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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