The Causes of Human Rights Violations (32): The Just World Fallacy

Here’s another psychological bias that causes human rights violations to persist: the just world fallacy.

It seems that we want to believe that the world is fundamentally just. This strong desire causes us to rationalize injustices that we can’t otherwise explain: for example, we look for things that the victim might have done to deserve the injustice. The culture of poverty is a prime example, as is the “she asked for it” explanation of rape. This fallacy or bias is obviously detrimental to the struggle against human rights violations, since it obscures the real causes of those violations. The belief in a just world makes it difficult to make the world more just.

And even if its effect on human rights was neutral or positive, the fallacy would be detrimental in other ways: it doesn’t help our understanding of the world to deny that many of those who are lucky and who are treated justly haven’t done anything to deserve it, or that many of those who inflict injustices get away with it. The prevalence of the fallacy can be observed in popular culture, in which the villain always gets what he or she deserves; the implication is that those who “get” something, also deserve it.

Psychologists have come up with different possible explanations of the just world fallacy. It may be a way of protecting ourselves: if injustices are generally the responsibility of the victims themselves, then we may be safe as long as we avoid making the mistakes they made. The bias lessens our vulnerability, or better our feeling of vulnerability, and therefore makes us feel better. Another explanation focuses of the anxiety and alienation that comes with the realization that we live in a world rife with unexplained, unexplainable and unsolvable injustices. The fallacy is then akin to religious teachings about the afterlife, which are sometimes viewed as mechanisms for coping with the anxiety and alienation caused by mortality. Melvin Lerner explains the just world fallacy as a form of cognitive dissonance:

the sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character. (source)

All this argues against making desert central to our theories of justice: if desert is difficult to determine because there are biases involved, then surely desert can’t be a good basis of a theory of justice.

An interesting aside: it seems that the opposite bias also exists. The so-called “mean world syndrome” is a term coined by George Gerbner to describe a phenomenon whereby violent content of mass media makes viewers believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Indeed, perceptions of violence and criminality often do not correspond to real levels. People who consume a large amount of violent media or who often read the crime sections of sensationalist newspapers tend to overestimate the prevalence of violence and crime.

More on the possible causes of rights violations here.


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