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Justice Capital and Unequal Access to Justice

Experiences shape perceptions of justice. Revising just world theory.

Key points

  • Believing the world is just can be a logical fallacy. Access to justice is a form of capital that is unequally distributed.
  • Observing others’ mistreatment increases people’s believing victims are responsible for their suffering.
  • Authorities such as parents, teachers, and employers serve as justice gate-keepers

In 1938, historians noted, two-thirds of Americans believed that Germany’s Jews were partly or entirely responsible for what they were facing. This victim blaming is jarring to read yet necessary to remember. Humans have the power to justify the unjustifiable.

Psychologists explain the victim-blaming impulse as part of a human drive to believe the world is fair, where people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. The easiest way to solve injustice is to assume there is none. When people blame the victim, they can go about their day without feeling responsible for evil or fearing senseless tragedy.

Research shows that observing others’ mistreatment increases people’s believing victims are responsible for their suffering.

In the 1960s, college students participated in research in which some received a lottery-based reward. Surprisingly, when asked to rate people after the award, participants tended to rate winners as more deserving and losers as less deserving. In other words, people adjusted their judgments to match the consequences. Psychologist Melvin Lerner developed just world theory to explain the human need to establish justice cognitively because of a human discomfort with injustice.

Since then, researchers split belief in a just world into a personal (my life is fair) and a general (the world is fair). The general belief in a just world has been the main focus of American social psychologists’ research and is most likely to lead to harsh victim-blaming judgments: “If the world is fair, you must have done something bad to deserve your suffering.” Ouch.

But there are also well-documented studies from Europe, Asia, and South America that correlate personal justice beliefs (I believe my life is fair) with higher well-being, rule-abiding behavior, and academic and professional success: "If my life is fair, my hard work will pay off."

Of course, believing the world is just can be both a logical fallacy (that promotes victim-blaming) and a motivational aid (that promotes hard work). A just world is a nice idea. But there is more to the story.

Individual justice expectations can also reflect people’s experiences of justice access. When people say their life is fair, perhaps they had the good fortune of a just environment. When others report their lives are unfair, maybe they know injustice up close.

When I moved from Brazil to the United States for college, I was troubled by how many people attributed poverty to a lack of hard work. Growing up with social privilege in Latin America, I realized I would never work as hard as some of society's poorest. I like to think of myself as a hard worker, but I do so in the comfort of a climate-controlled room, often sitting in a swivel chair and well-fed. I’m not selling candy on the street all day. I’m not cleaning homes for 10 hours then riding the bus home.

Just world theory gave me the words to understand how some use their work ethic convictions to blame the poor and psychologically establish justice and control. After college, I dedicated my early research career to understanding how justice beliefs develop in adolescence, particularly in contexts of high inequality.

I’ve researched just world theory for nearly ten years in adolescent samples in Brazil, Kenya, and the United States. I no longer see belief in a just world as primarily a victim-blaming mechanism. Youth have sophisticated understandings of injustice and display coherent views of the world. I see access to justice as a form of capital that is unequally distributed. Thus, personal justice beliefs often reflect lived experiences and personal access to justice, a constructed worldview.

My colleague and I found that 12-year-olds in Sāo Paulo had similar judgments of world fairness across ethnic and economic brackets (usually in the “slightly disagree” range). However, those from groups with less privilege (such as low-income households, minority ethnic groups, or poorly funded schools) rated their personal lives as substantially less fair. In contrast, those attending good schools or from financially stable homes tended to rate their personal lives as more fair than those around them. These children were not delusional about injustice. They knew with surprising accuracy how their access to justice matched up against the world.

Some people are more insulated from injustice than others.

I have called this individual difference "Justice Capital" and proposed five dimensions.

1. People of higher status have greater access to resources that mitigate injustice. Those in the ethnic majority have less reason to fear unjust violence from law enforcement. If falsely accused, the wealthy can hire good lawyers. Data suggests social status predicts personal fairness beliefs within and across countries. High-status people experience less injustice and thus perceive less injustice.

2. People's immediate authorities serve as gatekeepers of justice. A child is vulnerable to an unfair teacher or parent. A boss can obfuscate merit increases or unjustly allocate work shifts to employees. Justice in the family and the school predicts children’s perceptions of justice in the world and their personal lives. My colleagues and I showed that students in supportive and structured classrooms had higher personal beliefs in a just world than those with more negligent or authoritarian ones. Their justice perspective was an accurate representation of their reality. When a child has a fair teacher, their lives are more just.

