The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Assuming a just world

In the 1960’s Melvin J. Lerner conducted seminal work on the belief in a just world.

He was curious to understand how people come to accept social norms and laws even when they produce misery and suffering. What struck him, for example, was how people he knew to be kindhearted would still blame victims for their suffering. This included how, despite existing structural forces, people blamed the poor for being poor. Today this appears for example in the way racial injustice can still be denied. His efforts to understand the processes lead to the now accepted “just world hypothesis” social psychologists talk about.

The belief in a just world is deeply ingrained in most cultures and shows in sayings we’ll easily be using. Take for example “you reap what you saw” or “what goes around comes around” which exist in many languages.

The impact of having such beliefs in our culture is that they seem to be truths to us. They seem to be rules of life we can trust.

And in this case, it is a rule that builds on something we know to be true in many situations. Reciprocity exists and contributes to confirming such a belief. With rules as they are to us, we’ll trust them and leave them aside in situations in which they don’t apply. Anything else would challenge our worldview or require us to investigate and learn that there can be different truths.

The idea of a just world is particularly important to people for whom the sense of being in control is important. That’s almost everyone.

Once we believe that our actions will be rewarded with justice, acting even in a situation in which there is no immediate guarantee that things will work out is eased. It helps to know that something that feels wrong now may one day be resolved, that is when justice is back.

There are many reasons to continue believing in the existence of justice.

However, it helps to remember that there is no guarantee that there always is a cause-and-effect relationship leaning towards justice. Sometimes it’s luck or its absence.


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