Greater State: The Just-World Theory Paradox


A version of this story ran in the May 2015 issue.

Above: Protesters for the DREAM act demonstrated during President Obama's visit to Austin on May 10, 2011.

Soon after last year’s elections my cousin and I tangled over his voting preferences after he invoked buzzwords such as “small government” and “low taxes.” I responded by listing the examples of our family’s connections to “big government”: a G.I. Bill here, a government job there, a teacher drawing her paycheck from the state’s coffers. For good measure, I reminded him that public education spending paved his way and mine from hide-and-seek to Hook ’em Horns.

Regardless of the caliber of their logic or the capacity people have to cite government reports and statistics, there is a certain futility to these types of arguments. Sooner or later, they hit the bedrock of a deeper belief, vaguely defined but often essential to forming our political opinions—a belief in a just world.

In the 1960s, psychologist Melvin Lerner developed the “just-world theory” to describe the tendency for people to believe that the world is an inherently fair place. He found that most people, presented with an injustice, try to correct it. Simple enough. But, through a series of experiments, Lerner discovered that when people are helpless to resolve the situation, they rationalize the injustice and blame the victim.

Lerner found that people would rather hold onto their belief that the world is fair than accept the idea that harm had fallen on the undeserving. We hear it all the time: “It happened for a reason” or “They must have done something.” But one of life’s painful lessons is that life isn’t fair. Bad people get ahead. Good people lose jobs, their money. The least qualified is promoted.

My cousin and I weren’t simply debating candidates. We were clashing over perceptions of the world. If people see the world as just, according to a study published in Policy Studies Journal last year, they are less likely to support government programs and are more likely to oppose affirmative action. After all, they believe, the deserving will be rewarded.

In truth, the playing field is unfair, and it’s getting worse with growing inequality and shrinking social mobility.

In truth, the playing field is unfair, and it’s getting worse with growing inequality and shrinking social mobility. Indeed, rich kids who drop out of school stay rich, while low-income kids who go to college stay in roughly the same economic class, according to a 2014 report presented at a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston conference.

My cousin knows life is unfair too, but remember, we cling to the illusion of a just world to cope with seemingly insurmountable challenges. As a result, academic researchers over the past decades have found that people with a deeply held faith in a just world lean toward conservatism and authoritarianism and have little sympathy for people of color, the marginalized and ill. “Ironically, then, the belief in a just world may take the place of a genuine commitment to justice,” according to a 1990 article in Issues in Ethics. “For some people, it is simply easier to assume that forces beyond their control mete out justice.”

The news is filled with examples of politicians needlessly pitting people against each other. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has argued for the repeal of the Texas Dream Act, which grants in-state tuition rates to undocumented students. To make his case, according to The Daily Texan, he concocted a scenario in which a Dreamer and the child of a Mexican-American veteran in Oklahoma were vying for the same admission slot. Never mind that denying the undocumented student in-state tuition won’t reduce the Okie’s out-of-state rate. Patrick’s argument represents an attempt to reframe his effort to institutionalize injustice by forcing us to choose who is more deserving.

But a just world is born from decisions, not simple belief.

Most insidiously, such beliefs confuse privilege with merit. I recently congratulated a friend on the purchase of a new house by complimenting her business savvy, but she was quick to correct me. It was my privilege, she said. An inheritance, a family loan, those were critical. By recognizing that privilege had smoothed the road, she had a more accurate picture of herself; but more important, she acknowledged that others struggle without the same advantages. That’s why government programs exist to help people buy their first home, to help working-class students get through college, or to prevent foreclosure due to illness or joblessness.

Most people want a just world. Experiments aren’t necessary to know that good-hearted people do their part to make things right. But a just world is born from decisions, not simple belief. Creating that world remains a noble endeavor that reflects our highest ideals, and we are anything but helpless.