Watch almost any movie and it will invariably end with the bad guy suffering terrible consequences (that is, if he doesn’t end up being dead) while the good guy lives happily ever after. It’s unlikely that we would even appreciate a movie where the bad guy won while the good guy kept suffering endlessly.
Have you ever wondered why we want our heroes to win and the villains to lose?
Researchers who have looked into this phenomenon call it the “just world hypothesis”. We like to believe that we live in a fair and just world where outcomes are justified by our own actions.
The belief that the world is essentially a fair place is widespread. Whenever we come across a situation where an outcome is inconsistent with this belief, we tend to misinterpret the evidence or distort the information in such a way that we can justifiably claim that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people because “they deserved it”.
This biased belief is at the root of making us believe that victims deserved their fates. So, we end up concluding (without any evidence) that the rape victim must have acted provocatively, the motorist killed in a traffic accident must have been driving rashly, or the person who got fired must have been a lousy employee.
In a classic experiment, subjects were asked to observe a “victim” who was ostensibly being given electric shocks as part of the experiment.
In one condition, the subjects had the opportunity to compensate the victim for the electric shocks she suffered, while in the other condition, there was no such mechanism available to subjects to compensate the victim for the electric shocks. Later, when asked to evaluate the “victim”, subjects in the victim-compensated condition rated the victim more favourably compared with the victim in the other condition.
It appeared that the subjects devalued the attractiveness of the victim in the no-compensation condition to reconcile her fate with her character.
Interestingly, further research has confirmed that the less responsible a person is for the consequences being suffered, the more derogation s/he suffers at the hands of the observers. This is consistent with the just world hypothesis.
It is the absence of the cause-and-effect evidence that leads people to infer a hidden justification which usually translates to derogating the victim in one way or another.
In other words, it is only when a person’s belief in a just world is threatened does s/he resort to derogating the victim. Even the most highly educated and well-trained professionals have been found susceptible to this bias.
For example, medical students and practitioners can develop elaborate denial mechanisms to shield themselves from their patients’ pain and suffering using the just world explanation. They convince themselves that patients somehow were responsible for the pain and anguish that they were going through.
From a managerial perspective, this bias can lead executives to draw faulty conclusions that negatively impact their decision making.
A human resources manager who hears that an employee was laid off from his last position may immediately view the candidate negatively without any additional information by painting him as “guilty”.
Hearing about the failure of a major project led by a manager may directly lead to unwarranted conclusions about the competence of the manager even though some digging may reveal that it was some unexpected external force that was responsible for the project’s failure.
Is there a positive side to this bias? Can it help a person who believes in a just world despite evidence to the contrary?
Surprisingly, the answer is in the affirmative.
Research shows that strong belief in a just world is correlated to more stable relationships because people with such beliefs tend to be more trusting and self-sacrificing.
The just world belief is also essential for an orderly and socially cohesive society and it forms an integral part of many religious systems. It is this belief that encourages cooperation and helpful behaviour among people.
Despite its social benefits, one needs to be mindful of the dangers of this bias.
The skilled executive should be aware of this bias and always seek more information before drawing conclusions about a person.
Any time you find yourself making assumptions about an individual based on incomplete information, it is essential to step back and ensure you’re not just trying to make yourself feel better by falling for the “just world” fallacy.
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Praveen Aggarwal and Rajiv Vaidyanathan are professors of marketing at the Labovitz School of Business & Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Dr Aggarwal also serves as the head of the Marketing Department and Dr Vaidyanathan is the director of MBA programmes at the University of Minnesota Duluth.