Can someone explain how Just World Theory applies in real life? I have learned about it from textbooks but have trouble believing parts of it. Does it always apply? For example does it apply to individual situations like if you see someone get hit by a car you don’t normally think “that person must have deserved it” but is it more for an overall lifestyle for example if someone works a minimum wage job it would be “this person has a lazy personality”. I’m basically asking does Just World Theory have any qualifications for when it applies?

I guess psychology isn't like this, but does the Just World Theory apply to everyone in every situation all the time, or what?

  • $\begingroup$ Was this the textbook by any chance? If I remember correctly, just-world theory was proposed to logically explain otherwise illogical behavior, such as victim-blaming. It provide some explanation but not necessarily causes someone to behave in particular way. Ex: Someone held a crime-victim fully/partly responsible for the crime was not because he's applying/believing in just-world theory, instead it could shed some light on why he did it. Almost all psychological construct is similar by the way $\endgroup$
    – Nono
    Aug 3, 2016 at 5:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Nono thanks for clarifying. So it's not so much telling how people think, but proposing a theory as to why people behave a certain way? i.e. we're not sure if it's correct? $\endgroup$
    – Celeritas
    Aug 3, 2016 at 6:39
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, it's not exactly directing people. It offers one of many possibilities why people behave or think in a certain way. It will not be applicable (not suffice) to everyone or in every situation, as almost all other psychological theory/construct will not. Sorry if I sound confusing, I'll try to post more explanation about how it works as an answer. $\endgroup$
    – Nono
    Aug 3, 2016 at 7:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Nono that makes sense. I had taken psychology courses a while ago and someone I live with is currently getting her degree in it. I guess I misunderstand because people usually speak with certainty as "today we learned how people assume good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, but this is in fact untrue. This false belief called Just World Theory". $\endgroup$
    – Celeritas
    Aug 3, 2016 at 8:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A general tip for asking questions: If it's about a specific theory or hypothesis, give a short definition (ideally with a reference) or an explanation of how you understand it and then continue with your question about it. Usually you will find a wikipedia article on the topic, as it is the case here. If you are not sure about how to understand the definition you can of course ask the people here to help you understanding it. $\endgroup$
    – awakenting
    Aug 3, 2016 at 11:18

1 Answer 1


The Just-World Theory/Belief/Hypotheses is an assumption that people eventually get what they deserves. Good people will eventually receive good things and bad people will eventually be punished, hence the world is "just/fair".

One form of defensive attribution is to believe that bad things happen only to bad people or at least, only to people who make stupid mistakes or poor choices. Therefore, bad things won t happen to us because we won t be that stupid or careless. Melvin Lerner (1980, 1998) has called this the belief in a just world the assumption that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get (Hafer, 2000; Hafer & Begue, 2005; Lipkus, Dalbert, & Siegler, 1996).

Fundamentally, this belief is motivated by our need to feel secure, to decrease anxiety from our vulnerabilities. After all, if bad things can happen to anyone, they can also happen to me regardless of what I do/don't do. Consequently, there are no guarantee that I'll receive "reward" for doing good.

By using this attributional bias [belief in just world], the perceiver does not have to acknowledge that there is a certain randomness in life, that an accident or criminal may be waiting just around the corner for an innocent person like oneself. The belief in a just world keeps anxiety-provoking thoughts about one s own safety at bay.

You can imagine that this "randomness" can be overwhelming at times, especially when a tragedy strikes; for example when someone from work/school was raped.

Ironically, those who strongly believe in a just-world tend to unfairly judge that it must have happened because the victim did something wrong, e.g dressed inappropriately, flirting, etc. That way, the person can still believe that this world is fair, and if he/she doesn't do bad things, it will never happen to him/her.

Research by Elaine Walster (1966) and others has focused on such attributions, which these investigators call blaming the victim (e.g., Burger, 1981; Lerner & Miller, 1978; Stormo, Lang, & Stritzke, 1997). In several experiments, they have found that the victims of crimes or accidents are often seen as causing their fate. For example, not only do people tend to believe that rape victims are to blame for the rape (Abrams, Viki, Masser, & Bohner, 2003; Bell, Kuriloff, & Lottes, 1994), but also battered wives are often seen as responsible for their abusive husbands behavior (Summers & Feldman, 1984).


When something bad happens to another person (as when someone is mugged or raped), we will undoubtedly feel sorry for the person but at the same time will feel relieved that this horrible thing didn t happen to us. We will also feel scared that such a thing might happen to us in the future. How can we cope with these fears and worries? We can protect ourselves from the fear we feel by convincing ourselves that the person must have done something to cause the tragedy. We feel safe, then, because we would have behaved more cautiously (Jones & Aronson, 1973).

Does it always apply? No, not for everyone and not in every situation.

It explains one possible way people deal with anxiety of feeling insecure, but not as the only way. I couldn't find any scientific sources, but I imagine that people can see tragedy without feeling any insecurities, or can perceive the world as fair but have an entirely different reaction, or even doesn't see the world as just/fair in the first place.


Elliot Aronson, Timothy D. Wilson, Robin M. Akert. (2010). Social Psychology Seventh Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.


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