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Is It Dangerous to Believe in a Just World?

Beliefs in universal justice or karma may lead to destructive behaviours.

Key points

  • The "just world bias" is rooted in a desire to create a predictable world, where good people get rewarded and bad people get punished.
  • Disasters can challenge beliefs in justice and create feelings of cognitive dissonance because existing beliefs don’t match reality.
  • Consequences may include engaging in victim blaming to restore a sense of justice.
“Diana visits Halifax (cropped)” by Russ Quinlan / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0
Source: “Diana visits Halifax (cropped)” by Russ Quinlan / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

Do you remember the day of Lady Diana’s tragic death? The Princess of Wales, first wife of King Charles III, died more than 25 years ago from the injuries she sustained in a terrible car accident. Chased by photo-hungry paparazzi, her limousine collided with the pillar of a Parisian car tunnel, killing all passengers apart from Princess Diana’s bodyguard.

The public outrage following the accident was unparalleled and, even a quarter of a century later, the sad story continues to fascinate. Interestingly, people’s opinions about the event were highly divided. Many people showed an outpouring of compassion and support for the “People’s Princess,” which ultimately resulted in the organisation of a large state funeral and changes to the rights of the press. By contrast, many other members of the public engaged in derogatory comments about Diana’s character and went as far as blaming the Princess for her own tragic demise. A private secretary of Diana's even published an insulting personal account of the Princess, in which he accused her of "stupidity" and the "occasional downright wickedness."

How can we explain these opposing reactions?

The Just World Bias

First studied by social psychologist Melvin Lerner, “just world hypothesis” or the “just world bias” refers to people’s inherent tendency to believe in a greater justice of the universe. The phenomenon is comparable to a belief in a divine entity that rights each wrong or to a belief in universal karma, which people accrue based on their previous actions. In line with popular proverbs such as “You reap what you sow” or “What goes around comes around,” it entails an understanding that good people are generally rewarded with good fortunes, while bad people receive the punishment they deserve.

The just world hypothesis is likely to have developed as a response to the challenges of daily life, which holds many unforeseen disasters and hardships. A sense of universal justice can help people to create a more predictable environment and establish a sense of control that increases personal feelings of self-efficacy. Put simply, believing in a just world is likely to make people feel in charge of their own destiny, and motivate them toward positive behaviours.

It is intuitively obvious why believing in a just world provides comfort and predictability. Sadly, an objective look at the world today tells an undeniable truth: Justice doesn’t always prevail. Innocent children are orphaned in war, millions of people suffer unfair victimisation in modern slavery, and many kind and caring people experience severe hardship on a regular basis. This leaves us with the regrettable conclusion that the belief in a just world constitutes a systematic error or bias in thinking.

The Dangers of Just World Bias

As with most biases, the just world bias affects the way people make judgments and impairs subsequent choices. This becomes evident in the context of disasters or tragedies such as Princess Diana’s untimely death. Witnessing disproportionate or unexpected hardships is in conflict with any beliefs in a just, predictable world. When bad things happen to good people, we are likely to experience feelings of inconsistency and internal dissonance in beliefs, which typically result in unease or distress. Most people use one of two coping strategies to resolve such difficult situations:

  1. Victim compensation. This strategy involves participating in compensatory action, which aims to restore justice by supporting the victim and righting the wrong that occurred. In the context of Diana’s death, many people tried to compensate the royal family for their suffering by offering public support and attending the state funeral. Public pressure to make changes to press rights aimed to prevent future tragedies.
  2. Victim blaming or derogation. The second strategy involves blaming or defaming the victim in question, again with the aim to resolve cognitive dissonance and confirm the existing belief in a just world. By picturing the victim as a bad person who deserved a terrible fate, it is possible to restore a sense of fairness and predictability of the world. Again, evidence for this strategy was found after Princess Diana’s accident, when many people turned against the royal icon and accused her of inappropriate conduct or mistreatment of the media.

Curiously, the two coping strategies have very different consequences, and the choice of strategy often depends on people’s perceptions of their own power to make a difference. If they feel incapable of making a meaningful compensation to the victim, it can be easier to opt for the alternative strategy and seek responsibility with the person who suffered.

How to Beat Just World Bias

Public blaming and shaming are deeply destructive social behaviours that often affect those who deserve it least. Princess Diana’s teenage sons undoubtedly suffered greatly under the public speculations surrounding their mother's mental health, with Harry stating in an interview that he'd been “very close to a complete breakdown” following the many “lies and misconceptions” circulated about his mother.

This leads to one important question: How can we minimise the destructive coping strategies associated with just world bias?

One of the most promising ways to beat victim blaming is to put yourself into the other person’s shoes and actively try to imagine how they must have experienced the situation. This action of perspective taking is likely to encourage empathy, may put things into perspective, and could help to maintain realistic perceptions of a difficult situation.

How would you have felt or acted in Princess Diana’s situation?

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