Broadening the Frame by Matt Carlson

D. A Just World?

Specific conservative positions may reflect a characteristic feature of conservative psychology, one that is perhaps obscured in Haidt’s typology of moral foundations. This is the notion of a “just world,” the view that the world is fundamentally orderly, predictable, and just, such that people receive their “just deserts,” and one’s fate corresponds closely to one’s merit. The Just World hypothesis was initially tested in a series of experiments conducted by social psychologist Michael Lerner. In a 1965 study[1], for example, Lerner presented subjects with two individuals engaged in an anagrams task. Told that one individual was randomly selected to receive a large cash prize for his efforts, while the other would receive nothing, subjects tended to believe that the individual who received the prize had worked harder than the other and thus, in effect, earned his prize. In another study the following year, Lerner and a colleague presented 72 female undergraduates with a video of a “learning” experiment in which a “participant” appeared to be subjected to electric shocks as punishment for incorrect responses to questions. Although subjects initially sympathized with the victim, as the experiment preceded, and the shocks became more severe, they increasingly derogated (formed a lower opinion of) the participant. In one condition (the “martyr” condition), in which subjects were told that the participant volunteered to undergo the shocks for the subjects’ benefit (so that they could “satisfy a course requirement to participate in an experiment”), subjects judged the participant still more harshly.[2] By contrast, when subjects were told that the participant would be paid for participating in the study (the “reward” condition), they did not judge the participant more harshly than in the initial condition.

According to the Just World hypothesis, if one cannot stop the punishment of a blameless individual, and the world is just, then something must give: either the individual must not be blameless, or the world must not be just. And since the assumption that the world is just is incontrovertible, if an individual is being victimized, it’s one’s view of the victim and not of the world that must change. With respect to the “martyr” condition, as Lerner and Simmons observe, “the suffering of someone who has acted out of altruistic motives should be most threatening to the belief in a just world.” As the victim in this case is not merely innocent but altruistic, an even larger cognitive adjustment—all, of course, at the expense of the altruist—should be required. And that is what is found. On the other hand, if an individual is compensated for one’s suffering, as in the “reward” condition, the world retains its “justness” without the need to adjust one’s assessment of the victim.

Belief in a just world, Lerner argues, is useful to human beings because, to plan and achieve goals, we must assume that our actions have predictable consequences. If we instead believed that events were random or that the world is capricious, we may be less inclined to engage in goal-directed behavior. Additionally, Lerner argues that belief in a just world may enhance our ability to delay gratification, since, if the world is just, one can be confident that one’s good efforts will eventually be rewarded. This is a useful capacity in a complex world in which benefits are often realized via roundabout means—through, for example, long-term investments in education.

Subsequent studies by other researchers have also found a “blaming-the-victim” tendency among observers in cases of violence, illness, and poverty. Janoff-Bulman, Timko & Carli (1985)[3] presented two groups of subjects with identical narratives of an interaction between a man and a woman, except that in one condition the outcome was neutral, whereas in the other, the woman was raped. Subjects presented with the rape scenario were significantly more likely than subjects presented with the neutral scenario to view the outcome as inevitable and as attributable to the woman’s behavior. Additionally, when subjects presented with the rape scenario were told how a neutral outcome could have just as easily resulted under the same circumstances, subjects continued to blame the woman for the rape.

Of course, the “world”—the natural and material environment we confront throughout life—is neither “just” nor “unjust.” Justness is a moral characteristic of actions by willful agents. Hence, belief in a “just world,” as Lerner contends, is delusional. What is true is that, given certain life circumstances, we can act in ways—get good grades, attend college, buy health insurance, save for retirement, avoid risky behaviors, etc.—that tend, statistically, to yield benefits. All bets are off, however, if one should lose one’s job through no fault of one’s own, inherit a genetic predisposition for a fatal disease or for schizophrenia, or be a faultless victim of an accident. Casual observation confirms that people may be both astonishingly lucky (as are many of us in economically advanced countries, with historically unprecedented standards of living) and savagely victimized by forces beyond their control, as with a Jew in Nazi Germany, an inhabitant of a region beset by famine, a native American stricken with measles during the European expansion in North America, or a mother of a child taken out to sea by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Also, discrepancies between merit and fate are ubiquitous: while some of the most selfless and courageous individuals have met with assassination (think of labor leaders in Colombia and El Salvador), genocidal monsters have lived comfortably to old age (Pol Pot died in his sleep at age 72).

Using a “Just World Scale,” based on a 20-item set of statements to which subjects indicate degree of agreement or disagreement, Rubin and Peplau (1975) found that individuals who score high on belief in a just world (“high JWs”) are, as summarized by Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez[4], “more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups” than those who score low on this scale (“low JWs”). Their samples of undergraduates were roughly evenly split around the midpoint of their six-point scale, so that about half were classified as accepting the notion of a just world, and about half were classified as rejecting it. Rubin and Peplau’s data, like Haidt’s, thus suggest that people tend to divide into two groups that roughly correspond to right and left on the political spectrum.

A notable exception to the “blaming-the-victim” tendencies of just-world believers occurs when the sufferings of victims are clearly caused not by the “world” but by identifiable individuals within the world, as in cases of bullying. Researchers have found that individuals with strong just-world beliefs exhibit stronger anti-bullying attitudes than people lacking such beliefs. It is not difficult to fit this behavior to the just world framework: the “world” is just; it’s just that people within the world are sometimes unjust; and in such cases, order must be maintained. The element of an active, identifiable agent causing the injustice appears to be the pivotal variable.

