I read an interesting book recently called God is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human, written by Professor Dominic Johnson, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford. In it, Johnson discusses, among many other things, the human tendency to believe in what is known to psychologists as the Just World Hypothesis. As Johnson explains:
"We have a deeply ingrained sense that people should get what they deserve. And this expectation is so strong that we have a bias to interpret people’s dispositions and behavior so that punishments fit the crime. Half a century of research has strongly corroborated the phenomenon. As ethicists Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez explain:
'The need to see victims as the recipients of their just deserts can be explained by what psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis. According to the hypothesis, people have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve. Such a belief plays an important function in our lives since in order to plan our lives or achieve our goals we need to assume that our actions will have predictable consequences. Moreover, when we encounter evidence suggesting that the world is not just, we quickly act to restore justice by helping the victim or we persuade ourselves that no injustice has occurred. We either lend assistance or we decide that the rape victim must have asked for it, the homeless person is simply lazy, the fallen star must be an adulterer. These attitudes are continually reinforced in the ubiquitous fairy tales, fables, comic books, cop shows and other morality tales of our culture, in which good is always rewarded and evil punished.'
Just World theory emerged in the 1970s from experiments conducted by psychologist Melvin Lerner. He found that if students were told another student had won the lottery, they tended to believe that the lucky winner must have been a harder worker than others. Another experiment in which participants observed people getting electric shocks found that the observers reported lower opinions of those receiving punishment— particularly when the victim appeared to be trapped and had no way to escape it. The injustice could only be reconciled by assuming that the recipients must be bad eggs who had brought it upon themselves."
The Just World Hypothesis is very familiar in Western societies due to its relationship to Calvinism and the protestant work ethic. Johnson notes that although the Just World Hypothesis is well accepted as a basic human trait, scientists have struggled to explain its origins and purpose.
"Despite being a well-documented and intensively studied phenomenon, the origins and utility of Just World beliefs remain unclear. Why do people think this way? Andre and Velasquez noted that “neither science nor psychology has satisfactorily answered the question of why the need to view the world as just exerts such a powerful influence on human behavior and the human psyche.” An explanation is offered, however, by [Johnson's] supernatural punishment theory. The reason we gravitate to Just World beliefs, and why it has such a powerful impact on human psychology and behavior, is because the expectation of supernatural reward and punishment is an adaptive feature of human brains. As I have argued, it provided significant fitness benefits in suppressing self-interest and promoting cooperation in our evolutionary past. Just World beliefs are studied primarily as people’s expectations about how other people’s conduct results in good or bad fortunes. But we are hardly immune to this effect ourselves— we also tend to think we will get what we deserve."
The Just World Hypothesis is so ingrained in our psyches that it provides fertile ground for comedic variation. There is an amusing twist on it from the classic comedy series, Seinfeld, in a plot where the Just World Hypothesis never applies. In the episode entitled The Opposite, Jerry's friend George starts succeeding at whatever he does by following his worst instincts. Meanwhile Jerry's friend Elaine starts failing at everything no matter what she does. Jerry himself "breaks even" no matter what he does. In such a world, the actions of the actors either do not matter or are counterproductive, because everything is controlled by fate.
On the more serious side of things, the Just World Hypothesis is often employed as an aid to political rhetoric and as a binary litmus test to separate the problems that are deemed "worthy" of solving through political action and those deemed "not worthy." It is also used to separate supporters, who are designated as victims not responsible for their plights and persons to be championed -- and the opposition or others who seem to pose a threat, who are designated as pariahs or scapegoats who are receiving their "just desserts" in accordance with their allegedly bad behavior.
An almost cartoonishly strident example of this appeared recently in an article in National Review Online, where Kevin Williamson expresses his opposition to Donald Trump by taking to task certain conservative supporters who had decided to support Trump in this election cycle, even though they may have been aligned with Williamson in the past:
"If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.
Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul."
Whether one agrees with his sentiments or not is not the point of this discussion. It merely serves as an example as to how the Just World Hypothesis is often applied to scapegoat those with whom one disagrees or does not like.
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Let us take a look at the Just World Hypothesis more closely through the Lenses of Wisdom.
Looking through the Prospecting Lens first, we can see how the Just World Hypothesis is a useful tool for System 1 thinking, because it provides a neat narrative that dovetails with a number of cognitive biases. These include:
COGNITIVE EASE. Things that are easier to compute, more familiar, and easier to read seem more true than things that require hard thought, are novel, or are hard to see. “Predictable illusions inevitably occur if a judgment is based on the impression of cognitive ease or strain." “How do you know that a statement is true? If it is strongly linked by logic or association to other beliefs or preferences you hold, or comes from a source you trust and like, you will feel a sense of cognitive ease." Potential for error? If we hear a lie often enough we tend to believe it.
