Justice Motive Definition
The justice motive is the idea that people have a basic motive for justice; that is, people have a need to believe that people get what they deserve. Research on the justice motive emphasizes the importance of justice to people as a goal unto itself. Its origins lie in a basic understanding people develop early in life about the kind of world they must be able to assume if they are to get what they deserve. Evidence for people’s need for justice has been derived from research that examines people’s reactions to injustice. There is also reason to believe that sometimes when people are concerned about justice, it is the result of another need or concern they have, and in this case, justice motivation derives from other motives.
Justice and Psychology
A useful place to start a discussion of justice motivation is the concept of justice itself. Psychology researchers approach the topic of justice differently than lawyers and legal philosophers do, and often differently from how it appears in people’s everyday lives, where justice is commonly associated with the law, police, and the courts.
For psychologists, justice is about the thoughts and feelings people have about the relation between the value of people and their outcomes. Psychological research on justice builds on the observation that people are good at evaluating other people, on one hand, and evaluating their experiences (e.g., winning a lottery, finding love, becoming ill) and resources (e.g., wealth and material possessions) on the other. Psychologists refer to experiences and resources combined as a person’s outcomes.
People can rapidly decide whether someone they meet for the first time is a good or bad person; indeed, it is one of the first things people want to know. Of course, each person also has an evaluative sense of him- or herself as a good or not-so-good person, referred to in psychology as self-esteem. People are also good at evaluating outcomes. Getting sick for most people is bad, and getting an increase in salary is good.
When considering justice, the question is how does a person’s evaluations of people (including themselves) line up with his or her evaluations of their outcomes? When a good person (like you good reader) experiences a good outcome, such as a good-sized salary increase, others view the situation as just, because there is correspondence in their evaluation of the person and the person’s outcome: good with good. However, when the same good person experiences a bad outcome, such as being laid off from his or her job, others will be inclined to view the situation as unjust, because the evaluations are inconsistent: good with bad. People are similarly sensitive to the outcomes of bad people. When a bad person such as a criminal has good outcomes such as a life of comfort, people view the situation as unjust, but when the same bad person has a bad experience, say, losing all his or her money, the situation is just.
There are of course many intriguing variations and complexities in how people think and feel about justice, including the relative nature of justice judgments; what one person considers just and fair is often different from what others see as just. As you might imagine, this relativity has all sorts of interesting implications, but this entry will set these aspects of justice aside and turn to its primary focus: motivation for justice.
Why do people care about justice? Psychologists interested in answering this question often approach it in terms of motivation. When a person demonstrates a need or desire to reach a goal, others say he or she is motivated. In motivational terms, people care about justice because of a need they have to experience justice in their own lives and in their social world. Where does the need for justice come from? Interestingly, psychological research has suggested a number of possible origins that fall into two categories depending on the goal involved.
Some scholars argue that justice is an ultimate goal people can have, an end unto itself. In this case, the need for justice is understood to be a distinct motive that cannot be reduced to other motives, such as self-interest. This is important because it raises the possibility that people may sometimes be motivated to achieve justice at the expense of self-interest. The ultimate goal approach to justice motivation is the one that argues that it is psychologically meaningful to talk about a distinct justice motive.
The second approach to justice motivation assumes that when people demonstrate a need for justice, they do so as a means to arriving at another goal. In other words, justice is an instrumental rather than ultimate goal. This would be the case, for instance, if people believe that complying with justice rules will help maximize their outcomes: “If everybody plays by the rules, we’ll all get what we want.” The instrumental goal perspective on justice motivation means that when people appear to have a need for justice, that need is derivative of another need or concern. The list of needs people have that can give rise to a secondary concern with justice continues to grow, with self-interest arguably at the top of the list. A number of psychological justice theories assume that self-interest is a central goal that people are trying to achieve; the theories differ on whether self-interest motivation is pursued for self-gains in the short term or the long term. The short-term view is that people will behave justly when it is in their self-interest to do so and unjustly when it is not. The longer-term view points out that self-interest needs must be met in the context of ongoing relations with others, which gives rise to a social exchange view of justice and self-interest. If people enter into relations with others motivated to gain resources over time, it is in their self-interest to commit to social exchange (justice) rules that govern how resources will be distributed and what processes will be used to make decisions.
