Just the world

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey.

This is the second in a series of posts about the nuts and bolts of recovery from control addiction.

Steve speaking:)

Yesterday in session something happened that reminded me of Bert’s last post, the one about reframing

Annie was crying on my sofa, because we were talking (again) about her marriage to an emotionally abusive man. 

And at one point she looked at me through her tears and asked,  “What did I do to deserve this?”

It wasn’t a rhetorical question.  She wanted an answer.

Aha, I said to myself.  There speaks the Just World Hypothesis.

I asked Annie if she’d heard of it.

“The what?” she said.

“The Just World Hypothesis,” I said.  “Most people believe in some form of it.”

The Just World Hypothesis (or Theory, or Fallacy) amounts to the belief that the universe is arranged so that people get what they deserve.

Good things happen to good people, in other words, and  bad things happen to bad.  

Most people believe this, even if they’re not aware of it.  Which explains why people tend to feel guilty when bad things happen to them. 

It’s common among religious people, raised on the idea of sin.  But belief in God is no prerequisite to belief in a Just World.  I once worked with an atheist who argued endlessly against the existence of God but never doubted, when confronting personal misfortune, that he himself  had  somehow caused it.

Why do we cling to this bias?

Control.  Or the illusion thereof.   

“Because it’s far too frightening for many to accept that bad things can happen to good people — and therefore that they themselves have no control over whether bad things might happen to them someday — they will instead search for ways to differentiate themselves from victims of ill fortune,” writes Renée Grinnell.  “For example, outsiders might deride people whose houses were destroyed by a tornado, blaming them for choosing to live in a disaster-prone area or for not building a stronger house.”

Belief in a Just World also leads to even more pernicious misinterpretations, like blaming the victim. 

Afterwards, they said that the 22-year-old woman was bound to attract attention. She was wearing a white lace miniskirt, a green tank top, and no underwear. At knife-point, she was kidnapped from a Fort Lauderdale restaurant parking lot by a Georgia drifter and raped twice. But a jury showed little sympathy for the victim. The accused rapist was acquitted. “We all feel she asked for it [by] the way she was dressed,” said the jury foreman.  (From “The Just World Theory” by Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez.)

The type of blaming I’m most familiar with is self-blame, where clients actually impede their own recovery by taking unrealistic and unfair responsibility for bad things that happen to them.

It’s particularly common among abuse victims, and people who grew up in alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional families prone to unpredictability and emotional turmoil, where kids often got blamed for things that weren’t their fault.  This left them feeling vulnerable, vaguely guilty, and too quick to blame themselves.  

Annie grew up in such a home. 

I explained all this to her.

“So you don’t believe in a just world?” she asked me. 

“I believe in justice,” I said.  “But the Just World Hypothesis is bullshit.  Look around you.  Bad things happen to good people all the time.  Shit happens.”

“Shit happens,” she repeated.

“All the time,” I said.  “And we have to find some way to make peace with it.  With the world as it is.  It’s not a just world.  It’s  just the world, as is.  Messy.  Unpredictable.  And mostly beyond our control.”

She’d stopped crying.  Some of the strain had left her face.  She wiped her eyes. 

“Shit happens,” she said.  “Interesting idea.”

* * *

Want more?

What’s going on here, it’s suggested, is a quest for a feeling of security. The suggestion that victims of rape were “asking for it” is a case in point: if you can convince yourself that victims deserve to be victimised, you don’t need to fear that you and yours – who don’t deserve it – might have to endure the same fate….




The just world hypothesis sees suffering and concludes that people who suffer must be the kind of people we disdain.

From “Just World Theory” at rethink.org.






7 responses to “Just the world

  • Eunice Fields (@free2counsel)

    I grew up believing in Fairy Tales and the “Just World Hypothesis”. I have put “those books” away and I thank God I have it so good, not that my life is so great, but it could be so much worse. Another GREAT read! Happy Holidays

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, Eunice. I’ve spent most of my life trying to distinguish the helpful fairy tales (eg, Santa) from the destructive ones. Ain’t easy. 🙂

  • It happens? | Scattered pieces

    […] some really interesting posts, and I usually look out for them; so when I saw the latest one titled Just the world, I was curious as to what it was about.  This was my sister’s birthday after all, the […]

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks for the post you wrote in response to mine (“It happens?” at http://www.scatteredpieces.org), which I hope all my readers will read.
      The part I found most trouching was this:

      “Please let me have saved at least one person. Please. Please don’t let what they did to me be for nothing. There had to be some purpose beyond their needs and wants. There does, doesn’t there? There must. That is why it’s easier for me to believe it was my fault, my evil, my badness attracting the inevitable karma of equal badness….”

      As I wrote, I do believe in justice. I also believe in healing. Come to think of it, they may well be the same thing. Life breaks all of us, Hemingway said, but afterward some of us are stronger at the broken places. Your writing (and photography, which is lovely) proves he was right.

      In any case, you got your wish. The one person you saved was you.

      ~ Steve

      • castorgirl

        Hi Steve,

        Thank you for reading my rather confused, and emotional outpouring 🙂

        I did pick-up on your belief in justice – or maybe the potential for justice. I think I’m learning that “justice” has many definitions. To some, justice will be going through the court system; while for others, it will be surviving and forgiving themselves for things that were beyond their control.

        I’m still very much in the process of trying to survive. I’ve lost my way several times, and I imagine that I will do so again.

        I did find this post challenging; but then, it provided a challenge I needed. It often takes several reflections on challenging material, before I can fully understand my reaction, and it’s context. Thank you for providing such a challenge.

        I hope you have a safe and happy holidays.

        Take care,

  • Linda lasberg

    I want to compliment you on not just the content of these posts, which are, in my opinion, very wise but also the way they are written.

    I really enjoy reading them all and save them for future use.
    Thank you

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