The Just World Hypothesis is easy to understand and explains everything in broad strokes, especially about people one does not know, so has no way of really analyzing. People's outcomes in life are the direct causal outcome of their behavior. Bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. It is easier to assign causation to every event than to try to do the work of separating what is caused by one's behavior and what is attributable to other forces or to random chance.
COHERENT STORIES (ASSOCIATIVE COHERENCE). To make sense of the world we tell ourselves stories about what’s going on. We make associations between events, circumstances, and regular occurrences. The more these events fit into our stories the more normal they seem. Things that don’t occur as expected take us by surprise. To fit those surprises into our world we tell ourselves new stories to make them fit. We say, “Everything happens for a purpose,” “God did it,” “That person acted out of character,” or “That was so weird it can’t be random chance.” Abnormalities, anomalies, and incongruities in daily living beg for coherent explanations. Often those explanations involve 1) assuming intention, “It was meant to happen,” 2) causality, “They’re homeless because they’re lazy,” or 3) interpreting providence, “There’s a divine purpose in everything.” Potential for error? We posit intention and agency where none exists, we confuse causality with correlation, and we make more out of coincidences than is statistically warranted.
Portions of this heuristic are almost synonymous with the Just World Hypothesis, particularly as to causality. However, note that it also provides the "out" in that random factors and supernatural forces can also be blamed. Whether the "out" is applied appears to be in the eyes of the beholder.
CONFIRMATION BIAS. This is the tendency to search for and find confirming evidence for a belief while overlooking counter examples. “Jumping to conclusions is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake acceptable, and if the jump saves much time and effort. Jumping to conclusions is risky when the situation is unfamiliar, the stakes are high, and there is no time to collect more information”. System 1 fills in ambiguity with automatic guesses and interpretations that fit our stories. It rarely considers other interpretations.
This performs the "self-fulfilling prophecy" of the Just World Hypothesis.
REPRESENTATIVENESS. Similar to profiling or stereotyping, “representativeness” is the intuitive leap to make judgments based on how similar something is to something we like without taking into consideration other factors: probability (likelihood), statistics (base rate), or sampling sizes. Baseball scouts used to recruit players based on how close their appearance resembled other good players. Once players were recruited based on actual statistics the level of gamesmanship improved. Just because we like the design of a book cover doesn’t mean we’ll like the contents. You can’t judge a book by its cover. A start-up restaurant has a low chance of survival regardless of how much you like their food. Many well run companies keep their facilities neat and tidy but a well kept lawn is no guarantee that the occupants inside are organized. Potential for error: Evaluating a person, place, or thing on how much it resembles something else without taking into account other salient factors.
This is the obvious error in judgment that Mr. Williamson falls into in the article quoted above. He assumes that because some of the Trump supporters fall into his description that all of them do. The Just World Hypothesis works with Representativeness to categorize people broadly and make them all the same, which helps with Cognitive Ease.
OVERLOOKING LUCK. Most people love to attach causal interpretations to the fluctuations of random processes. “It is a mathematically inevitable consequence of the fact that luck played a role in the outcome….Not a very satisfactory theory—we would all prefer a causal account—but that is all there is.” When we remove causal stories and consider mere statistics we’ll observe regularities, what is called the regression to the mean. Those statistical regularities—regression to the mean—are explanations (“things tend to even out”) but not causes (“that athlete had a bad day but is now ‘hot’). “Our mind is strongly biased toward causal explanations and does not deal well with ‘mere statistics." Potential for error: seeing causes that don’t exist.
Under the Just World Hypothesis there is no luck. None at all. This is the comedic flaw of it revealed in the Seinfeld clip above. In that scenario, Jerry's life is governed completely by "regression to the mean". His actions are irrelevant to the results.
The idea that "regression to the mean" may apply sometimes and "results are caused by actions (Just World Hypothesis)" may also apply at other times to the same individuals or groups is System 2 thinking. It requires a deeper analysis of the result and all surrounding circumstances that just clinging to a rule of thumb about the way the world works.
THE NARRATIVE FALLACY. In our continuous attempt to make sense of the world we often create flawed explanatory stories of the past that shape our views of the world and expectations of the future. We assign larger roles to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck. “Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
This is the flip-side of overlooking luck. The Just World Hypothesis, when broadly and categorically applied, is clearly a narrative fallacy that does not account for individual variation or experience.
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Looking through the Mimetic Lens, we can see how the Just World Hypothesis can be used to support a particular belief system or encourage a certain course of action. For archaic sacred structures, the Just World Hypothesis works to keep people in their ordered places as established by the norms of the particular society. Whenever someone violates the norms and experiences a bad result for it -- for example, a woman who does not dress "properly" and is subsequently assaulted -- the Just World Hypothesis can be deployed to explain the outcome as normal and "deserved." This is also used in celebrity culture to shame persons who do not live up to expectations or exult those who "give the people what they want."
