The just-world hypothesis is the assumption that a person's actions
are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences
to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually
rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished. In other words, the
just-world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences
to—or expect consequences as the result of—a universal force that
restores moral balance. This belief generally implies the existence of
cosmic justice, destiny, divine providence, desert, stability, or
The hypothesis popularly appears in the
English language in various
figures of speech that imply guaranteed negative reprisal, such as:
"you got what was coming to you", "what goes around comes around",
"chickens come home to roost", and "you reap what you sow". This
hypothesis has been widely studied by social psychologists since
Melvin J. Lerner conducted seminal work on the belief in a just world
in the early 1960s. Research has continued since then, examining
the predictive capacity of the hypothesis in various situations and
across cultures, and clarifying and expanding the theoretical
understandings of just-world beliefs.
1.1 Melvin Lerner
2 Early evidence
4.1 Veridical judgment
4.2 Guilt reduction
4.3 Discomfort reduction
5 Additional evidence
5.5 The self as victim
6 Theoretical refinement
8 Current research
8.1 Positive mental health effects
8.2 International research
9 See also
11 Further reading
12 External links
Many philosophers and social theorists have observed and considered
the phenomenon of belief in a just world, going back to at least as
early as the Pyrrhonist philosopher
Sextus Empiricus writing around
180 CE who argued against this belief. Lerner's work made the
just-world hypothesis a focus of research in the field of social
Lerner was prompted to study justice beliefs and the just-world
hypothesis in the context of social psychological inquiry into
negative social and societal interactions. Lerner saw his work as
extending Stanley Milgram's work on obedience. He sought to answer the
questions of how regimes that cause cruelty and suffering maintain
popular support, and how people come to accept social norms and laws
that produce misery and suffering.
Lerner's inquiry was influenced by repeatedly witnessing the tendency
of observers to blame victims for their suffering. During his clinical
training as a psychologist, he observed treatment of mentally ill
persons by the health care practitioners with whom he worked. Though
he knew them to be kindhearted, educated people, they often blamed
patients for the patients' own suffering. Lerner also describes his
surprise at hearing his students derogate (disparage, belittle) the
poor, seemingly oblivious to the structural forces that contribute to
poverty. In a study on rewards, he observed that when one of two
men was chosen at random to receive a reward for a task, that caused
him to be more favorably evaluated by observers, even when the
observers had been informed that the recipient of the reward was
chosen at random. Existing social psychological theories,
including cognitive dissonance, could not fully explain these
phenomena. The desire to understand the processes that caused these
phenomena led Lerner to conduct his first experiments on what is now
called the just-world hypothesis.
In 1966, Lerner and his colleagues began a series of experiments that
used shock paradigms to investigate observer responses to
victimization. In the first of these experiments conducted at the
University of Kansas, 72 female subjects were made to watch a
confederate receiving electrical shocks under a variety of conditions.
Initially, subjects were upset by observing the apparent suffering.
But as the suffering continued and observers remained unable to
intervene, the observers began to derogate the victim. Derogation was
greater when the observed suffering was greater. But when subjects
were told the victim would receive compensation for her suffering,
subjects did not derogate the victim. Lerner and colleagues
replicated these findings in subsequent studies, as did other
To explain these studies' findings, Lerner theorized that there was a
prevalent belief in a just world. A just world is one in which actions
and conditions have predictable, appropriate consequences. These
actions and conditions are typically individuals' behaviors or
attributes. The specific conditions that correspond to certain
consequences are socially determined by a society's norms and
ideologies. Lerner presents the belief in a just world as functional:
it maintains the idea that one can influence the world in a
Belief in a just world functions as a sort of
"contract" with the world regarding the consequences of behavior. This
allows people to plan for the future and engage in effective,
goal-driven behavior. Lerner summarized his findings and his
theoretical work in his 1980 monograph The
Belief in a Just World: A
Lerner hypothesized that the belief in a just world is crucially
important for people to maintain for their own well-being. But people
are confronted daily with evidence that the world is not just: people
suffer without apparent cause. Lerner explained that people use
strategies to eliminate threats to their belief in a just world. These
strategies can be rational or irrational. Rational strategies include
accepting the reality of injustice, trying to prevent injustice or
provide restitution, and accepting one's own limitations. Non-rational
strategies include denial, withdrawal, and reinterpretation of the
There are a few modes of reinterpretation that could make an event fit
the belief in a just world. One can reinterpret the outcome, the
cause, and/or the character of the victim. In the case of observing
the injustice of the suffering of innocent people, one major way to
rearrange the cognition of an event is to interpret the victim of
suffering as deserving. Specifically, observers can blame victims
for their suffering on the basis of their behaviors and/or their
characteristics. Much psychological research on the belief in a
just world has focused on these negative social phenomena of victim
blaming and victim derogation in different contexts.
