The “Just-World Phenomenon” Rides Again

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A powerful psychological phenomenon is deflecting public approval of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, a phenomenon that is surfacing in polls and may influence the outcome of Georgia’s special Senate election.

Social psychologists have repeatedly observed our human tendency to assume that we live in a just world, a world where people get what they deserve—where good is rewarded and evil is punished. Things happen for a reason, we surmise.

From this “just-world” assumption it is but a short leap to assume that those who succeed must be good and those who suffer must be bad. The rich, we may think, have earned their wealth, even as the poor’s misfortune is similarly deserved.

Those who viewed Donald Trump as an exceptionally successful business person would, in a just world, naturally assume that he possessed exceptional business acumen and leadership skills. At the other extreme, American slaveholders tended to view enslaved people as lazy and irresponsible—as having the very traits that justified their slavery. In both cases, folks presumed, people deserved what they got.

The just-world phenomenon has played out in experiments. For example, people who were randomly assigned to receive supposed electric shocks for wrong answers on a memory test were later perceived as somehow deserving their fate. Juvenal, the Roman satirist, observed the phenomenon: “The Roman mob follows after Fortune . . . and hates those who have been condemned.”

In other experiments people who read about a man and woman’s interaction judged the woman differently depending on whether the story ends with a happy ending or a rape—even when in both cases her behavior was the same. Thus the phenomenon can blind us to injustice, as people presume rape victims must have been seductive, battered spouses may have elicited their beating, and sick people as responsible for what ails them. “You reap what you sew.”

So it happened in the Old Testament story of the undeserved suffering Job, whose friends judged that he must have merited his lot. Linking fortune with virtue and misfortune with moral failure sustains injustice. It enables the fortunate to feel pride in their just rewards and to avoid responsibility for the unfortunate.

Just-world thinking is enabled by after-the-face narratives that explain victory or defeat. When a basketball game ends with a winning shot that rolls around the rim and falls in, fans and commentators explain the brilliant play and smart coaching that enabled the victory. Let the shot roll off, and everything remains the same—except now, the Monday morning narrative itemizes the player mistakes and coaching failures. Already we see the phenomenon operating writ large, with the expected post-election analyses of Mr. Trump’s flaws and Mr. Biden’s virtues. Losers we devalue. Winners we admire.

Runoff and special elections historically have elicited more Republican turnout. This seemingly is reflected in the betting markets, which, as I write, estimate a 73 percent chance that Republicans will retain control of the Senate by winning at least one of the Georgia seats. Moreover, notes election modeler Nate Silver, “It’s easy to imagine Republicans being more motivated to turn out than Democrats, who may feel like they’ve done their duty.”

But surely there is an alternative scenario: In this interim before the January 5th Georgia Senate runoff elections involving two Trump-supporting Republicans, we can anticipate further decline in Donald Trump’s public approval, which will be mirrored by rising approval of Joe Biden. If it’s a just world, both got what they deserved. And sure enough: A new Gallup Poll finds Biden’s favorability rating up six points six the election and Trump’s down three.

Trump’s absence from the January ballot and his falling approval will likely weigh on the Trump-associated Senators Perdue and Loeffler. Moreover, if Mr. Biden’s public esteem rises, if the election becomes issue-focused (on allowing Biden to legislate majority-supported livable wages, climate protection, and affordable health care), and if Democratic voters are more motivated to enable Biden to govern than are dispirited Republicans motivated to block his initiatives, then the results may surprise us.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit or follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)


About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see