What Is the Just-World Phenomenon?

Why we blame victims in order to rationalize why bad things happen

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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. 

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

Just-World Theory 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 have an automatic tendency to look for something or someone to blame for unfortunate events. But rather than simply attributing a bad turn of events to bad luck, people tend to look at the individual's behavior as a source of blame.

Conversely, this belief also leads people to think that when good things happen to people it is because those individuals are good and deserving of their happy fortune. Because of this, 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 and at one point his former friend suggests that Job must have done something terrible to have deserved his misfortunes.

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 victims own behavior that caused the assault. 

Explanations for the Just-World Phenomenon

So why does the just-world phenomenon happen? There are a few different explanations that have been proposed to explain it:

  • The fear of facing vulnerability. People do not like to think about themselves 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 on the victim's behavior. This allows people to believe they can avoid being victims of crime just by avoiding past victims' 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 World 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. Instead of expressing empathy, the just-world phenomenon sometimes causes people to be disinterested or even scorn troubled individuals.

A Word From Verywell

The just world phenomenon might explain why people sometimes fail to help or feel compassion for the homeless, for addicts, or for 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.

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