Day 283: Justifying An Unjust World

originally published October 9, 2012

Do you believe in karma?

If so, you may be more damaged than you’d thought. Or maybe you’re more healthy than others who hold no such faith in the universal balance. Or perhaps you’re exactly as mentally unstable as you deserve to be.

The Just-World Hypothesis is the belief that good and noble actions will yield good and noble results, just as evil actions will bring about nefarious consequences to their perpetrator. It’s a cognitive bias that has been studied at length, from several different angles. And while I don’t plan to study it myself, I’ll happily regurgitate the studies of others, using no scientific method and even less attention to reason.

Dr. Melvin Lerner, for whom I could not find a decent photo online and instead substituted this rather happy-looking stickman, wanted to study how purely evil regimes maintain popular support. This led to some rather disturbing conclusions about human nature.

Lerner observed that people tend to blame victims for their suffering. Even well-educated, sensible people appeared to do this. It was an internal mechanism, a bias people didn’t even realize they had. The poor have no money because they didn’t make the right career choices. The sick are sick because they refuse to take vitamins, or perhaps they licked another sick person’s face. That kid gets bullied because he insists on wearing that Rainbow Brite shirt every day.

Obviously a rational mind knows this is completely insane. Yet a rational mind can still click into this mode, looking for some kind of justification that rights the balances. A windstorm blew my Hyundai into the bay? I should have bought the Prius. A massive tree limb fell onto my greenhouse and killed my pet emu? My fault for lying about my tip money on my tax return last year. The doctor just told me I have herpes? That’s the universe paying me back for sleeping with that glassy-eyed prostitute I met near the subway tracks last weekend. Actually, that last one might be bang-on.

Researchers have examined this phenomenon in great detail, and the results are downright squirm-inducing. Believers in the just-world hypothesis, that “you reap what you sow”, are more likely to blame the victim of spousal abuse, the rapee rather than the rapist, and I just don’t buy it. There is no great karmic hand to plunk tiny little weights of misery and jubilance onto some mystical scale to bring a null net result to everyone’s life. The yin and yang symbol says nothing about the balance of the universe, though it does look great on the side of a bong.

No world in which Bernie Madoff is allowed to bilk people of their life savings for decades, while children die of starvation before they ever have the chance to steal a stick of gum can be a truly just world. Sure, maybe Madoff gets beat up in prison, maybe he’ll have an unpleasant rendezvous with a horny gang of thugs in the shower, maybe he’ll even get shivved in the yard. But is that karmic justice?

No, it just doesn’t happen. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and there’s simply nothing coming up the driveway to ring the bell and hand over a windfall. Just ask the people with real problems: a study in 1991 looked at how cross-cultural this bias can be, and found that citizens of countries in which the populace has little to no control – plebes in an authoritarian, oppressive state – are a lot less likely to believe in a just world. They live in a state of daily injustice, and they’ve learned better.

Those who do buy into the just-world hypothesis are more likely to be right-wing and possibly religious. I suppose the latter makes sense – a devout belief that the almighty will right the wrongs of the world seems to tie in with religious faith. If you believe in heaven and hell, then the assholes of the earth will get theirs someday, while the victims will be rewarded with an eternity of ping-pong, weekends and bacon.

But that’s still not a ‘just world’. That’s justice being dispensed in the next world. For those of us who plead complete ignorance and/or skepticism on the Big Questions, it’s not so easy. That said, buying into this bias might actually be healthy.

Some of the social psychology studies I’ve read (well, others have read them and distilled their gist into bite-size sentences for me) suggest that belief in the just-world hypothesis can lead to greater life satisfaction and less depression. Maybe it’s just a matter of coping with the crap of everyday life. A motivation to throw some positivity into the world with the expectation that the world will pay it back. If that’s the case, then it’s not such a bad thing.

I suppose it comes down to faith. Social scientists all over the world have dedicated volumes into researching this cognitive bias, but they’ve only looked into who believes in it, and how that belief affects one’s world-view. Nobody is actually researching whether or not the just-world hypothesis is correct, probably because there is such an overwhelming stack of evidence that it is not.

(though the Giants beating the Patriots in two Super Bowls gives me hope)

A 1988 paper posits that belief in a just world is a ‘positive illusion’, the same sort of self-talk that inspires people to think themselves more competent than they really are, or to find weaknesses in others a lot quicker than they can spot weaknesses in themselves. But the positivity may tend to end at the tips of one’s fingers.

Believing that your own personal karma earns points when you do something selfless is a positive thing, whether it’s true or not. But if your belief in justice spreads to a universal application, and if you find yourself reinterpreting the world around you to fit into that perceived justice, that’s where you’ll run into trouble. That’s where you might start blaming victims and justifying that which should not be justified.

Once you’ve given up on the idea of a universal balance sheet, then maybe your selfless acts will become truly selfless. Or, you could tumble into a state of pessimism and forsake notions of generosity and self-sacrifice because the universe will never pay you back. Well, you’re right, it probably won’t. But if that was your only reason for being good in the first place, were you really being good?

It’s like trying to avoid Santa’s naughty list. There is no list and there is no global justice. Depressing as this sounds, I think of it as good news. A testament to one’s own control over one’s destiny.

I guess that makes me a skeptical optimist? A cautious observer? I don’t know, I’ve still got my mind set on that bacon.

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