By Rachel Puryear
Most of us enjoy watching movies and reading stories where good, lovable characters ultimately triumph over evil ones. We want to see them hold the wicked accountable for their actions, and then go on to live well-deserved, happy lives.
Part of the appeal of such stories is that in the real world, justice is so comparatively rare.
Unfortunately, good people often suffer tremendously in real life, and are punished too harshly for honest mistakes. Meanwhile, cruel and selfish people often escape consequences of their horrible behavior, and are sometimes even richly rewarded for their bad deeds.
That reality is as sickening, frustrating, and demoralizing as it is unfair.
In order to cope with that harsh reality, many people fall for the just world fallacy.
The just world fallacy refers to a common – but false – belief that people tend to get what they deserve in life, for better or for worse. As the name suggests, it’s a notion that the world is inherently just and fair.
For this discussion, I will also refer to the just world fallacy as belief in a just world.
Of course, life isn’t fair. The world is full of injustice. Evildoers not only often get away with their misdeeds, but they commonly go on to live comfortable lives while their victims languish in the aftermath.
People with good hearts who do good deeds often have so much misfortune befall them, and don’t always get the same good coming back to them that they give to others.
It’s a bitter reality, and it sucks. No one likes that that’s the case (except maybe those evildoers who profit from bad behavior).
Belief in a just world is a way that people avoid coping with that bitter reality – but widespread belief in a just world can come at a high cost. People want to avoid suffering by adopting the just world fallacy, but their doing so often instead passes the suffering along to others.
The just world fallacy influences politics quite a bit. Here are a few examples:
- Belief in a just world encourages the notion that those living in poverty are lazy and irresponsible, and that is used as a justification to support bad policies without further exploring the complex, multi-layered reasons why people are poor.
- Those who believe in a just world may think that only promiscuous, “bad” women need birth control, or have abortions – and when that’s paired with a misogynistic, anti-sex worldview, they also fail to understand realities around family planning, and will accordingly tend to support bad policies on reproductive rights.
- Belief in a just world leads many people to look at abusive relationships, and blame the victim.
So, given that the world is so obviously unfair, why do so many people believe in a just world?
This question has been researched before by social scientists. Here are some of their findings, and theories:
- Belief in a just world is a psychological way of coping with internal discomfort of guilt, helplessness, and fear of bad things unfairly happening to others, and that could happen to oneself.
- Prejudice or stigma against certain victims of misfortune can influence belief in a just world. For instance, people are less likely to view cancer patients as deserving what they got than they are to view AIDS patients as having brought it upon themselves.
- There is a correlation between belief in a just world, and strong religiousness and/or rightwing political beliefs.
- Interestingly, people with a strong belief in a just world tend to have stronger anti-bullying attitudes than others – even though you might expect the opposite. They seem to sympathize with bullying victims rather than blame them. They draw a distinction between bullying where the bully and the victim are not close, versus an abusive relationship the two people involved are close.
- In the United States, black people tend to be somewhat less likely than whites to believe in a just world. Furthermore, people who originate from areas with high levels of government corruption, and where a sense of powerlessness is prevalent, tend to have less belief in a just world.
What are some alternatives to belief in a just world?
- Accepting reality for what it is, rather than denial in the form of belief in a just world. This is painful – but it’s an important step towards personal growth in a way that benefits ourselves and others.
- Acknowledging that there are limits to how much we can help others, or change the world – but that even doing the little that is within our power is still meaningful, at least to someone.
- Belief in our own ability to reduce injustice, to the extent that we can – even small efforts can go a long way.
Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to recognizing that bad things happen to good people, and that it’s not their fault. If you enjoyed this content and want to see more of it, please hit “like” and subscribe, if you have not done so already. xoxo