Living in a Social World
Psy 324: Advanced Social Psychology
Just World Hypothesis
Liz Carmona, Shyla Gorman
John Neal & Julie Bollmer
Imagine for a moment that you are walking down a dirty street in a large inner city. The sun is just starting to set and out of the corner of your eye, you notice a movement off to your left. As you draw near, you look over and see a filthy, gaunt old man staring at you as you walk by. Slightly embarrassed, you quickly turn your head back toward the direction in which you were walking. [photo by Michael Hartman, copyright by Michael Rennick -- used with permission]
Many of us have been in a similar situation and have reacted in the very same way. But why are we embarrassed by the homeless person? Is it that we just don't like to see human suffering that close? Maybe. Or could there be something else bothering us, somewhere in the back of our mind? Why is the homeless person in the shape he is in? For that matter, why are most of the homeless in the situation they are in? Is it that they are lazy and won't get a job or is it that life dealt them a bad hand? Maybe that something that was bothering you earlier was the idea that you live in a just world, and situations such as homelessness don't happen to people like you or me, just those people who are somehow more "susceptible" to these types of misfortunes.
Regardless of the reality of the situation, many people may have a tendency to attribute blame to the homeless man and his character. This attributional process was originally coined by Lerner (1965) as the just world hypothesis. In its simplest form, it states that "individuals have a need to believe that they live in a world where people generally get what they deserve and deserve what they get" (Lerner, 1978, p.1030). More specifically, the just world theory has implications in how it may help people maintain the belief that their world is stable and orderly. Growing up, most of us have been taught that hard work and virtue always pay off. Is not America the land of opportunity? In addition, most of us believe that good is rewarded and evil is punished. Therefore, it is not very hard to see that we may have come to believe that those who do well in life are good and those who fail must somehow deserve their failure. Subsequently, the just world hypothesis serves an important adaptive function in our life in that it helps us to maintain our belief that we deserve our good fortune in life and those who experience misfortune must not have adhered to the famous "American Way" of hard work and effort.
Measuring a belief in a just world was originally formulated by Rubin and Peplau (1975) in their belief in a just world scale which has been said to measure a "global" belief in a just world. More specifically, this means that the scale measures one's belief in a just world in all domains of life (e.g. for both the self and for others). Consequently, Lipkus's (1991) scale was designed to distinguish between belief in a just world for the domains of the self, for others, and in the socio-political realm. Through the use of these scales, it has been found that individuals who have a low belief in a just world may experience trouble in the realization that there world is not orderly and people don't always get what they deserve and deserve what they get.
A real world application of belief in a just world relates to the controversial book, The Bell Curve. In this, the just world principal illustrates the way in which our own biases can have an important effect on the way we perceive and attach meaning to events and people around us.
This goal of this tutorial is to examine further the belief in a just world as it relates to interpersonal relations, the self, and cultural factors that affect this belief. With regard to interpersonal relations, we look at how the belief in a just world relates to the "blaming the vicitim" phenomenon. For the self, the belief in a just world has been shown to have implications for psychological well being, stress, and depression. Finally, we look at how the just world varies across cultures and differences within those cultures.
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Lerner, M. J., & Miller, D. T. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin, 85, 1030-1051.
Lipkus, I. M., Dalbert, C., & Siegler, I. C. (1996). The importance of distinguishing the belief in a just world for self versus for others: Implications for psychological well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulliten, 22(7), 666-677.
Rubin, Z., & Peplau, L. A. (1975). Who believes in a just world? Journal of Social Issues, 31(3), 65-89.
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