“Consistency theories all assume that human beings have a fundamental need to find meaning and order in life’s experiences. Psychologist Melvin J. Lerner adds that we need to believe in a just world, one in which people get what they deserve, good is rewarded, the sinful punished. The Belief in a Just World, he argues, is a ‘fundamental delusion’ that is central to the way we organize experience, making sense out of confusion, justice out of cruelty and unfairness, and orderliness out of random events. And it protects the legitimacy of the established order.
In a just world, innocent women are not raped. Women who are raped, therefore, must have ‘invited it’ — by being seductive, or perhaps by merely being.
Similarly, many vehement antiabortionists cannot accept the statistics of rape, incest, poverty, contraceptive ignorance, woman battering, preferring to believe that it is only immoral women who have abortions…women are not the only objects of rationalizing denigration. The poor bring their suffering on themselves…because they are lazy, conniving, drunk, and violent.”
– Carol Tavris, Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion
It’s no coincidence that a certain kind of story is the most popular: One in which we know who the hero and the villain are from the very beginning. And while there may be an epic clash (and a lot of twists and turns in the plots on the way there), everything is ultimately brought to a tidily happy ending. Happy in this case means that the wicked are punished and the good are rewarded.
Such stores are just. Fair. The way it should be. Right?
I suppose the popularity of those stories that could be harmless enough, if we only hungered for these tidy fictions and never mistook them for reality. The way life is.
The trouble is that many of us do.
While having a high Belief in a Just World has a number of downsides, including a propensity to victim blame and believe that people who are down and out must have done something to deserve that fate (instead of blaming the person who victimizes others or understanding that people can be in tough circumstances simply due to having been unlucky), one would hope — even expect that there might be some benefit to it.
Perhaps a person with a high Belief in a Just World would simultaneously be quite honest in their actions and dealings with other. After all, there are consequences to immoral behavior, right? People generally agree that behaving dishonestly is immoral. And for the most part, people prefer that good things happen in their life. So you’d think that someone with such an outlook would strive to be honest with others.
In fact, recent research has demonstrated the opposite: People with a high Belief in a Just World also were linked with more dishonest behavior.
Well, that’s hypocritcal.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.