theory: do we have what we deserve?
Malvin J. Lerner, father of the Theory of the Just World, affirmed that people: "have a need to believe that they live in a world where everyone, generally, gets what they deserve" (1982).
The belief in a just world is manifested, in the form of a cognitive bias, in the idea that good people will tend to have good things happen to them and, on the contrary, bad people will tend to have bad things happen to them. This way of seeing the world tends to be maintained in a large part of the population, even though this usually does not happen.
Psychological function of the belief in a just world
On many occasions, good and respectful people do not have the luck in life that they would deserve . In many others, those who live at the expense of taking advantage of others succeed and their life goes smoothly. Faced with these facts, that observed in a cold way are unfair, the human being has developed a bias that allows him to assimilate it in a positive way.
Therefore, to think of the world as a fair place in which everyone has what they deserve, as Furnham (2003) states, will serve as a protective factor against the stress caused by the unpleasant events we witness. Lerner argues that this belief allows us to see our environment as a stable and orderly place and that, without it, the motivational process that allows us to set long-term goals is made difficult because it makes us think that we really control our own destiny.
This belief is really difficult to eliminate due to how hard it would be the perception of reality without its protective effect . Therefore, our cognition uses a certain method to maintain and reinforce this idea.
Blaming the victim
The most frequent process is the blaming of the victim in an unfair situation . For example, it is not uncommon to hear from some people that if someone is poor it is because they have not tried enough in their life. Nor are there those who, in the face of a violation, argue that the woman should have been accompanied or should wear clothes that provoke less rapists.
These dangerous arguments protect those who have this biased belief, because, thinking that they do not do anything that could have negative consequences, the perception of vulnerability and the risk of suffering certain situations will be reduced.
The a posteriori effect would also reinforce these thoughts . This effect is a cognitive illusion that makes us think, knowing the results of an event, that we would have known how to solve it much better than the victim.
A simple example of this is that of the "bar-bar experts" who, after having watched the Sunday football game, know (better than the coach) the tactics that would have led their team to victory.
Another bias that would maintain these prejudices is the confirmatory one. This refers to the tendency of the human being to look for arguments that support his theories , ignoring those that contradict them.
The control zone
The belief in a just world also helps protect one's self-esteem and is based on the bias of self-interest. When attributing the reasons for success, an individual will think that these are due to factors that are within their control zone, such as the effort they have made or their own abilities. Conversely, when a failure occurs, it is attributed to environmental characteristics such as bad luck. These perceptions, as we have seen, are different when we observe the behavior of other people.
When observing the situation from the outside, the observer looks more closely at the characteristics of the personality and the actions of the one who suffers (Aronson, 2012). In this way ignore, for lack of knowledge, the characteristics of the environment that affected that person . For example, in the case of a homeless person, a small focus would not know that the person could have gotten there because of a sequence of unpredictable events and not because of their own laziness. The economic crisis, an event that no ordinary person could predict, could have left this person without work. This has led to an accumulation of debts, family tensions, mental disorders such as a depressive disorder, etc.
What personality factors influence this belief?
Nobody likes to live in an environment of uncertainty and think that, by chance, this can happen. Therefore, there are people who use these biases in their thinking schemes. For Marvin Lerner, the belief that everyone has what they deserve, would be a false illusion, that is, a self-deception . It would become a false belief motivated by a desire for security and control (Furnham, 2003).
The main personality trait that would define these ideas is the locus of control, specifically the internal locus.People with this locus of control perceive that the consequences of their behaviors are contingent on them, that is, they assume responsibility for their actions. On the contrary, those with an external locus of control tend to attribute what happens in their environment to factors such as luck or chance.
Other personality factors that modulate the belief in a just world and moderate it are altruism and empathy. It also influences the similarity or not between the subject and the victim. This can lead to discriminatory behaviors such as sexism or racism. Other studies have associated these beliefs with conservative and authoritarian ideologies (Furnham, 2003).
How does this belief affect society?
The belief in a just world would not be inherent to the human being, as language can be, but would be acquired as part of the culture in which the individual develops. This can be reflected in an element of society such as religion.
In the traditional Catholic belief, as well as in others, the existence of God is maintained, who would be in charge of rewarding good patterns while he would punish those who break his law. These punishments and rewards would be carried out both in life and after death, which motivates the individual who follows this doctrine to keep their beliefs stable. Faith in religion and in an omnipresent force could serve as a psychological mechanism for coping with stress.
The influence of the "just world" on shared values
The belief in a just world, for one reason or another, does not only affect the way of seeing an individual's life, their self-esteem and their prejudices, but it can affect the behavior of society at a collective level. A political ideology that is sustained on the basis that each individual has what it has deserved, will lead to practices that support these ideas.
Alluding to the French expression laissez faire, for a person with these beliefs, the State should not be in charge of distributing the resources of the society and correct the inequalities of opportunities caused by the environment but the one in charge of this should be the individual with his effort. Beliefs about the relationship between the effort and the deserved reward would affect both the tax policies, the redistribution of wealth and the form of remuneration of employees by their company (Frank et al., 2015).
The idea of the just world also affects other aspects such as prison policy . If we observe only the actions and consequences of someone who has committed crimes, the practice to follow would be to deprive him of life in society for the established time. In contrast, taking into account that there may be circumstances of the environment such as poverty, low educational level, destructuring in the family, etc. that predispose to the commission of crime, the policies could be oriented to the prevention, intervention and re-adaptation to society of a large part of the convicts.
These ideas vary among countries and are easily maintained over time, and their modification is difficult, both in one sense and in the other. Therefore, a holistic view of a person's situation could help to change attitudes about it and facilitate understanding.
- Aronson, E. & Escohotado, A. (2012). The social animal Madrid: Alliance.
- Frank, D. H., Wertenbroch, K., & Maddux, W. W. (2015). Performance pay or redistribution? Cultural differences in just-world beliefs and preferences for wage inequality. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 130, 160-170.
- Furnham, A. (2003). Belief in a just world: research progress over the past decade. Personality And Individual Differences, 34 (5), 795-817.
- Lerner, Melvin J. (1982). The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. New York, NY: Plenum Press.