An additional effect of this thinking is that individuals experience
less personal vulnerability because they do not believe they have done
anything to deserve or cause negative outcomes. This is related to
the self-serving bias observed by social psychologists.
Many researchers have interpreted just-world beliefs as an example of
causal attribution. In victim blaming, the causes of victimization are
attributed to an individual rather than to a situation. Thus, the
consequences of belief in a just world may be related to or explained
in terms of particular patterns of causal attribution.
See also: Veridicality
Others have suggested alternative explanations for the derogation of
victims. One suggestion is that derogation effects are based on
accurate judgments of a victim's character. In particular, in relation
to Lerner's first studies, some have hypothesized that it would be
logical for observers to derogate an individual who would allow
himself to be shocked without reason. A subsequent study by Lerner
challenged this alternative hypothesis by showing that individuals are
only derogated when they actually suffer; individuals who agreed to
undergo suffering but did not were viewed positively.
Another alternative explanation offered for the derogation of victims
early in the development of the just-world hypothesis was that
observers derogate victims to reduce their own feelings of guilt.
Observers may feel responsible, or guilty, for a victim's suffering if
they themselves are involved in the situation or experiment. In order
to reduce the guilt, they may devalue the victim. Lerner
and colleagues claim that there has not been adequate evidence to
support this interpretation. They conducted one study that found
derogation of victims occurred even by observers who were not
implicated in the process of the experiment and thus had no reason to
Alternatively, victim derogation and other strategies may only be ways
to alleviate discomfort after viewing suffering. This would mean that
the primary motivation is not to restore a belief in a just world, but
to reduce discomfort caused by empathizing. Studies have shown that
victim derogation does not suppress subsequent helping activity and
that empathizing with the victim plays a large role when assigning
blame. According to Ervin Staub, devaluing the victim should lead
to lesser compensation if restoring belief in a just world was the
primary motive; instead, there is virtually no difference in
compensation amounts whether the compensation precedes or follows
Psychopathy has been linked to the lack of just-world
maintaining strategies, possibly due to dampened emotional reactions
and lack of empathy.
After Lerner's first studies, other researchers replicated these
findings in other settings in which individuals are victimized. This
work, which began in the 1970s and continues today, has investigated
how observers react to victims of random calamities like traffic
accidents, as well as rape and domestic violence, illnesses, and
poverty. Generally, researchers have found that observers of the
suffering of innocent victims tend to both derogate and blame victims
for their suffering. Observers thus maintain their belief in a just
world by changing their cognitions about the victims' character.
In the early 1970s, social psychologists
Zick Rubin and Letitia Anne
Peplau developed a measure of belief in a just world. This measure
and its revised form published in 1975 allowed for the study of
individual differences in just-world beliefs. Much of the
subsequent research on the just-world hypothesis used these
Researchers have looked at how observers react to victims of rape and
other violence. In a formative experiment on rape and belief in a just
world by Linda Carli and colleagues, researchers gave two groups of
subjects a narrative about interactions between a man and a woman. The
description of the interaction was the same until the end; one group
received a narrative that had a neutral ending and the other group
received a narrative that ended with the man raping the woman.
Subjects judged the rape ending as inevitable and blamed the woman in
the narrative for the rape on the basis of her behavior, but not her
characteristics. These findings have been replicated repeatedly,
including using a rape ending and a 'happy ending' (a marriage
Other researchers have found a similar phenomenon for judgments of
battered partners. One study found that observers' labels of blame of
female victims of relationship violence increase with the intimacy of
the relationship. Observers blamed the perpetrator only in the most
significant case of violence, in which a male struck an
Researchers have employed the just-world hypothesis to understand
bullying. Given other research on beliefs in a just world, it would be
expected that observers would derogate and blame bullying victims, but
the opposite has been found: individuals high in just-world belief
have stronger anti-bullying attitudes. Other researchers have
found that strong belief in a just world is associated with lower
levels of bullying behavior. This finding is in keeping with
Lerner's understanding of belief in a just world as functioning as a
"contract" that governs behavior. There is additional evidence that
belief in a just world is protective of the well-being of children and
adolescents in the school environment, as has been shown for the
Other researchers have found that observers judge sick people as
responsible for their illnesses. One experiment showed that persons
suffering from a variety of illnesses were derogated on a measure of
attractiveness more than healthy individuals were. In comparison to
healthy people, victim derogation was found for persons presenting
with indigestion, pneumonia, and stomach cancer. Moreover, derogation
was found to be higher for those suffering from severer illnesses,
except for those presenting with cancer. Stronger belief in a just
world has also been found to correlate with greater derogation of AIDS
More recently, researchers have explored how people react to poverty
through the lens of the just-world hypothesis. Strong belief in a just
world is associated with blaming the poor, with weak belief in a just
world associated with identifying external causes of poverty including
world economic systems, war, and exploitation.
