Emanuel Maidenberg Ph.D.

Belief and the Brain

The Psychological Consequences of Believing in a Just World

What is the impact of being taught as kids that the world is inherently just?

Posted Sep 19, 2019

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By Richard LeBeau, Ph.D.

Most children growing up in Western cultures are taught from a young age that “good things happen to good people” and “bad things happen to bad people.” They hear the message from their parents, schools, religious organizations, and the media.

It makes sense why we, as a society, would want to instill the belief that the world is just in children. We want them to behave in moral and ethical ways, so we shape them to expect rewards (good things) for displaying such behaviors and punishment (bad things) when they do not. Most of us also want to believe it ourselves.

Unfortunately, there is a significant problem with this so-called “just world belief”—it is, by and large, not rooted in reality. Sure, there are psychological, social, and physical benefits of “good” behaviors like altruism, empathy, and exercise. And conversely, there are negative psychological, social, and physical consequences of “bad” behaviors like lying, stealing, and being violent towards others. But a great deal of the good and bad things that happen to us occurs with no relationship to how we behave, let alone how good or bad a person we truly are. Tragedies like mass shootings, natural disasters, serious accidents, fatal illnesses, and sexual assaults typically afflict people with little rhyme or reason.

So, what happens when a person who firmly holds a belief in a just world experiences a tragedy?

If they believed they were a bad person before the traumatic event, they would likely view the tragedy as some form of karmic intervention, a punishment for their perceived misdeeds. If they believed they were a good person before the event, they are faced with a conundrum. Some people respond by engaging in assimilation, in which they try to twist the events to fit their pre-existing beliefs (e.g., “If something bad happened to me, then I must be bad or have done something bad”). This often manifests itself in the form of self-blame (e.g., “The assault was my fault because I drank too much alcohol at the party”). Others engage in over-accommodation and dramatically change their beliefs in damaging ways (e.g., “If bad things happen to me despite me being a good person, nothing in the world is fair or safe.”) This often manifests in lack of trust, isolation, and avoidance (e.g., “I can no longer go to any place where anyone may be drinking alcohol because I will likely get attacked again if I do.”)

Both of these response types—assimilation and over-accommodation—are associated with difficulty recovering from a traumatic event. As such, it forms the basis for an evidence-based psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder called Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT; Resick & Schnicke, 1993). This treatment helps trauma survivors achieve the desired outcome of accommodation, in which they rationally alter their beliefs to accommodate the reality of what happened to them (e.g., “Certain situations have the potential to be risky no matter what I do, so I should exercise caution when going out partying.”) The treatment achieves its goals by educating people about how traumatic events influence belief systems and emotional responses, helping people learn to identify and challenge unhelpful and distorted beliefs that are contributing to their suffering. Ultimately, it helps them fully process the trauma in a way that facilitates recovery.

It is important to note, however, that the just world belief does not only adversely affect the mental health of those exposed to trauma. There is considerable evidence that this belief also has many negative consequences for society. It is highly associated with “victim-blaming,” or the tendency to see victims of circumstances such as violent crime, serious illness, and financial hardship as having deserved these outcomes due to personal moral failing or illicit behavior (Furnham, 2003). It is also related to the ideology of right-wing authoritarianism, which advocates for hostile, punitive measures taken against those who do not adhere to social conventions and norms (Lambert, Burroughs, and Nguyen, 1999). Victim-blaming and right-wing authoritarianism are, in turn, associated with harsh legal sentencing, prejudice toward minorities, radical military action, and the preservation of rigid social hierarchies (Altemeyer, 1996).

We know that the belief in a just world is inaccurate and associated with many negative things, yet we continue to instill it in our children. Why?

Well, in large part we do this because having children who conform to social norms and rules and are obedient to authority leads to significantly smoother functioning at home, school, and in other contexts. We also know that belief in a just world is associated with factors that are deemed quite positive by many Westerners, including Protestant work ethic and religiosity (Begue, 2002). Some evidence suggests it is also associated with greater levels of well-being and less depressive symptoms (Lipkus, Dalbert, & Siegler, 1996). In that way, it can be understood as a positive illusion (an unrealistic belief that serves to maintain self-esteem and a sense of control over the world). We also know that the opposite belief—that the world is inherently unjust—is associated with poor mental health and criminal behavior (Lench, 2007).

The prevalence and popularity of the belief in a just world in Western culture all but ensures that it will endure. But that does not mean we are powerless to its negative effects. Increased awareness of our tendency to engage in this distorted belief system can go a long way in helping us increase the rationality of our thinking and our compassion toward our self and others. And perhaps it can allow us to help the children in our lives develop more helpful and rational belief systems as they mature—so that if hardship does fall upon them, they can better adapt and recover.

References

Altemeyer, B. (1996). The authoritarian specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bègue, L. (2002). Beliefs in justice and faith in people: Just world, religiosity and interpersonal trust". Personality and Individual Differences, 32(3): 375–382.

Forbes, D., Lloyd, D., Nixon, R. D. V., Elliott, P., Varker, T., Perry, D., ... & Creamer, M. (2012). A multisite randomized controlled effectiveness trial of cognitive processing therapy for military-related posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 26(3), 442-452.

Furnham, A. (2003). Belief in a just world: Research progress over the past decade. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(5): 795-817.

Lambert, A. J., Burroughs, T., & Nguyen, T. (1999). Perceptions of risk and the buffering hypothesis: The role of just world beliefs and right wing authoritarianism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(6): 643–656.

Lench, C. (2007). Belief in an unjust world: When beliefs in a just world fail". Journal of Personality Assessment, 89(2): 126–135. 

Lipkus, I. M., Dalbert, C., & Siegler, I. C. (1996). The importance of distinguishing the belief ina just world for self versus for others: Implications for psychological well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(7), 666–677.

Resick, P. A., & Schnicke, M. K. (1993). Cognitive processing therapy for rape victims: A treatment manual. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.