Just World Theory

The Belief in a Just World Hypothesis

According to just world theory (Lerner, Miller, & Holmes, 1976), people have a basic need to believe that the world is a just place—a place where individuals get what they deserve and deserve what they get. The belief in a just world provides an explanation for people’s responses to the suffering of others, especially their tendency to blame innocent victims for their fate.

Belief in a just world is the phenomenon in which people believe that the world is a just and predictable place where good things happen to ‘good people’ and bad things to ‘bad people’ (i.e., people get what they deserve), and that people have control over their outcomes.

Beliefs in a just world can result in a general pattern of attribution in which victims are deemed responsible for their misfortune—poverty, oppression, tragedy and injustice all happen because victims deserve it. This pattern of attributions makes the world seem a controllable and secure place in which we can determine our own destiny.

The belief in a just world may also be responsible for self-blame. Victims of traumatic events such as incest, debilitating illness, rape and other forms of violence can experience a strong sense that the world is no longer stable, meaningful, controllable and just. Just world beliefs are also an important component of many religious ideologies (Hogg, Adelman & Blagg, 2010).

Examples of Belief in a Just World

Examples of the just world hypothesis in action are such views as the unemployed are responsible for being out of work, and rape victims are responsible for the violence against them.

Another example is the belief, still held by some people, that the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust Opens in new window were responsible for their own fate—that they deserved it (Davidowicz, 1975).

According to just world theory, undeserved suffering in others threatens the belief in a just world by providing evidence to the contrary. This threat leads to discomfort, an outcome similar to Festinger’s cognitive dissonance Opens in new window (1957), that the individual is motivated to reduce (Lerner, 1977).

Given that there is a basic need to maintain the belief in a just world (without it, we would have little trust in our own futures), individuals may be more likely to reduce the discomfort by altering the situation so it becomes “fair,” rather than by changing their beliefs in the fairness of the world.

Rubin and Peplau (1975) posited that individuals differ in the extent to which they actually believe the world is a just place. Studies investigating the relationship between individual differences in just world beliefs and attitudes toward suffering generally show that strong believers in a just world have a greater tendency to blame victims for their misfortune and a greater acceptance of general social inequalities than do weak believers (Wagstaff, 1983; Zuckerman et al., 1975).

Lerner (1980) proposed that fairness can be created out of others’ suffering through “rational” strategies such as compensating victims or through “defensive” or psychological strategies such as blaming victims for their fate. These latter strategies may be preferred because they are often less costly (Berscheid & Walster, 1976).

Individuals with a particularly strong belief in a just world should experience more discomfort in the face of contradictory evidence than individuals with weak just world beliefs, because of the greater discrepancy between their beliefs and the witnessed suffering. Thus, these individuals may be more motivated to reduce the discrepancy, often through some psychological strategy, than weak believers.

This process would result in strong believers in a just world perceiving others’ negative outcomes as more fair than weak believers. This logic is consistent with the previously mentioned findings that strong believers in a just world have a greater tendency than weak believers to blame victims for their misfortune and to accept social inequalities.

Lerner (1980), Hafer & Olson (1989, 1993) and others have proposed that individual differences in the belief in a just world are related to how people respond to their own misfortune as well as the misfortune of others.

Personal misfortune that is undeserved should pose a threat to the belief in a just world, just as an innocently suffering victim poses a threat to this belief. As with the suffering of others, the motivation to reduce the discrepancy between current events and the belief in a just world should be greater for those who believe very strongly that the world is a fair place.