What Is the Just-World Phenomenon?

Blaming victims to rationalize why bad things happen

A figure of lady justice holding up scales

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In psychology, the just-world phenomenon is the tendency to believe that the world is just and that people get what they deserve. Because people want to believe that the world is fair, they will look for ways to explain or rationalize away injustice, often blaming the person in a situation who is actually the victim.

Melvin J. Lerner proposed the just-world theory (also called the just-world hypothesis) in the 1960s. He noticed that people often thought of the world as fair and just in order to make sense of or cope with various injustices.

The just-world phenomenon helps explain why people sometimes blame victims for their own misfortune, even in situations where people have no control over the events that befall them.

Just-World Phenomenon and Victim-Blaming

The just-world theory posits that when people do fall victim to misfortune, others tend to look for things that might explain their circumstances. In other words, people tend to look for something or someone to blame for unfortunate events.

But rather than simply attributing a bad turn of events to bad luck or forces beyond someone's control, people tend to look at the individual's behavior as a source of blame.

This belief also leads people to think that when good things happen to people it is because they are good and deserving of their happy fortune. People who are extremely fortunate are often seen as more deserving of their good luck.

Rather than attributing their success to luck or circumstance, people tend to ascribe their fortune to intrinsic characteristics of the individual. These people are often seen as being more intelligent and hard-working than less fortunate people.

Examples of the Just-World Phenomenon

The classic example of this tendency is found in the book of Job in the Bible. In the text, Job suffers a series of terrible calamities. At one point, his former friend suggests that Job must have done something terrible to have deserved his misfortunes. Research has shown a strong link between the just-world viewpoint and religiosity.

More modern examples of the just-world phenomenon can be seen in many places. Victims of sexual assault are often blamed for their attack, as others suggest that it was the victim's own behavior that caused the assault. 

Another example of the just-world phenomenon is when people blame the victims of hate crimes. For instance, in cases of police violence against Black individuals, some say there are just "a few bad apples" in the police force. But this denies the reality of the victim's experience and the role systemic racism plays in the violence.

The just-world phenomenon is also apparent in discrimination and moral judgment against people with HIV or AIDS. Some people believe that those living with HIV or AIDS do not deserve access to high-quality healthcare, for instance, because they are "to blame" for their illness.

People living in poverty often face prejudice and are blamed for their circumstances. If the world is fair, people living without adequate resources are simply not doing something right. But this outlook ignores the factors that contribute to poverty, including economic inequalities, lack of access to resources, and the effects of trauma and racism.

Explanations of the Just-World Phenomenon

So, why do people use the just-world phenomenon? There are a few different explanations that have been proposed for it:

  • The fear of facing vulnerability: People do not like to think about being the victims of a violent crime. So when they hear about an event such as an assault or a rape, they may try to assign blame for the event to the victim's behavior. This allows people to believe they can avoid being victims of crime by these behaviors. 
  • A desire to minimize anxiety: Another possible explanation for the just-world phenomenon is that people want to reduce the anxiety that is caused by the world's injustices. Believing that the individual is completely responsible for their misfortune, people are able to go on believing that the world is fair and just.

Pros and Cons of the Just-Word Phenomenon

The just-world phenomenon does have some benefits. Like other types of cognitive bias, this phenomenon protects self-esteem, helps control fear, and allows people to remain optimistic about the world.

Obviously, this tendency also has some major downsides. By blaming victims, people fail to see how the situation and other variables contributed to another person's misfortunes.

Additionally, research has shown a link between belief in the just-world theory and dishonest behavior. Instead of expressing empathy, the just-world phenomenon sometimes causes people to be disinterested or even scorn troubled individuals.

How to Avoid the Just-World Phenomenon

While it's beneficial to be optimistic about the world around you, there are times when the just-world phenomenon might prevent you from seeing reality. These are some tips to help avoid the just-world phenomenon:

Practice Empathy

Instead of stewing in anger or irritation about someone else's situation, try having compassion for what they're going through. Understanding others' emotions may actually lower your own stress levels as well.

Avoid Victim-Blaming

Victim-blaming is something many of us do without realizing it. But remember, only the perpetrator of a crime is responsible for their actions. There are also many external factors that contribute to homelessness and poverty, for instance. Don't assume you know why negative things happen to someone.

Learn About Social Injustice

By educating yourself on social inequalities, you'll find that people are subjected to harsh realities every day. Our biases and prejudices can keep us from seeing the truth. When you find yourself judging someone's situation, ask yourself if your outlook is affected by racism, sexism, ageism, or discrimination of any kind.

Consider the Source

When you hear a story on the news, asking yourself some of the following questions can shift your perspective: Whose story is being told? Am I hearing more than one perspective or only one person's viewpoints? Is it possible I'm not hearing the full story or all of the details?

Explore Your Emotions

Underneath your judgment of someone else's circumstance, you might find fear and anxiety because you worry that what happened to them can happen to you, too. Process your emotions and be gentle with yourself.

It isn't easy to face the fact that the world can be an unfair place. But by doing so, you'll be able to show more kindness to others and even to yourself when negative things happen.

A Word From Verywell

The just world phenomenon might explain why people sometimes fail to help or feel compassion for people who are unhoused, people experiencing addiction, or victims of violence. By blaming them for their own misfortunes, people protect their view of the world as a safe and fair place, but at a significant cost to those in need.

This cognitive bias can be difficult to overcome, but being aware of it can help. When making attributions, focus on looking at all elements of the situation. This includes accounting for a person's behavior as well as things such as environmental factors, societal pressures, and cultural expectations.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."