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The Just-World Fallacy

In my humble opinion and beyond my limited ken …

Many of the “system-level lies” listed in Turning Wheel’s call for submissions for this theme seem to me to be instances of the commonly held (incorrect) world view of the “Just-World Fallacy” (JWF).

JWF seems to be a general template for various system-level lies (memes) that blame the victim and insidiously teach victims to blame themselves for original sin or for past sins of commission or omission (remembered or not, intentional or not) which they purportedly had committed.

Under JWF, Karma would be reduced to a simplistically linear “what you sow is what you reap” — popularized in the TV show “My Name is Earl” and in some celebrity-endorsed self-help books.

JWF seems to be in sharp conflict with Buddhist teachings of Samsara, Dukkha, Impermanence, Interdependence, or Liberation.

Likewise, JWF is misused to justify privilege.


Garold (Gary) Stone, Laurel, MD, Retired
Sitting with Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center, Silver Spring, MD
In the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh

Comments (7)

  • Mushim Ikeda

    I haven’t seen the famous movie, “Hadaka No Shima” (“Naked Island”) in years, but when I saw it 30 years or so ago, it punched a big hole in my JWF. And it’s probably meant to represent a culture that is Buddhist. See it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjVtXe2pLaU

  • Katie Loncke

    Ooh, nice — adding it to my list of films to watch. Thanks, Mushim!

    I remember in high school, something that “punched a big hole in my JWF” (love that way of putting it) was when I realized, at an embarrassingly late stage (senior year), that my public high school was financially segregated: parents could donate money specifically to the magnet program I was in (with advanced and college prep classes) without spreading it around to fund the whole student body. In my naíve zeal I wanted to write a story for the student paper, interviewing students in “regular” classes and in the magnet program, ‘exposing’ the fact that the non-magnet students were receiving an inferior education. Luckily my journalism teacher talked me out of biting off more than I could chew.

    It’s not so much that I thought that students in ‘regular’ classes deserved fewer resources, or were there because they were somehow lazy or less smart, but I was so focused on my own studies and social group and life (literally sectioned off from the rest of the 2,500-student school, with a whole wing of the building reserved for the magnet program and language classes) that it simply never occurred to me that there might be structural disparities within my pubic school. To this day, I’m a little haunted by how blinkered I was. My JWF made me complacent, just accepting as normal a situation that favored me.

  • Robert Fettgather

    Very insightful to invoke Lerner’s Just Worlc Hypothesis (JWH) . The hypothesis is generally regarded as false, hence (JWF). A status quo mindset, Invoking JWH, minimimizes cognitive dissonance over injustice with the false presupposition that folks get in life what they deserve. Believers sleep well amidst the suffering. Victims of a stinky system are thus dismissed. Beyond Lerner, the JWH also assumes the righteousness of Victimizers. My work in the mental health system over 4 decades, while deeply gratifying over helping people out, usurped my own JWH: that government,profit and non profits always work toward the well being of disadvantaged persons. A system that pays bureaucrats to care for especially vulnerable populations (e.g., elders with dementia, people with severe intellectual impairment or severe mental illness) is prone to exploitation. This system tends toward objectification of these often voiceless groups. Care becomes neglect or in the case of Sonoma Developmental Center, serial torture. Careerists who victimize in this system collect their paychecks and, it seems to me, bask in the JWH illusion that they must be caring, rather than harming, innocents. To the BPF I submit that people with severe intellectual impairment may be among those most hurt by a system that stinks, and among the least understood and supported.

  • Rachel

    Thank you so much for bringing up this fallacy! Reading the first paragraph at Wikipedia, i wonder if this fallacy actually captures two things, only one of which you mentioned, Gary, and was picked up in the comments. That part is the victim-blaming, which might also be described as systems justification (John Jost at NYU is doing quite a bit of work on that).

    The other part, the part that hasn’t been mentioned explicitly, is, imo, actually more interesting in the context of system-level lies. It’s the idea that since, at bottom, we live in a just world that somehow there is a power that will make it all right again or safe the Earth after all or something like that (from Wikipedia: “human actions eventually yield morally fair and fitting consequences”). Why do i think this might be particularly interesting? Because, for example, i’ve noticed that there seems to be a belief “out there” that humans are naturally empathic and that this just has to be uncovered. This leads to ignoring the studies that show the high level of psychopathy amongst CEOs (actually even labeling them as psychopaths seems a “no-no”).

    It also doesn’t jive with the epigenetic evidence of our human development (epigenetics is studying how genetics and environment interplay). As Jeremy Rifkin in his talk on an “Empathic Civilization” suggests, we are soft-wired for empathy that is if the environmental conditions are right, we will develop empathy. With increasing economic segregation – the segregation you mentioned, Katie, on steroids – it is likely that more affluent people, who grow up rather isolated from the rest of us, do not learn empathy. I think to deny this as even a possibility (i.e., that there might be some people who are not capable of empathy), is also a just-world fallacy.

  • Rachel

    Here’s a link to the Rifkin talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/jeremy_rifkin_on_the_empathic_civilization.html (I wasn’t quite sure if links are allowed, so i thought i’d give that separately…)

  • Rachel

    Thanks to this post, i finally understood why i have not been enjoying TED talks anymore… They seem to be full of just-world fallacies… Why are there so few women in the upper levels of the business world? Sexism? No, women drop out. If they’d just stay, there would be more! So says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg http://www.ted.com/talks/sheryl_sandberg_why_we_have_too_few_women_leaders.html (admittedly, i didn’t watch the whole thing… I got too sick to my stomach after the first 5 minutes or so…)

  • Lisa

    So true. Growing up in a family that had a achieved the “American dream” I unconsciously learned what I call the corollary to the American dream: if you aren’t getting ahead, there is something wrong with you. The version of Christianity practiced by some affluent folks seems to support this by teaching that God has blessed America and that we are entitled to our empire.

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