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July 1, 2019 Beyond The Dash

The Just-World Fallacy (And How it Applies to Death)

Cognitive bias, victim blaming and reframing the way we view justice

The Just-World Fallacy (And How it Applies to Death)
According to psychologists, human brains expect good to be rewarded, and bad to be punished. When bad things happen to good people, people tend to blame the victim. (Getty Images)

What do these everyday phrases have in common?

"He got what was coming to him."

"Everything works out in the end."

"When one door closes, another opens."

Phrases like these perpetuate the oft-repeated sentiment "what goes around comes around." The belief that justice will eventually be delivered one way or another is prevalent in the way that we speak, act and how we perceive our surroundings. Deep down, many tend to expect that good will be rewarded, and bad will be punished. But when bad things happen to good people, observers often blame the victim for their own suffering. This tendency is a cognitive bias that psychologists refer to as the just-world fallacy. 

When someone passes away, it's common to hear people downplaying the pain of the moment, or trying to look on the bright side. There doesn't need to be a bright side. This is how the concept of a just-world can interfere with healthy grieving and acceptance of a loss.

Understanding cognitive bias

Even those who consciously understand that justice often goes unserved are not immune to cognitive biases. In the past, subconscious tendencies may have helped humans to evolve and survive. They reflect the shortcuts human brains take in order to receive, understand and react to information quickly. Psychological biases affect humans almost universally, because they are hard-wired into the way we perceive the world. 

The fallacy of the just-world

The just-world hypothesis is just one of many cognitive biases that psychologists have studied at length. Melvin Lerner observed a tendency of health practitioners to blame patients for their own suffering. He hypothesized that an inherent belief in eventual justice makes people feel safe. 

He tested this by running experiments in which subjects would watch another person receive electric shocks. Though the electric shocks were a ruse, the reactions of the subjects were the true study in indifference to suffering. When forced to watch another human in pain, participants first expressed distress and empathy. As the shocks continued, observers began to minimize or deny the victim's suffering. Turns out, when people observe an injustice that brings pain to the victim, it's easier for the human mind to perceive it as the just result of the victim's own making. The greater the pain of the shock 'victim', the more indifferent the observers became. People tend to do this even when they logically know a victim is not at fault. When awareness of the suffering of others begins to threaten an individual's sense of emotional safety, the brain searches for ways to justify what is happening. This is thought to be one reason for victim blaming.

Death, suffering and a world that doesn't guarantee justice

The just-world fallacy often plays out in scenarios where something bad has happened. For example, when a death occurs.

Humans are both resilient and fragile. Advanced technology, greater access to medical care and modern safety standards mean greater life expectancies in most parts of the world. But death can come for anyone at any time. Bad luck or circumstances could be the difference between life and death. People often die simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even when a person's own mistake is connected to their death, those same mistakes don't result in death for every person who makes them. 

Close calls can be a stark reminder of the tenuousness of life. If you've ever had a narrow brush with death, you know how easily a simple mistake could end your life. If a car swings around a corner, missing you but killing the person standing inches away from you, you probably survived by luck. The just-world hypothesis says that people observing this scenario would be most likely to commend you for not getting hit. Observers would also be likely to blame the dead pedestrian for not looking, or for standing in the wrong spot. 

A close brush with death can be a harsh reminder that a stroke of bad luck could be the difference between life and death. (Getty Images)

Victim blaming and diminishing another's pain

There are many ways you might see the just-world fallacy in action in the aftermath of a death.

"At least he didn't suffer for too long."

When faced with a prolonged terminal illness where the dying person was in pain, many people will try to see a bright side. Unfortunately, a silver lining does not mean a person did not suffer. Despite good intentions, saying "The good thing in all this is..." only downplays tragedy. It may be difficult to sit with pain, but framing it as less severe is not the right way to handle it. Diminishing pain only soothes your own anxiety about meeting a similar fate.

"She died of lung cancer? Well, did she smoke?"

Another way the just-world hypothesis works its way into loss is when people are trying to make sense of why a person died. Of course, some behaviors, habits and lifestyle choices are known to affect health. However, justifying a death in this way only really says to the grieving: "Your loved one's death was their own fault." 

"She's been 'grieving' for over a year—I think she just likes the attention."

It is difficult for anyone to see their loved one grieving a loss. Moodiness, unpredictability, periods of depression, anxiety, crying and a lack of interest in anything are just some of the ways grief can look from the outside. The brain would rather believe this kind of emotional torment doesn't exist, and it begins to reach for other reasons for the pain.


Denial is known as the first stage of grief, but this reaction to loss can appear at any point in bereavement. The just-world fallacy could be connected to the denial stage. A subconscious belief in a world where "things eventually work out" is a form of denial. 

When we succumb to this flawed view of the world, it can keep the reality of grief at bay for awhile. Eventually, seeing everyday evidence of a world that does not always reward good and punish bad can force a crisis—that's why it's important to challenge an impulse to blame a victim.  

Guilt, self-blame and self-hatred are tertiary symptoms of grief. This can happen when the tendency to blame victims turns inward.

Even though cognitive bias is a part of everyone's psychological makeup, these kinds of statements can be harmful to people who are going through a hard time. It's comforting to believe that bad things happen for a reason, but that's not always the case. Pointing out the factors that contributed to a person's death does not protect you from meeting the same fate. Blaming those who have died or lost a loved one can make a bad experience much worse for those who are in pain. Recognizing the tricks that the brain plays on us all can help people process their emotions healthily, and support others with care and love.

Unraveling the just-world bias

The idea that, no matter what, "the chickens always come home to roost," is not a novel one.

Essentially, it may be too much for humans to face others' suffering. Seeing unjust suffering provokes most people to assign blame to the victim, rather than the person or force causing pain. Confront a reality in which bad outcomes are possible without a 'reason'. 

If you find yourself reaching for a reason or 'bright side' in a tragedy that has occurred, think again. Are there real reasons to do this, or are you avoiding tragedy to self-soothe? Even if there are contributing factors that led to the death, how tactful is it to bring them up in the aftermath of a loss? Remember this tendency to blame victims for their own misfortune, and use this new psychological to the advantage of those who are facing misfortune. 

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