No, life isn’t always fair

Intellectually, everyone knows that unfairness is a part of life. Deep down, however, many people like to think that life is fair and that people largely get what they deserve. My most recent Southern star column explored the so-called 'just world fallacy', and how a psychological need for safety can cause people to sometimes blame victims for their suffering, The column is reproduced below.


Life isn’t always fair. Parents tell their children that message all the time; by the time we reach adulthood, everyone accepts unfairness is a part of life, that bad things can happen to good people and good things can happen to bad people.


Or do they? “What goes around comes around”, “you get what’s coming to you”, “you reap what you sow” – don’t such expressions imply that deep down, many people believe life actually is fair and that people largely get what they deserve?


Psychologists call this the just world fallacy – the idea the world is a fair, orderly place where you are rewarded for good actions and punished for bad actions. People want to believe the world is largely fair, so they often explain away tragic events. Unfortunately, this often results in people blaming the victim. To give a personal example: in Dublin some years ago, I overheard a few women talking about a local swimmer who had gotten a heart attack and drowned. Why was a man that age out swimming on his own, one woman asked? In fact, it turned out he wasn’t on his own, although this isn’t the point – the point is her instinctive reaction was to imply the man was partly responsible for his death. You hear similar comments about rape victims (“she was very drunk”, “she shouldn’t have been walking home on her own”), about burglaries (“did they not have an alarm?”), about people living in poverty (“why did they have kids if they can’t afford to care for them?”), about sick people (“he was never great at looking after himself”) – the list goes on. Once you become aware of this tendency, you’ll start to see it all the time in everyday life (continued below...)




The idea of the just world fallacy was developed by psychologist Melvin Lerner in the 1960s. Lerner noticed his colleagues, who he knew to be educated, kind people, often blamed patients for their own suffering. He was also surprised to frequently hear his students disparage the poor. These experiences prompted him to devise some clever experiments. In one, participants who were told a fellow student had won a lottery prize tended to believe the student worked harder and was smarter than another student who won nothing in the lottery. Participants tended to believe this even after being told the person who won the reward was randomly chosen. In another experiment involving a staged injustice, Lerner discovered that the greater the injustice, the more participants tended to believe the person had brought it upon herself. 


A large body of research has since confirmed Lerner’s findings. In one revealing experiment, researchers told two groups of participants a story about interactions between a man and a woman. The story was the same until the end. One group received a neutral ending for the story; the other group was told the woman was raped. After, the two groups rated the behaviour of the woman in the story. The rape-ending group gave a more negative rating of the woman’s behaviour, judging the rape ending as inevitable. This tendency to blame the victim has also been found in studies concerning ill people, including cancer patients; poor people; and battered partners.



Why? People ‘have a need to believe that they live in a world where people generally get what they deserve’, Lerner writes. People want to feel safe and secure, to feel everything will work out well if they do the right thing. It’s threatening to see others suffer undeserved misfortune, so people try to come up with explanations as to why this won’t happen to them. For the same reason, people often blame themselves when they have suffered through no fault of their own. ‘We often see this with rape victims’, says psychologist Dr Sandra Shullman. ‘Often the first question they’ll ask is, “Why me?” It stems from the human need to find an explanation for injustice and distance themselves from the feeling that life is random’.


Wanting to feel safe and secure is a very human thing, but we need to be careful. Unfair things happen in life; it’s better to genuinely accept that reality rather than to come up with rationalisations that are little more than victim-blaming.