What Is the Just-World Phenomenon?

The scales of justice
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The just-world phenomenon refers to 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 by blaming the victim.

No one likes to believe that bad things can happen to good people. So when people do fall victim to misfortune, we tend to look for things that might explain their circumstances.

Rather than attributing a bad turn of events to rotten luck or simple happenstance, we tend to look at the individual's behavior as a source of blame. If we can explain away the event as a consequence for bad behavior, then we are able to go on believing that the world is a fair and just place. 

Those with this belief tend to think that when bad things happen to people, it is because these individuals are bad people or have done something to deserve their misfortune. 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.

Examples of the Just-World Phenomenon

The classic example of this tendency is found in the Book of Job. 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.

The just-world phenomenon has also been demonstrated in research settings as well. In one famous study, two stories about an interaction between a man and woman was described to participants. Both stories were identical in every way except for the final outcome. In one version of the story the woman is raped, while in the other version the man proposes marriage.

So how did participants explain the outcome? In both versions of the story, participants directly linked the two drastically different outcomes to the woman's actions. This illustrates how people tend to look for behavioral explanations for events. Rather than attributing the woman's fate to outside forces, to other actors, or even to chance, they instead focus on finding ways to blame her for the events that follow.

Explanations for the Just-World Phenomenon

There are a few different explanations that have been proposed to explain the just-world phenomenon.

Fear of Facing Vulnerability 

First is the idea that people have a need to believe in their own invulnerability. For example, 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 will blame the event on the victim's behavior.

Why are people so prone to blaming people for events that are often out of their direct control? By doing this, people can go on believing that they will never be the victim of such a crime because they will simply avoid these behaviors, or believe that they will avoid such behaviors. Bad things happen to other people because those people were weak, made mistakes, had poor judgement, or were just outright bad people, at least in our own minds.


It Allows Us 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.

Are There Any Benefits to 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 for their misfortunes, people fail to see how the situation and other variables contributed to another person's misfortunes. Instead of expressing empathy for the downtrodden, the just-world phenomenon sometimes causes people to experience disinterest or even scorn for troubled individuals. It 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.

Also Known As:

Just-world theory, just-world hypothesis, just-world fallacy, or just-world effect.


Carli, L. L. Cognitive reconstruction, hindsight, and reactions to victims and perpetrators. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 1999; 25: 966-979.

Lerner, M. J. & Miller, D. T. Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin. 1977; 85: 1030-1051.

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