Living in a Social World
Psy 324: Advanced Social Psychology
Spring, 1998

Interpersonal Aspects of the Just World Hypothesis
Julie Bollmer

"The relationship between goodness and happiness, between wickedness and punishment is so strong that given one of these conditions, the other is frequently assumed. Misfortune, sickness, accident are often taken as signs of badness and guilt. If one is unfortunate, then he has committed a sin." (Heider, 1958, p.235).

    This section will focus on the impact that the just world hypothesis can have on our relationships with other people. How we see the world around us can affect how we react to certain situations and events, and consequently how we relate to the people that we encounter. More specifically, whether or not an individual believes that the world is a safe, just place can affect that person’s interpretation of an event, and therefore, impact how that individual relates to the people involved. One area that seems particularly relevant to the just world hypothesis and interpersonal relationships is that of victimization, and more specifically, the victims of rape.

nosafe.jpg (4311 bytes)    Even though rape is a prevalent crime in our society today, as more than 787,000 women were raped or sexually assaulted in the last two years alone, many rapes still go unreported. This could be, in part, due to the phenomenon of "victim blaming" becoming so common in our society. As the quote at the beginning of this section suggests, individuals who have become the victims of misfortune are often judged by outside observers as being responsible for their own fate. Past research indicates (Lerner and Miller, 1978; Kleinke and Meyer, 1990; Kopper, 1996) that victims of rape, like other victims, are often blamed by others for their misfortune. Research has shown that the phenomenon of blaming rape victims is related in part to rape myth acceptance (Burt, 1980; Kopper, 1996) and a belief in a just world (Lerner and Miller, 1978; Kleinke and Meyer, 1996). [photo courtesy of No Safe Place and PBS]

    Individuals that have a strong belief in a just world can have this belief challenged when they encounter a victim of random misfortune such as a rape victim. The individual wants to believe that the world is a safe, just place where people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. Even when evidence suggests otherwise, the individual is very reluctant to give up this belief that the world is not just. In the face of contradicting evidence, research suggests (Kleinke and Meyer, 1996) that people with a high belief in a just world will do one of two things: either they will try to eliminate the suffering of the innocent victims or else they will derogate them for their fate. Since it is impossible to reverse the crime of rape, and thus relieve the victim of her suffering, the rape victim is often subjected to derogation and blame. In this manner, the person who believes in a just world can maintain this belief as there is no longer a suffering person, but a woman who deserves her misfortune. The individual may blame the victim on any number of dimensions including her clothing (i.e. revealing blouse, short skirt, etc.), her behavior, (i.e. drinking, flirting, etc.) or her personality (i.e. she is a liar, she wanted attention, etc.). Many of these attributions are supported and perpetuated by the acceptance of cultural rape myths by our society (Burt, 1980). In this manner, the person who believes in a just world can sufficiently maintain the belief in a culturally acceptable way as, in the eyes of our society, there is no longer an innocent victim, but a woman who is deserving of her fate.

    It must be noted, however, that belief in a just world does not always mean derogation and blaming of the victim. Lerner and Miller (1978) suggest that at least three factors must be present in order for a victim to be derogated by an outsider. First, the authors argue that the victim must be seen as an innocent victim in order for derogation to occur. If victims can easily be seen as responsible for causing their suffering, then there is no need to derogate them because there is no violation of the just world hypothesis. The victim acted in a manner that brought about the resulting fate and this is in line with what a belief in a just world emphasizes: people get what they deserve. On the other hand, an innocent victim, one who can not be readily blamed for the resulting fate, violates the belief in a just world and is subjected to derogation.

    The authors argue that a second factor that can affect the derogation of a victim by someone who believes in a just world is the attractiveness or status of the victim. Their research suggests that victims who are highly attractive or that enjoy a particularly high status are derogated less than less attractive or lower status victims. A possible explanation for this discrepancy is empathy felt for the victim. The observer’s attention is focused on what external factors could have caused the event to occur instead of the victim’s characteristics. In this case, there is no need to derogate or blame the victim.

    Finally, the authors argue that belief in a just world will not lead tocandle2.jpg (5031 bytes) victim derogation when the observer sees some similarities with the victim. For example, Kleinke and Meyer (1990) found that women, regardless of their belief in a just world, tend not to blame or derogate victims of rape. Men’s belief in a just world, however, is strongly correlated with victim derogation. The explanation given for these gender differences is that women feel that they have similarities with the rape victim just by being women. The women concentrate more on the external forces that brought about the rape because these are the same forces that could cause the event to happen to female observers. The women empathize with the female victim and do not derogate her regardless of their belief in a just world. Men, on the other hand, have a harder time placing themselves in the victim’s situation, resulting in a lack of empathy for the victim. As a result, the male’s belief in a just world is a good prediction of whether or not the victim will be blamed or derogated. [graphic courtesy of Canadian Women's Internet Association]

    In conclusion, the just world hypothesis asserts that a world is a safe, just place where people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. This belief can affect our interpersonal relationships as a belief in a just world can be challenged by innocent victims or people who do not seem to deserve their misfortune. When an observer’s beliefs are contradicted, the belief in a just world can be restored by derogating the "innocent" victim. Placing the blame on victims makes it seem as though the victims are getting what they deserve, and that the world is a just place after all.

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    Burt, M. (1980). Cultural myths and supports for rape. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(2), 217-230.

    Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley.

    Kleinke, C. L., & Meyer. C. (1990). Evaluation of rape victim by men and women with high and low belief in a just world. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 14, 343-353.

    Kopper, B. A. (1996). Gender, gender identity, rape myth acceptance, and time of initial resistance on the perception of acquaintance rape blame and avoidability. Sex Roles, 34, 81-93.

    Lerner, M. J., & Miller, D. T. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin, 85, 1030-1051.

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Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA). Last revised: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 17:42:42 . This document has been accessed 1 times since 1 Jan 1998. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman