You arrive home late one evening to find a police car and ambulance outside the neighbour's home, the blue and red lights illuminating the street.
Your other neighbours are lining the street, gossiping about what's happened. Jill approaches and explains what happened. Bob and Sarah shouting at one another, about money. You could hear plates smashing; Bob was livid. We think he hit her.
Well, you think to yourself, Sarah is a bit of a handful, always complaining - she had it coming to her.
Congratulations! You've fallen victim to the just-world fallacy!
There is no place where the just-world fallacy is more prevalent than in Hollywood. In almost all films, the good protagonist struggles against an evil villain. The protagonist always prevails, and the villain is brought to justice.
However, there are exceptions. A Game of Thrones is renowned for killing off the main characters, to which the author George R. R. Martin said the following:
Once you’ve accepted that you have to include death then you should be honest about death and indicate it can strike down anybody at any time. You don’t get to live forever just because you are a cute kid or the hero’s best friend or the hero. Sometimes the hero dies, at least in my books.
The surprise in killing off the main characters plays with the audiences belief that good characters deserve to live, in our belief in a just-world.
Rape is a horrific crime, and victims can take years to recover from the trauma. In spite of this, when some learn of a rape, they often blame the victim, saying the clothes they were wearing invited the attacker, or that they shouldn't have drunk so much.
This is another example of the just-world fallacy: the rape victim must have deserved it, otherwise it wouldn't happen.
This has been shown in research by Linda Carli and her colleagues:
Researchers gave two groups of subjects a narrative about interactions between a man and a woman. The description of the interaction was the same until the end; one group received a narrative that had a neutral ending and the other group received a narrative that ended with the man raping the woman. Subjects judged the rape ending as inevitable and blamed the woman in the narrative for the rape on the basis of her behavior, but not her characteristics.
What can we do about it?
Sadly we live in an unfair world where good people go unrewarded and bad people have a lot of fortune and success.
When you judge someone, try to consider the circumstances that got them where they are. Also, try to imagine yourself in their shoes. Would their fate be justified if it were your own?
Other posts in the series:
- The lies we tell ourselves - the cheerleader effect
- The lies we tell ourselves - the hindsight bias
- The lies we tell ourselves - authority bias
- The lies we tell ourselves - the halo effect
- The lies we tell ourselves - the gambler's fallacy
- The lies we tell ourselves - the sunk cost fallacy
- The lies we tell ourselves - the framing effect
- The lies we tell ourselves - cognitive dissonance
- The lies we tell ourselves - confirmation bias