New Study Tests the Just-World Theory

The just-world theory proposes that individuals expect the world to be relatively fair and that people receive punishments and rewards according to their actions and morality. For example, the theory suggests that people would accept a financially needy person winning the lottery much more readily than a violent criminal winning the lottery. This belief system is one that may influence many areas of life. Prejudice and discrimination may be an outward expression of the just-world theory in action. Individuals may be predicting certain behaviors based on their experience with people of certain ethnic backgrounds or races. Additional just-world research has shown that some individuals have a biased view of past events in order to align certain incongruent experiences with their own perception of justice.

These outlooks can often be relatively harmless. But in certain situations they can be emotionally and even physically damaging. A violent person who becomes the victim of violence may be seen as less of a victim than a nonviolent survivor. Likewise, people often try to find meaning and purpose from a tragic or traumatic event that befalls a morally good victim. In order to test the just-world theory further, Mitchell J. Callan of the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex in the UK recently led a study using gaze analysis.

For his study, Callan monitored the eye movements of 44 participants as they listened to a scenario involving a good or bad character. The participants’ gazes were assessed prior to the outcomes to see if the just-world theory applied to their unconscious desires for the characters. Callan discovered that the characters’ depiction did indeed influence the eye movements of the participants. “Specifically, participants’ knowledge of a protagonist’s moral worth biased their eye gaze toward good or bad outcomes within the visual world before the actual outcomes were known,” said Callan. The results of this study demonstrate just how significantly moral perceptions and evaluations impact an individual’s belief system and their assumptions about the world around them.

Callan, M. J., Ferguson, H. J., Bindemann, M. (2012). Eye movements to audiovisual scenes reveal expectations of a just world. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028261

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  • Cullen


    June 28th, 2012 at 3:27 PM

    aaah this is pretty interesting given how we have these degrees of how we judge who is worthy of having something good happen to them in life and those who aren’t. What we forget is that this really is not up to us to judge at all. If I want someone to be happy for me if I get a windfall, then why shouldn’t I be happy for them in turn? Life isn’t always fair, that’s a given. But I truly don’t think that we should go around begrudging anyone their own bit of happiness.

  • shane


    June 29th, 2012 at 12:48 AM

    the just-world..if somebody who holds this view does indeed view people and make pre judgements then is he or she not diluting this “just” world??

  • Anna C

    Anna C

    June 29th, 2012 at 4:10 AM

    I think that we are pretty lucky that most of the time wisdom prevails and the concept of justice is regularly enforced throughout the world. But I do think that there have been many cases where you look at something going on and you think how unfair that is, but what can we do?

  • Shania


    June 29th, 2012 at 8:52 AM

    “The just-world theory proposes that individuals expect the world to be relatively fair and that people receive punishments and rewards according to their actions and morality.”

  • Shania


    June 29th, 2012 at 8:54 AM

    “The just-world theory proposes that individuals expect the world to be relatively fair and that people receive punishments and rewards according to their actions and morality.”

    This is an ideal world, a fantasy today. What we have is an ‘unjust world”. Don’t believe this? Just look around!

  • Joelie


    June 29th, 2012 at 3:19 PM

    For one thing, we get so up in arms when we think that we have been wronged yet we don’t really care when that happens to another person. It’s their problem to deal with. Now what is just and fair about that? I thought that we were to treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves.

  • britany


    June 30th, 2012 at 6:02 AM

    those who have grown up feeling discriminated against or who feel like they have been denied a good life because of their race probably think that everyone os out to get them and that there is not ever to be anything good waiting for them around the corner. i would have ahard time thinking that the workld was this negative though, and maybe i am skewed in my thinking because i don’t think that i have had those kinds of negative experiences. but you know there are those who think that the world is always bringing them down and that nothing in life has been fair and just for them.

  • Danielle A

    Danielle A

    July 1st, 2012 at 9:13 AM

    I know that we struggle with looking for a reason for why things happen, but why can’t it just be enough to accept that things happen for a reason that often it’s not for us to know? I know that’s difficult as we always like to be in contro, of things. But we aren’t and we have to accept that even though we may not have the answers, that’s ok, there is a higher power in control who knows best, and that should be enough for us.

  • Judy


    July 2nd, 2012 at 11:01 AM

    Look, I know as well as the next person that I am not supposed to judge others and that everything will come out the way it’s supposed to.
    But that doesn’t mean that I don’t make snap judgements about others, just in the same way that I know they do the same against me.
    It’s human nature to form opinions about things even when we know nothing about them.
    And if I look a someone’s past or their appearance and form an opinion about them then I am just doing what everyone else does.

  • hollis


    July 2nd, 2012 at 3:36 PM

    maybe those are behaving badly should think about this before committing their next act of violence toward another.

    if they want sympathy from others then they have to stop their poor choices and be a more positive influence on society.

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