Just World Hypothesis

When I first heard about the Just World Hypothesis a decade or so ago it had a significant impact on my world view and caused me to move from a central position politically, to the left. The JWH is a cognitive bias which assumes that a “persons actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished”.

Unfortunately, Lady Justice isn’t a vaccine for cancer.

This cognitive bias has been immortalised in the English language and rears its head in common expressions such as “what goes around comes around” and “everything happens for a reason”. The hypothesis involves there being some ethereal force of order and justice that judges’ people and their actions, and appropriately allocates rewards or punishments, justly. It is easy to see how this cognitive bias has evolved in humans with the advent of religion across the globe, in the West we might call this Divine Providence through God, and in Eastern religions this would be called Karma. It is often used to rationalise adversity, hardship and plain old bad luck on the grounds that the person must have somehow deserved it.

The JWH can be seen day today through various scenarios…were you the victim of sexual assault? Then you should haven’t had that much to drink or worn that short skirt. Are you living on the poverty line? Then you must be doing something wrong because I’m not. Do you have a chronic condition or have suffered from an acute serious illness only to find yourself being told by healthy people what more you could do or could have done to alleviate or prevent said health issue? That’s because healthy people like to assume that if they keep on doing the right things, they will never have health problems.

As you can probably tell, this bias has a high ratio of fallacy and more often than not leads to victim blaming.

The earliest known arguments against the JWH comes from ancient philosopher Sextus Empiricus in 180CE, but it wasn’t till the 20th century that it was formally studied. Social Psychologist and Professor at the University of Waterloo, Melvin Lerner summarised in his 1980 book ‘The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion’ that the belief in a just world is fundamental for people to believe in for their own well-being because a just world is a functional world. It creates a contract between the individual and the world that implies predictable and appropriate outcomes based upon a person’s actions, attributes and behaviour. It is functional and important for human well-being, this belief in a just world, because the contract we create with the world allows us to plan for the future and leads to a goal driven lifestyle, and that if we do X we will receive Y.

Whenever I see, and I generalise, a typically right-wing voter who doesn’t believe in a strong welfare state, or someone who believes that individual freedom (read: small weak government) is the zenith of human political goals, or someone who shows no compassion to asylum seekers/refugees, more often than not they are suffering from this just-world bias. If you can blame the victim and preserve the false belief that the world is just then it reduces your own discomfort and guilt.

If as a species we can get passed this illusion of justice naturally occurring in the world, maybe we can actually get on with making the world a just place.

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