3. The effort-effect pipeline. the extent to which someone’s actions affect their outcomes. Being rewarded for hard work is a form of justice that is not afforded to all. Sales professionals might see a change in income depending on how many sales calls they make, how early they arrive, or how late they stay. In contrast, a teacher might excel professionally, devoting much time and effort, yet see no increased monetary compensation. Students with learning disabilities might study more but not see an improvement in their grades.

A study on Brazilian youth showed that belief in a just world predicted a growth mindset–the belief that intelligence is effort-based. A predictable and just environment is the logical premise of a growth mindset. Why try hard if the outcome is weakly tied to the effort? The strength of the effort-effect pipeline at an individual level says something about people's justice capital.

4. People with stronger voices have more access to justice. When eloquent speakers are unjustly treated or falsely accused, they are more equipped to re-establish justice by self-advocacy. When they speak, others listen. Research has found that people who speak up for change in the workplace also report higher beliefs of justice. In contrast, a new language learner, a student with a stutter, or the new kid on the block, doesn’t have much power to self-advocate in the face of injustice.

5. Individual justice access has a societal dimension. In a community with more violence and less social mobility, everyone has less access to justice. As explained by Gary Haugen, the lack of justice and the plague of violence undermines everyone’s opportunities for success, often nullifying much humanitarian work. When law enforcement officers are unprepared and underpaid, the judicial system is bogged down by bureaucracy, and there isn’t a good legal infrastructure to prosecute, there is less justice capital.

Believing the world is a reasonably fair place provides a sense of safety and predictability necessary for hard work and well-being. But it also goes awry when people assume others got what they deserved. Understanding justice as a form of capital can open doors for more nuanced conversations.

People do not have to experience an injustice to stand in solidarity with those who do. Denouncing injustice does not mean that those who earn a living wage have done so unfairly. People disagree about how fair a society is or how just specific authorities are. But recognizing that justice is not the same for all can enable those with higher justice capital to speak up for those with less.

To repeat the jarring statistic: two-thirds of Americans in 1938 thought Germany’s Jews were partially or entirely responsible for their plight. A simplistic understanding of justice in the world is dangerous. It threatens the human capacity to notice evil.

Humanitarian crises abound. Yet the more pronounced they are, the more the human drive for victim-blaming kicks in as a twisted self-protection mechanism. Resist the urge to double down on a one-dimensional view of justice in the world. Search for more nuanced conversations. Notice individual and group differences in justice access. Think creatively about public policies, school climate initiatives, and humanitarian aid that increases access to justice. For example, the International Justice Mission provides social workers and lawyers to those in the most unfair and corrupt legal systems to bring justice to the poor. A school climate initiative can make children’s educational experiences more safe and equitable and buffer against societal injustices.

Expecting justice is not a logical fallacy. It is a moral imperative. People can learn to catch their self-protective impulse to blame the victim and remember that justice is not distributed equally.

I don't want my kids to grow up thinking the world is fair, yet I want their lives to be. I want them to expect justice; it is the only way they’ll learn to demand it. I want all children to have fair teachers, reap the fruits of their hard work, be spared from senseless violence, and develop a strong voice. I want them to grow up in justice but have a trained eye to see those with less justice capital, resist the impulse to blame, and advocate for justice for all.


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Thomas, K. J., Theodoro, R., & Komatsu, A. V. (2021). Socializing justice: The interface of just world beliefs and legal socialization. Journal of Social Issues, 77(2), 314-335.

Hoollihan, E. & Thomas, K. J. (2020). The relationships between bonding social capital, personal belief in a just world and well-being: An analysis of a diverse adolescent sample. Social Psychology of Education, 23, 1609-1626..

Thomas, K. J. & Rodrigues, H. (2020). The just world gap, privilege and legal socialization: A study among Brazilian preadolescents. Social Justice Research, 33(1), 18-43.

Thomas, K. J., Santo, J. B., & Cunha, J. M. (2019). The predictive value of school climate and teacher techniques on students’ just world beliefs: A comprehensive Brazilian sample. Social Psychology of Education. 22(5), 1239-1257.

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