The Just-World Fallacy: There is No ‘Just’ Plan For The World

Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end. ― John Lennon

Growing up, I remember a classmate of mine had come to study in the city from his village. His parents were farmers and had their lands to tend, so they couldn’t come along. As a 14 year old, that kid stayed at a rented room, cooked his own food, cleaned his dishes, and did his daily chores. That didn’t leave enough time for him to study. I felt sorry for him. We all did. I’m sure your parents, like mine, taught you good habits as a kid: to study hard, to eat your vegetables, to always tell the truth, to be nice to people, etc. If you are anything like me, pretty sure you’ve grown up believing that hard work always pays. Deep down I believed that someday that kid would be rewarded for his hard work and struggle.

It’s common in fiction for bad guys to lose and good guys to win. This is how you would like to see the world—just and fair. What if there was no Endgame, and the Avengers movie series ended with Infinity War? Most likely you would have experienced the same feeling I experienced after I watched No Country for Old Men the first time—a stab straight through the heart.

Do you believe in karma? Then you most likely believe that one day all the good karma you are generating will lift you higher up in the social hierarchy to join the others who have what they deserve. You might subconsciously also believe that what goes around comes around, and those who do bad would have to pay their dues. This, of course, is not always true. In psychology, the tendency to believe that this is how the real world works is called The Just-World Fallacy.

The world, however, isn’t actually just; it’s immensely unjust if you think about it. Murderers, terrorists, and rapists run free. There’s rampant atrocity against the minority communities. The rich are getting richer, and people are still dying of hunger in many parts of the world. In the real world, the bill rarely comes due.

Our tendency to believe in a just world is a coping mechanism to deal with horrible distress and misfortune. It helps us build a false sense of security by believing that misfortune befalls upon those who ‘deserve’ it. So you inherently assume that as long as you avoid bad behaviour, you won’t be harmed, and all your good deeds would be rewarded. Because otherwise, what would keep you going forward?

Also, we aren’t big fans of ambiguity, and the statement, “Terrible things happen to people completely at random,” doesn’t really sit right with us. It’s an admission that the universe doesn’t really give a damn about us, and that grave fate could befall us at no fault of ours, and for no good reason at all. That’s a very uncomfortable psychological state to live with, and hence we dispel it by forcibly rationalising what we see. In turn, we blame the victims. When somebody is bullied, “Why didn’t she stand up for herself?” When somebody is robbed, “Why did he wander into that neighbourhood so late in the night?” And when somebody is raped, “Why was she wearing such revealing clothes?”

In the 1960, psychologist Melvin J. Lerner conducted a series of experiments in which people who were being rewarded cash prizes at random for solving puzzles were somehow seen to be smarter than others, although it was publicly announced that the prizes had nothing to do with their puzzle solving skills, and were completely random. In other experiments, a person whose car caused more damage in a car accident was seen to have been more responsible for it than the others involved.

In another of Lerner’s study, a woman was asked to solve problems, and got electric shocks whenever she messed up. When asked, many of the observers, all women, devalued her, and berated her character, and said she ‘deserves’ the electric shocks. The woman, however, was only pretending—there were no real shocks.

Giant amount of research has been done since Lerner’s studies, and most psychologists have come to the same conclusion: People want the world to be fair, so they pretend it is.

Theists from all religions usually believe in some kind of higher power or divine providence. Getting fired from a job, being diagnosed with brain tumour, experiencing the death of a child, or the betrayal of a lover can be tragic, but in the grand scheme of things they are bound to make some kind of sense, and it’s not for me to understand how it all fits together in my life’s narrative, the thinking goes. I’m only being tested, and everything will be OK eventually if I believe in the plan, and stay true to it.

Here’s the truth: there is no just plan for the world. In fact, there’s no plan at all. The world is fundamentally amoral, and doesn’t care about your misfortune, or hard work, or treachery. You are very likely to have a far better life if you simply accept the amorality of the world as a fact, and cope with it accordingly. In doing so you’ll spare yourself a lot of sorrow and disappointment along the way. Accept unhappiness and misfortune with stoicism. Treat incredible success and strokes of luck exactly the same. The world isn’t really out to get you, but nobody is out there to save you either.

I’m not trying to discourage you. I’m just telling you that you won’t be rewarded just because you worked hard, or just because you said the truth. You gotta be smarter than that. You have to use your wit and wisdom, and make the right choices. More than that, you have to take responsibility for yourself. You have to build a latticework of mental models to make the right decisions, and you have to learn to avoid and exploit cognitive biases—to avoid irrational decisions and also to be persuasive, if you want to live a successful life.

You are the builder of your life’s estate, and only you can make it stand tall.

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