The self as victim
Psychological response to rape and Self blame
Some research on belief in a just world has examined how people react
when they themselves are victimized. An early paper by Dr. Ronnie
Janoff-Bulman found that rape victims often blame their own behavior,
but not their own characteristics, for their victimization. It was
hypothesized that this may be because blaming one's own behavior makes
an event more controllable.
These studies on victims of violence, illness, and poverty and others
like them have provided consistent support for the link between
observers' just-world beliefs and their tendency to blame victims for
their suffering. As a result, the existence of the just-world
hypothesis as a psychological phenomenon has become widely accepted.
Subsequent work on measuring belief in a just world has focused on
identifying multiple dimensions of the belief. This work has resulted
in the development of new measures of just-world belief and additional
research. Hypothesized dimensions of just-world beliefs include
belief in an unjust world, beliefs in immanent justice and
ultimate justice, hope for justice, and belief in one's ability to
reduce injustice. Other work has focused on looking at the
different domains in which the belief may function; individuals may
have different just-world beliefs for the personal domain, the
sociopolitical domain, the social domain, etc. An especially
fruitful distinction is between the belief in a just world for the
self (personal) and the belief in a just world for others (general).
These distinct beliefs are differentially associated with positive
Researchers have used measures of belief in a just world to look at
correlates of high and low levels of belief in a just world.
Limited studies have examined ideological correlates of the belief in
a just world. These studies have found sociopolitical correlates of
just-world beliefs, including right-wing authoritarianism and the
protestant work ethic. Studies have also found belief in a
just world to be correlated with aspects of religiousness.
Studies of demographic differences, including gender and racial
differences, have not shown systematic differences, but do suggest
racial differences, with Black and African Americans having the lowest
levels of belief in a just world.
The development of measures of just-world beliefs has also allowed
researchers to assess cross-cultural differences in just-world
beliefs. Much research conducted shows that beliefs in a just world
are evident cross-culturally. One study tested beliefs in a just world
of students in 12 countries. This study found that in countries where
the majority of inhabitants are powerless, belief in a just world
tends to be weaker than in other countries. This supports the
theory of the just-world hypothesis because the powerless have had
more personal and societal experiences that provided evidence that the
world is not just and predictable.[clarification needed]
Belief in unjust world has been linked to increased self-handicapping,
criminality, defensive coping, anger and perceived future risk. It may
also serve as ego-protective belief for certain individuals by
justifying maladaptive behavior.
Positive mental health effects
Though much of the initial work on belief in a just world focused on
its negative social effects, other research suggests that belief in a
just world is good, and even necessary, for mental health. Belief
in a just world is associated with greater life satisfaction and
well-being and less depressive affect. Researchers are
actively exploring the reasons why the belief in a just world might
have this relationship to mental health; it has been suggested that
such beliefs could be a personal resource or coping strategy that
buffers stress associated with daily life and with traumatic
events. This hypothesis suggests that belief in a just world can
be understood as a positive illusion.
Some studies also show that beliefs in a just world are correlated
with internal locus of control. Strong belief in a just world is
associated with greater acceptance of and less dissatisfaction with
negative events in one's life. This may be one way in which belief
in a just world affects mental health. Others have suggested that this
relationship holds only for beliefs in a just world for oneself.
Beliefs in a just world for others are related instead to the negative
social phenomena of victim blaming and victim derogation observed in
More than 40 years after Lerner's seminal work on belief in a just
world, researchers continue to study the phenomenon. Work continues
primarily in the United States, Europe, Australia, and Asia.
Researchers in Germany have contributed disproportionately to recent
research. Their work resulted in a volume edited by Lerner and
German researcher Leo Montada titled Responses to Victimizations and
Belief in a Just World.
"Best of all possible worlds"
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
Problem of evil
Fundamental attribution error
Karma § Comparable concepts
Mean world syndrome
Natural disasters as divine retribution
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The Just World Hypothesis
Issues in Ethics: The Just World Theory
Cruelty to animals
Abusive power and control
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder
von Restorff effect
Cognitive bias mitigation
Heuristics in judgment and decision-making
Lists: General · Memory
Parental bullying of children
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Bullying and emotional intelligence
Climate of fear
Kiss up kick down
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International STAND UP to
International Day of Pink
Kelly Yeomans (1997)
Dawn-Marie Wesley (2000)
Nicola Ann Raphael (2001)
Ryan Halligan (2003)
Megan Meier (2006)
Phoebe Prince (2010)
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Rehtaeh Parsons (2013)
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Jeff Weise (Red Lake, 2005)
Elliot Rodger (Isla Vista, 2014)
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Base rate fallacy / Conjunction fallacy
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Continuum fallacy / Sorites paradox
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Correlation proves causation (Cum hoc ergo propter hoc)
List of fallacies
Other types of fallacy