Have you ever wondered why people tend to blame the victim for the negative circumstances that befall them? Social psychologists have! Melvin Lerner coined the term “belief in a just world” to describe the cognitive bias people have that the world is governed by justice. He and other researchers have investigated how this belief relates to the blaming of victims of violence, illness, poverty, and other injustices.
In 1966, Lerner and his colleagues began a series of experiments that used shock paradigms to investigate observer responses to victimization. In the first of these experiments, subjects were made to watch a confederate receiving electrical shocks under a variety of conditions. Initially, subjects were upset by observing the apparent suffering of the confederate. However, as the suffering continued and observers remained unable to intervene, the observers began to derogate the victim.
In order to explain the findings of this and similar studies, Lerner theorized the prevalence of the belief in a just world. A just world is one in which actions and conditions have predictable, appropriate consequences. However, people are confronted daily with evidence that the world is not just: people suffer without apparent cause. Lerner explained that people employ tactics to eliminate threats to the belief in a just world. In the case of observing the injustice of the suffering of innocent others, one major tactic is to reinterpret the event and view the victim of suffering as deserving of that suffering. Following Lerner’s first studies, other researchers extended this research to other settings in which individuals are victimized including rape, domestic abuse, suffering from illness, and poverty. Generally, researchers have found that observers of innocent victims of these events and circumstances tend to both derogate the victims and blame the victims for their suffering. Thus, observers maintain their belief in a just world in the face of these obvious injustices by changing their cognitions about the character of these victims.
Note: This post is modified segment from my major revision of the Just World Hypothesis wikipedia page completed as part of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) Wikipedia Initiative (link to http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/members/aps-wikipedia-initiative). Read the full wikipedia entry, including subsequent edits by other wiki contributors, here.