We do so wish to believe in a logical universe.
~ Margaret Atwood
Annie is crying on my sofa. We’re talking about her marriage to an emotionally abusive man.
She looks at me through her tears and asks, “What did I do to deserve this?”
Not a rhetorical question. She wants an answer.
Aha, I said to myself. There speaks the Just World Hypothesis.
I ask if she’s heard of it.
“The what?” she says.
“The Just World Hypothesis,” I say. “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 see most often is self-blame, where clients actually impede their own recovery by taking unrealistic and unfair responsibility for bad things that happen to them.
Abuse victims do this a lot, as do people who grew up in alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional families, those prone to unpredictability and emotional turmoil and to blaming kids for things that weren’t their fault. This leaves them feeling vulnerable, vaguely guilty, and too quick to blame themselves.
Annie grew up in such a home.
I explain all this to her.
“So you don’t believe in a just world?” she asks me.
“I believe in justice,” I say. “But the Just World Hypothesis is bullshit. Look around you. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Shit happens.”
“Shit happens,” she repeats.
“All the time,” I say. “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. Unpredictable, messy, and mostly beyond our control.”
She’s stopped crying. She wipes her eyes.
“Shit happens,” she said. “Interesting idea.”