Malvin J. Lerner, father of the Just World Theory, stated 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 manifests itself, in the form of cognitive bias, in the idea that good things will tend to happen to good people and, conversely, bad things will tend to happen to bad people. This way of seeing the world is usually maintained by a large part of the population, even though this is not usually true.

Psychological function of belief in a just world

In many occasions, good and respectful people do not have the luck in life they deserve . On many other occasions, those who live at the cost of taking advantage of others succeed and their life goes smoothly. Faced with these facts, which when observed coldly are unfair, human beings have developed a bias that allows them to assimilate them in a positive way.

Therefore, thinking of the world as a fair place where everyone gets 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 would be difficult, since it makes us think that we really control our own destiny.

This belief is really difficult to eliminate because of how hard the perception of reality would be 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 to blame the victim for 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 hard enough in their life. There are also those who, when faced with a rape, argue that the woman should have been accompanied or should wear clothes that are less provocative to the rapists.

These dangerous arguments protect those who hold this biased belief, since, by thinking that they do not do anything that could have negative consequences, the perception of vulnerability and risk of suffering certain situations will be reduced.

Retroactive effect

The after effect would also reinforce these thoughts . This effect is a cognitive illusion that makes us think, when 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 experts” who, after watching Sunday’s football match, know (better than the coach himself) the tactics that would have led his team to victory.

Confirmation bias

Another bias that would maintain these prejudices is confirmatory. This refers to the tendency of human beings to look for arguments that support their theories , avoiding those that contradict them.

The control zone

Belief in a just world also helps protect one’s self-esteem and is based on self-interest bias. In attributing the reasons for success, an individual will think that these are due to factors within his or her control, such as the effort he or she has made or his or her own abilities. Conversely, when failure occurs it is attributed to environmental characteristics such as bad luck. These perceptions, as we have seen, are different when we observe other people’s behavior.

By seeing the situation from the outside, the observer becomes more aware of the personality characteristics and actions of the one who is suffering (Aronson, 2012). In this way the characteristics of the environment that affected that person are ignored due to lack of knowledge . For example, in the case of a homeless person, a reduced focus would ignore that this person has been able to get there due to a sequence of unpredictable events and not because of his or her own laziness. The economic crisis, an event that no ordinary person could predict, has been able to put this person out of work. This could have led to an accumulation of debts, family tensions, mental illness such as a depressive disorder, etc.

What personality factors influence this belief?

No one likes to live in an environment of uncertainty and think that, by chance, this might happen to them. That is why some people resort to these biases in their thought patterns. For Marvin Lerner, the belief that everyone has what they deserve would be a false illusion, that is, a self-deception . It would be 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 one. People with this locus of control perceive that the consequences of their behavior are given in a contingent manner to them, that is, they assume responsibility for their acts. In contrast, 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. The similarity or lack of similarity between the subject and the victim also plays a role. This can lead to discriminatory behaviour 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 it would be acquired as part of the culture in which the individual is involved. This can be reflected in an element of society such as religion.

In traditional Catholic belief, as well as in others, the existence of God is upheld, who would be in charge of rewarding good guidelines while punishing those who break his law. These punishments and rewards would be carried out both in life and after death, so they motivate the individual who follows this doctrine to keep his beliefs stable. Faith in religion and a pervasive force could serve as a psychological coping mechanism for stress.

The influence of the “just world” on shared values

Belief in a just world, for one reason or another, does not only have an effect on an individual’s outlook on life, on his or her self-esteem and prejudices, but can also affect society’s behaviour on a collective level. A political ideology that is sustained on the basis that each individual has what he or she has deserved will give rise 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 society’s resources and correcting the inequalities of opportunity caused by the environment, but the individual himself should be in charge of this with his own effort. Beliefs about the relationship between effort and deserved reward would affect both tax policies, as well as the redistribution of wealth and the form of remuneration of employees by their company (Frank et al., 2015).

The idea of a just world also affects other aspects such as prison policy . If we only observe the actions and consequences of someone who has committed a crime, the practice to follow would be to deprive him/her of life in society for the established time. In contrast, taking into account that there may be circumstances in the environment such as poverty, low educational level, destructuring in the family, etc. that predispose to the commission of crime, policies could be oriented towards prevention, intervention and readjustment to society for a large part of the convicts.

These ideas vary from country to country and are easily maintained over time, making them difficult to change in either direction. Therefore, a holistic view of a person’s situation could help change attitudes towards that person and facilitate understanding.

Bibliographic references:

  • Aronson, E. & Escohotado, A. (2012). The social animal. Madrid: Alianza.
  • 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.