How does a conservative penchant for free-market advocacy fit into the just world framework? Quite easily. The economy is an abstract agent-less setting (tantamount to the “world”). The ideology of the invisible hand, the idea that unfettered free markets produce the best possible outcomes for everyone, is ingrained in American culture and is a basic assumption of American conservatism. The “world” thus appears to be inherently just. Identifiable agents within the world, by contrast, may be “bad” or “unjust.”

While conservatism has existed for centuries, the virulent anti-government animus of recent American political conservatism is relatively new. Why this turn against an authority that has traditionally been a focus of respect for conservatives? One possibility is that the anti-government rhetoric of Republican politicians of recent decades has brought the government as an agentive force (like a bully in a bullying scenario) within the frame of reference of just-world believers. Thus, when bad things happen, just-world believers (conservatives) see, or think they see, the hand of the government in the malevolence. After all, they are repeatedly told that the government is the source of most of our problems. Additionally, a key element may be that the government is composed of identifiable people, in particular (at the moment), a president of the opposing party.

It would seem to be this that explains why the ideal of “small government” has such a hold on the American electorate. If the government by its nature does bad or incompetent things, as we’re constantly told it does, the best way to curb the mischief is to neuter it to the extent possible, i.e., make it “small.”

The “economy,” by contrast, is nebulous. It is, in effect, the “world,” one that we’re repeatedly told produces the best results for everyone, provided, of course, the government doesn’t interfere with it. The just-world hypothesis helps explain the attractiveness of the notion of the invisible hand—how a concept that has a certain appropriateness when applied to a free-market economy may be transmogrified into a fundamental assumption about the nature of the world.

Moral foundations theory versus the just-world hypothesis

Could the liberal-conservative divide derive not from how strongly people are pulled by discrete moral intuitions, as in Haidt’s moral foundations theory, but from an overarching metaphysical assumption about the nature of reality, i.e., one’s belief or lack thereof in a just world? After all, each of Haidt’s moral foundations (with the possible exception of loyalty) seems explainable within the just-world framework. Just-world believers are religious and authoritarian and thus would plausibly score high on sanctity/degradation and authority/subversion, as do conservatives. Non-just-world believers sympathize with victims of circumstance and hence seem likely to score high on care/harm, as do liberals. Both conservatives and liberals care about fairness but differ on the perceived agent of unfairness—personal forces in the case of conservatives, impersonal forces in the case of liberals.

The just-world hypothesis thus appears to be a more parsimonious way of understanding the conservative-liberal divide than Haidt’s moral foundations theory. It uses a single scale to predict numerous psychological dispositions, including one’s degree of conservatism or liberalism. Haidt’s moral foundations theory, by contrast, uses six independent psychological dispositions to predict one’s degree of conservatism or liberalism. And for Haidt’s theory to make successful predictions, these dispositions must align in certain patterns—that is, the moral foundations one uses in forming moral judgments must follow something like the prototypical liberal or conservative pattern. If one should score high on care/harm, low on fairness/cheating, high on loyalty/betrayal, low on authority/subversion, and high on sanctity/degradation, there’s no telling what one’s political stripes may be.

However, the fact is that people do fall into the patterns observed in Haidt’s data. That is, highly conservative people tend to be loyal, authoritarian, and religious, while highly liberal people tend to be empathetic and fair (in the liberal sense). Thus, Haidt’s work ferrets out types of moral intuitions that correlate with political orientations. Haidt’s theoretical explanation of his data is that each of the six moral foundations is independently derived (each has its own adaptive reasons for being), and some people happen to manifest the more “liberal” foundations in greater degree, while others happen to manifest the more “conservative” moral foundations in greater degree. As noted above, I suspect that the pattern is too dichotomous to be underlay by six factors. More likely, I suspect, two fundamental factors pull people in opposing directions. These moral intuitions then compel people to adopt a “stance,” an ideological identity that enables them to make sense of the world and provides a sense of group affiliation.

It is arguable that Haidt’s moral foundations theory captures a basic fact about moral judgments that the just-world hypothesis neglects. This is that moral judgments are typically intuitive, visceral responses to stimuli, not products of deliberation and certainly not likely to be derived from an overarching metaphysical assumption about the nature of reality. In the just-world experiments, subjects are not asked to reflect on their worldviews and then, in light of their reflections, assess whether a victim is culpable in his or her own suffering. Rather, they are simply asked to assess the culpability of a victim. The just-world experiments thus document intuitive responses to situations, responses that are then rationalized, ex post, as reflective of just-world beliefs. Although, when probed, people who exhibit victim-blaming tendencies express “just world” attitudes[5], these responses are evaluative. They indicate a correlation between victim-blaming and just-world beliefs, not a causal relationship. Actual derogation of victims is almost certainly a largely gut-level response—categorical and, as Lerner observes, delusional—to situations, not a considered evaluation based on a reflection that the world is “just.”


[1] “Evaluation of performance as a function of performer's reward and attractiveness,” Lerner, Melvin J., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 1(4), Apr 1965, 355-360.

[2] “Although it is commonly believed that people will admire and feel compassion for a person who has suffered for the sake of others, the suffering of someone who has acted out of altruistic motives should be most threatening to the belief in a just world. If this is true, then the observer should reject the willing martyr even more than the innocent victim. The hypothesis was tested in this experiment by having the innocent victim reluctantly agree to undergo the negative reinforcement so that the observers could observe her and thereby satisfy a course requirement to participate in an experiment (martyr condition)” (Lerner and Simmons, 1966, p. 205)

[3] Janoff-Bulman, R., Timko, C., & Carli, L. L. (1985). Cognitive biases in blaming the victim. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 21(2), 161–177.

[4] Andre and Velasquez, “The Just World Theory,” at 

[5] For example, items include “Basically, the world is a just place,” “People who get ‘lucky breaks’ have usually earned their good fortune,” and “By and large, people deserve what they get.”