Other, less-resource-oriented theories suggest that people’s need for justice arises from other concerns, such as a desire to be regarded positively by others, the need for control, concerns associated with uncertainty, and a basic concern with morality. Examination of these various perspectives is beyond the scope of this entry, but their number and diversity highlights the complexity of justice motivation. Thus, when someone expresses a concern about justice, it is useful to remember that his or her concern may reflect a basic need for justice or derive from another concern, such as increasing the chances of getting what he or she wants or getting respectful treatment from others in order to feel valued.
The Justice Motive
The idea that people have a basic motive for justice has been characterized as the need to believe that people get what they deserve. Because people in this context refer to both oneself and others, the need essentially means that people need to believe in a just world where they not only experience justice in their lives but where it is also important that others experience justice as well.
People’s concern about justice in the world helps explain why people can be upset by injustices that happen to other people they do not know and who may live far away and in very different circumstances than their own. Not surprisingly, given this description, the most extensive theoretical account of the justice motive comes from the just-world theory, a theory developed and researched for many years by the social psychologist Melvin Lerner.
Origins of the Justice Motive
According to Melvin Lerner, the justice motive originates in the realization people develop in childhood that to have the things they want in life, they have to engage in activities in the present that they assume will result in payoffs in the future. In other words, people come to understand delay of gratification. Many of the rewards they value most, such as a rewarding career, require them to work toward a future goal. Put in justice terms, people assume that as good people working toward a future reward, the reward will in fact be forthcoming when the future point arrives, because by that point, they deserve it.
The assumption this reasoning is based on is the foundation for the justice motive. For people to believe they will get the rewards they deserve in the future, they must also believe they live in a world where people do in fact get what they deserve. Indeed, to sustain people’s efforts to achieve their goals in the future, they must believe in such a world because if they cannot assume people get what they deserve, what is the point of working toward future goals? Lerner argues accordingly that when people reach the point in their childhood (around age 4) when they come to understand delay of gratification, they make a personal contract with the world. This contract says that for them to be able to believe in that they will get what they deserve, they must at the same time believe that the world is a just place. This is also what makes the fates of other people important. One’s sense of the world as a just place is based not only on one’s own experience, but also on the experiences of others and if others experience injustice, that is threatening to one’s need to believe in a just world.
The Justice Motive Evidence
The most compelling evidence for the justice motive comes from research examining people’s reactions to injustice. The reasoning is as follows: If people have a need for justice, they should be motivated in the face of injustice to respond in ways that are consistent with achieving justice. A common research strategy is to expose people to scenarios involving the suffering of an innocent victim. This can be done by having research participants read a story or watch a video where they learn about something bad happening to a good person through no fault of that person. Such experiences create temporary distress, as a result of the injustice associated with the victim’s suffering, in much the same way one feels a sense of unfairness and upset when one learns about the suffering of innocents in the news. Evidence of other people’s unjust suffering is upsetting because it threatens one’s belief in a just world.
If people are motivated to achieve the goal of justice in their lives, they should respond in such situations in ways that are consistent with achieving that goal. The research suggests this is in fact the case, but there are some intriguingly different ways people do this, some with undesirable consequences. The most straightforward thing people can do is engage in justice-restoring behavior. For instance, they might try to compensate an innocent victim or find justice in punishing the person responsible for the injustice. Such behavioral reactions can be very effective in helping people maintain their just-world beliefs, and it is likely many altruistic deeds one observes in life are based in a desire for justice.
However, people are not always able to address injustice through their own actions, for any number of reasons: The size of the injustice is too large or too far away, they do not have the means to address the injustice, or they may assume their efforts will be ineffective. Does this mean they abandon their need to believe in a just world when they cannot fix injustice themselves? The answer from psychological research is “no.” In lieu of action, people make psychological adjustments in how they think about events that allow them to sustain the belief. One of the intriguing but troubling ways people do this is to blame the victim. Through selective consideration of the facts, people can convince themselves that a victim or victims are somehow responsible for their suffering and hence deserve their fate. If one can convince oneself that others deserve their suffering, then one removes any threat to one’s ability to believe that the world is a just place. Unfortunately, victim blaming is a common phenomenon. Justice motive research helps researchers understand why this is so, given the importance of people’s need to believe in a just world. There are other psychological adjustments people can make in the service of the justice motive, but the important point is that there is extensive evidence that people are motivated to address injustice either behaviorally or psychologically, and the reliability with which they do so provides compelling evidence of the justice motive.
- 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.