In Western societies, the flip-side of the Just World Hypothesis coin is used to justify actions intended to correct alleged injustices. We live in a culture where public action is permitted in the name of or in support of a designated victim or victims. So in order to justify a particular action, whether it might be reducing certain kinds of taxes or increasing certain kinds of public benefits or extending protections to intellectual property, as examples, a victim or victims must be identified who have not been accorded the Just World that the hypothesis promises. Thus, corrective action can be taken to restore balance to the Just World.
By contrast, as the Williamson article reveals, the Just World Hypothesis can be and often is deployed to thwart actions that may help a particular group of persons by declaring that their plight is a result of their behavior and that outside factors or random chance are irrelevant. Thus, to intervene would interfere with or destroy the Just World.
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Looking through the Fractal Lens, we see that that the Just World Hypothesis is invariably fallacious when applied in a binary or broad-brush manner. The Fractal Lens reveals a probabilistic universe where more than one outcome is possible from any given course of action. Thus, while one's actions certainly influence one's outcomes, the actual outcome may be determined by other forces, including random chance. The magnitude of the result may also vary widely from insignificant either way to catastrophe or triumph.
So, for example, changes in one's diet in an effort to lose weight may have no effect, a positive effect or a negative effect, and the magnitude of the effect could be large or small. The impact of any "one-off" effort is likely to be highly randomized.
But the Fractal Lens also shows that results of repeated trials may yield a more predictable stream of outcomes. Thus, we see what is commonly known at the "80/20" rule, a rule of thumb that applies to many businesses and scenarios. Applied to sales in particular, the 80/20 rule forecasts that 80% of the sales will be from only 20% of the clients and that 80% of the efforts involving the bulk the prospects will result in wasted efforts and failure. And within the 20% that are successful, most will represent only small or moderate successes, while a very few will account for outsized revenues. The outcomes are often distributed on a power law or exponential function. Note that "80/20" in the example could be "90/10" or "95/5" -- the point is that only a few of the efforts yield most of the positive results. Moreover, it is often impossible to know which of the prospects will be "the good ones" before the effort is made. Thus, it is not possible to avoid a certain amount of failure and wasted effort.
Job seekers often have similar experiences. For example, one might apply for 100 positions, get immediate negative responses from 75, screening interviews with 25, follow-up interviews with 10, and 2-5 actual offers. And the reasons for the offers may be only partially related to the applicant's actual qualifications. The granting of the offer may be more influenced by the needs of the business to hire someone immediately, or a fortuitous interview with someone who happened to attend the same high school or college or shares another "liking" trait, thereby eliciting a positive "Halo Effect" as revealed through the Prospecting Lens. Hence, the old adage about "being in the right place at the right time."
Results might also be distributed more "normally" around a mean, as one might find after aiming repeatedly at a target and examining the resulting holes or arrows stuck in it and how far from the center they lay. In such a simple activity, there are very few external factors that dictate the outcome. The Fractal Lens shows us that for more complex efforts that may involve many people and varying conditions over time, the external or random factors can overwhelm even the best of efforts sometimes, while even a modest effort can dictate the outcome in other circumstances. The more complex and varied the task, the more likely the distribution of outcomes will have so-called "fat tails" and be difficult to predict.
Ultimately, the Fractal Lens shows us that the Just World Hypothesis is at best only partially true -- and only some of the time --, and is thus of only limited utility for explaining why some efforts result in success and others result in failure. Thus, looking back at Williamson's article, it is certainly the case that some of the individuals he derides have made bad choices, particularly involving substance abuse, and have had bad results. Yet it is not the case that every person living in these areas is completely responsible for the bad results they may have experienced. Nor it is the case that loading up the proverbial "U-Haul" would necessarily have achieved better results. In other words, it would be inaccurate to deem them all scapegoats who are unworthy of outside assistance.
On the flip-side, nor is it the case that external forces involving a poor business climate or competition on the other side of the globe "fated" these individuals to failure regardless of their individual efforts. Some of them may have recognized that their local economy was deteriorating and could have done better had they loaded up the proverbial U-Haul. Life is not a Seinfeld episode either when viewed under the Fractal Lens. Thus, it would also be inaccurate to designate this group of people as "victims" en masse, each worthy of some form of deliverance, as if they had been struck by a hurricane last week.
As seen through the Fractal Lens, it is possible to be both a scapegoat of a Just World and a fated victim to be rescued -- or neither. The verdict depends more upon the snapshot in time of the viewing eyeball than the lens itself, which over time would likely show the actor moving back and forth between the two states. Viewed dynamically, there probably isn't any Just World with which to make consistently reliable judgments -- at least leaving aside any kingdoms that are not of this world. Rather than a Just World of ultimate causality, it's just the world of malleable but uncertain outcomes.
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.