Just-World Hypothesis Definition
The just-world hypothesis is the belief that, in general, the social environment is fair, such that people get what they deserve. The concept was developed in part to help explain observations that to preserve a belief that the world is a just place, people will sometimes devalue a victim. A just world is defined as a world in which people do get what they deserve. The just-world hypothesis is important because it suggests that people may treat certain victims badly, oddly enough, out of a desire to sustain their belief in justice. It also suggests that people may go to great lengths to maintain a sense that the world is just, giving evidence that the human motivation for justice is very strong.
Just-World Hypothesis Background and History
The seminal experiment illustrating this phenomenon was conducted by Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons in the 1960s. In this experiment, people watched on a television monitor a woman who appeared to be receiving painful electric shocks from a researcher. In actuality, the footage was prerecorded and the events were only simulated by actors. As the woman did nothing to deserve the shocks she was receiving, she can be seen as suffering unjustly. People who watched this unjust suffering described the victim’s character quite negatively if they could not compensate her (or at least were not sure they could compensate her) and if they thought that they would continue to see her suffer. People described the victim’s character most negatively when they also believed that she was behaving altruistically; that is, she chose to suffer for their sake. The findings were explained by suggesting that people have a strong need to believe that the world is a just place in which individuals get what they deserve. Victims who continue to suffer through no fault of their own (and especially very good people, like the altruistic woman in the early experiment) threaten this belief in a just world. As a way of dealing with that threat and maintaining a belief in a just world, people may try to restore justice by helping or compensating victims. When it is not possible to help or compensate victims, people may reinterpret the situation by, for example, claiming that a particular victim is a bad or otherwise unworthy person. By devaluing or derogating the victim in this way, his or her fate seems more deserved and people’s sense of justice is maintained.
There was much controversy about how to interpret the results of the original experiment. For example, some researchers suggested that people devalued the victim to reduce their own feelings of guilt at letting her continue to suffer. However, further experiments showed that people sometimes devalue a victim of injustice even when they could not have played any role in the victim’s situation. This and other proposed alternatives were, for the most part, dealt with through further study and argumentation, leading to a general acceptance of the notion that people will sometimes devalue a victim of injustice because they need to believe in a just world.
More Recent Research on Just-World Hypothesis
Since the early period of experimentation in the 1960s and 1970s, social psychologists have continued to conduct research on the just-world hypothesis. There have been two main traditions in this later research. First, researchers have continued to conduct experiments to study how people respond when they see, read about, or are otherwise exposed to victims who presumably threaten the need to believe in a just world. This research has tended to focus on victims of HIV/AIDS, rape, and cancer. Although some researchers have claimed that a number of these experiments have flaws that make it difficult to interpret the results, there is agreement that several of the investigations generally support the just-world hypothesis.
Another tradition in the later research on the just-world hypothesis has involved using a questionnaire to measure the extent to which people actually believe that the world is a just place. Researchers then test whether people who believe more strongly in a just world, according to the questionnaire, hold certain attitudes. These studies have shown, for example, that the more people claim that they believe the world is just, the more negative attitudes they have toward the poor, groups of people who are discriminated against in society, and other people who might be seen as victims of injustice. These findings are consistent with the just-world hypothesis.
Just-World Hypothesis Implications
The just-world hypothesis has several important implications for reactions to victims of injustice. For example, the research suggests that if people feel they cannot help or compensate victims of injustice who continue to suffer, they may react defensively. They may reason that the victims deserved their fate either because of the kind of people they are or because of the way they behaved. If people respond in this way, they may be less likely to react in a more positive manner, like working toward minimizing injustice or offering emotional support.
It is important to note that the just-world hypothesis is actually part of a broader theory called justice motive theory or just-world theory. The theory includes propositions about how and why a belief in a just world develops in children, the different forms that a belief in a just world might take, the many strategies (aside from blaming and derogating victims of injustice) that people use to maintain a belief in a just world, and the various ways in which justice is defined for different kinds of social relationships.
- Hafer, C. L., & Begue, L. (2005). Experimental research on just-world theory: Problems, developments, and future challenges. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 128-167.
- Lerner, M. J. (1980). The belief in a just world: A fundamental delusion. New York: Plenum.
- Lerner, M. J., & Miller, D. T. (1978). Just-world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin, 85, 1030-1051.