On Just World Theory


I recently read an interview in Peace News with John Tirman author of The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars. In it Tirman puts forward a number of convincing theories for the American public’s complete lack of concern about the millions of civilians killed in U.S. Wars since 1945.

The concept that particularly caught my attention was his version of Melvin Lerner’s, Just World Theory. “According to this hypothesis, people have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve. Such a belief plays an important function in our lives since in order to plan our lives or achieve our goals we need to assume that our actions will have predictable consequences. Moreover, when we encounter evidence suggesting that the world is not just, we quickly act to restore justice by helping the victim or we persuade ourselves that no injustice has occurred. We either lend assistance or we decide that the rape victim must have asked for it, the homeless person is simply lazy, the fallen star must be an adulterer. These attitudes are continually reinforced in the ubiquitous fairy tales, fables, comic books, cop shows and other morality tales of our culture, in which good is always rewarded and evil punished.”[1]

I’d never heard of this theory until I read this interview and further investigation has proved pretty mind-blowing. I’ve always been baffled by how most ‘normal’ people seem to view the world. You see I’ve always accepted the proposition that “power corrupts” and that therefore all those in power are corrupted, [though in the UK not necessarily (or even usually) corrupt in the criminal sense]. I’ve always taken it as a given that the world can be pretty dark and that we have to be perpetually vigilant to prevent even the well-meaning people fucking everything up, let alone the bastards.

However, It appears that most people believe, or need/try to believe, that all is right with the world, that the cream always rise to the top, that the rich man deserves to be in his castle and the poor man at his feet. That the world and the people who live in it are fundamentally Just.

Intuitively I know that this description of how people see the world is right – the way they see the world I mean, not the way it actually is. It goes a long way to explaining how otherwise good people can come to accept social norms, laws and an economic system that produces such world wide misery and suffering.

If you have a Just World cognitive bias you will believe that the unemployed are lazy, that bankers deserve their bonuses, that Iraqi civilians deserve to die and that starving Africans are the architects of their own misery; If the world is ultimately Just, it has to be that way.

I envy these Just Worlders in a way, a bit like religious believers, it must be great to really, really believe it’s all meant to be and that everyone is getting their just deserts. The only trouble of course, is that it is complete bollocks!

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One response to “On Just World Theory

  1. It’s funny how people will make up their minds that reality is such and such and when they have to face the truth that their concept of reality is flawed they get angry and struggle to resist admitting that their view of the world was warped – eventhough it may be obvious.

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