Does everyone get what they deserve?

There is a concept in Psychology called “The Just World Belief”.  The idea refers to the common assumption people make that everyone gets what they deserve in life.  People often assume that life is somehow guided by a universal force of justice, order or stability. Therefore, people think certain consequences are the result of something a person has done, and that they must somehow deserve what happens to them.

The belief can be seen in common phrases such as, “You got what was coming to you”, “What goes around comes around”, “You reap what you sow”, or the popular idea of karma.

So why does this happen?  Well, people like to think that if you put good energy out into the universe – if you work hard, are kind to others, do morally “good” things in life – that eventually you will somehow be rewarded for your efforts.  You’ll be successful, others will be kind to you, you’ll live a peaceful and happy life.  So what on earth could be wrong with believing that?

Well for one, the Just World Belief often results in victim blaming.  For example, it is often the reason why people assume that those living in poverty must be more lazy than the rest of us and therefore deserve their lot in life.  If only they worked hard and got a job, they wouldn’t be poor.  Therefore being poor must be their own fault.  Nevermind being born into their situation, or having less access to resources and education.  If they just worked hard like the rest of us, they could make something of themselves…right?

It’s an incredibly powerful and pervasive concept, with dire consequences for how we respond to injustice and inequality.  If it’s their fault, then we don’t have to do anything, or even care.

The other downside is that when something bad happens to a person who has always tried to be “good”, and they think that bad things only happen to people who deserve them, they assume that they must have done something to deserve it.  It’s the only way they can explain what happened to them.  So they think they’ve done something wrong, they blame themselves, and they get depressed (or develop any other kind of emotional difficulty).

One of the things I like about studying Psychology is that it makes you aware of how and why we come to believe what we believe.  Once we have this awareness, we can develop insight into whether our beliefs are helpful or harmful to hold.

In the case of the Just World Belief, it is important to understand that bad things happen to good people all the time.  Likewise, good things often happen to “bad” people.  That’s not to say that nothing you do in life is worthwhile; if you work hard, you are more likely to be successful.  If you’re kind to others, you’re probably more likely to get that paid back in return.  But equally, bad luck can strike.  And when that happens, don’t blame yourself.  And don’t blame other people for their bad luck either; examine their situation in depth and see if you can understand how they got there.

Being able to look underneath our beliefs can help us to feel more empathy and compassion for others, and foster connections between diverse groups of people.  Because bad things can (and do) happen to anyone, and we all know what it’s like to go through tough times. All that anyone can do is deal, in the best way they can, with the hand that they’ve been given.

Have you ever blamed yourself for bad luck?

Have you noticed the Just World Belief at play in your own life?

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