Do Good Deeds Get Rewarded? Exploring the Just World Hypothesis

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  • Have you ever heard someone say "they got what they deserved" after a misfortune befalls another person? Or maybe you've thought to yourself, "good things will come to those who wait" after facing a setback. These are both reflections of a deeply ingrained human belief — the Just World Hypothesis. This concept delves into the deep-seated belief that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. While seemingly innocuous at first glance, this belief has far-reaching implications for how we view justice, morality, and the experiences of those around us.

What is the Just World Hypothesis?

The Just World Hypothesis (JWH) is a deeply ingrained cognitive bias which posits that individuals have an inherent need to believe that the world is fair and just. According to this hypothesis, people need to perceive that actions have predictable and fair consequences, where good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished.

This belief system translates to the idea that people get what they deserve – good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. In essence, it's a way of making sense of the world around us by creating a cause-and-effect relationship between morality and outcomes.

Social psychologist Melvin Lerner is credited with formally proposing the Just World Hypothesis in the 1960s. His research suggested that people have a strong desire to believe the world is just and predictable. This can lead us to rationalize unfortunate events, sometimes even blaming the victim. For instance, after a natural disaster, some might believe the affected population somehow brought it upon themselves through immoral behavior.

Key Components of the Just World Hypothesis

  1. Belief in a Fair World: At its core, the Just World Hypothesis is grounded in the belief that the world operates in a way that ensures fairness and justice. This belief allows individuals to feel that their actions have meaningful consequences.
  2. Deservingness: The hypothesis hinges on the idea that people get what they deserve. This belief often extends to both positive and negative outcomes, meaning that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.
  3. Rationalization of Events: To maintain the belief in a just world, people often rationalize events in a way that supports this worldview. This can lead to victim-blaming or the perception that individuals experiencing misfortune must have done something to deserve it.

Psychological Underpinnings of the Just World Hypothesis

The Just World Hypothesis is not merely a philosophical stance but is deeply rooted in cognitive and social psychology. It serves several psychological functions:

  • Cognitive Dissonance Reduction: Imagine witnessing a good person experience misfortune. This creates cognitive dissonance, a mental discomfort caused by holding conflicting beliefs (a just world vs. a good person suffering). The Just World Hypothesis helps ease this dissonance by allowing us to rationalize that the victim must have done something to deserve their fate. This way, we maintain the belief in a fair world, even if it means creating justifications that may not be true.
  • Sense of Control: Believing in a just world fosters a sense of control over our lives. If the world is fair, then our actions have consequences. Good deeds lead to good outcomes, and bad deeds invite punishment. This predictability reduces anxiety and uncertainty. We feel empowered to shape our own destinies through our choices.
  • Moral Security: The Just World Hypothesis offers a moral framework. It reinforces the idea that the world is inherently just, with good rewarded and evil punished. This creates a sense of moral order and predictability. We can feel secure in the knowledge that good ultimately prevails, even if it doesn't always seem that way in the short term.

By understanding these psychological underpinnings, we gain a deeper insight into why the Just World Hypothesis persists despite evidence to the contrary. It's a coping mechanism that helps us navigate a complex and often unfair world.

Implications and Consequences: The Dark Side of the Just World Hypothesis

While the Just World Hypothesis offers psychological comfort and a sense of order, it also has significant downsides that impact social attitudes and behaviors:

  1. Victim Blaming: A particularly troubling consequence of the just world hypothesis is the tendency to blame victims for their misfortunes. When someone experiences hardship, the Just World Hypothesis might lead us to believe they must have done something wrong to deserve it. This is evident in victim blaming after a robbery ("they shouldn't have been walking alone at night") or a serious illness ("it must be because of their unhealthy lifestyle"). To maintain the illusion of a just world, people might subconsciously try to find fault with the victim, even if it means fabricating reasons for their misfortune. This can be incredibly insensitive and hurtful to those who have already suffered.
  2. Perpetuating Inequality: This belief system can perpetuate social inequalities by justifying the status quo. If people believe that everyone gets what they deserve, they may be less likely to support social policies aimed at reducing inequality, assuming that the disadvantaged are responsible for their plight.
  3. Reduced Empathy: The Just World Hypothesis can hinder empathy for those who suffer. We might view their misfortune as justified punishment for past actions, leading to a lack of compassion and support. This can have a chilling effect on social responsibility and hinder efforts to help those in need.

Critiques and Challenges to the Just World Hypothesis

The Just World Hypothesis has been extensively studied and critiqued within the psychological community:

  • Empirical Evidence: Numerous studies have shown that the belief in a just world is widespread and can influence judgments and behaviors. However, empirical evidence also demonstrates that the world is often unjust, with many factors beyond an individual's control contributing to their circumstances.
  • Moral and Ethical Concerns: The hypothesis raises moral and ethical concerns about fairness and justice. Critics argue that it oversimplifies complex social issues and ignores systemic factors that contribute to inequality and suffering.
  • Alternative Perspectives: Some researchers propose alternative frameworks, such as the recognition of systemic injustice and the importance of empathy and social support in addressing inequality and suffering.


The Just World Hypothesis reveals much about human cognition and our need for a predictable and fair world. While it provides psychological comfort, it also challenges our moral and ethical frameworks, highlighting the complexity of justice and fairness in society. Understanding this cognitive bias can help us cultivate greater empathy and work towards a more equitable world, recognizing that not all outcomes are a result of personal merit or fault.

As we navigate a world full of uncertainties and injustices, the Just World Hypothesis serves as a reminder of the importance of questioning our assumptions and striving for a deeper understanding of the factors that shape our lives and the lives of others. By doing so, we can foster a more compassionate and just society.

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  • Source:
    • Lerner, M. J. (1980). The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. Plenum Press.
    • Furnham, A. (2003). Belief in a just world: Research progress over the past decade. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(5), 795-817.
    • Hafer, C. L., & Bègue, L. (2005). Experimental research on just-world theory: Problems, developments, and future challenges. Psychological Bulletin, 131(1), 128-167.

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