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The Just World Effect March 2, 2006

Posted by Tim in Religion, Trends, World.

The Just World Effect, closely related to the concept of “karma”, is a cognitive bias based on the belief that good things happen to good people; bad things to bad people. I would describe it as an anthromorphism of the cosmos – humans reward good actions and bad actions, so it is tempting to think the universe does the same thing.

At first glance there is nothing wrong with this phenomenon. But this bias leads to “victim blame”: the perception that the suffering of a person is deserved in some way. The most obvious examples are studies that show rape victims tended to be blamed for their ordeals, be it by dressing provocatively, inviting attention, or simply being there.

The Just World Effect is powerful when combined with religion. When syphilis first became widespread in the sixteenth century, the Catholic church proclaimed it the “wrath of god” for adultery. After the advent of penicillin this view was abandoned. More recently the emergence of AIDS also led to a similar decree by many religious leaders; at the time the misconception was that it only spread among homosexuals and therefore God was signalling his disapproval. It is a stigma that still exists today.

In the aftermath of 9/11 Pat Robertson, a controversial fundamentalist proclaimed it was the “lifting of His protection” and the result of America’s immorality. Similar things were said about Hurricane Katrina (or any other natural disaster for that matter), with people scrambling to blame it on everything imaginable: gays, gambling, alcoholism, etc.

The flip side can be just as deceptive – that good fortune justifies a person. Rafidah Aziz claims she has God’s mandate because she was reelected to the Cabinet. After Israel won the Six-Day-War against Egypt, Jordan and Syria, it was immediately claimed a miracle had happened and God’s had given Israel their land – its aerial superiority and brilliant military tactics nonwithstanding.

This bias cheapens humanity and offers too simplistic a view of life. We should help others in trouble, not judge them; we should learn from mistakes and successes and not freely assume divine mantles.



1. CaL - March 8, 2006

timothy teoh! omg! its really u! haha…remember me? cheong ai ling? ur ex classmate in primary sch?

2. Tim - March 9, 2006

Wow this is a surprise… nice to see you again. Do you have a blog?

3. CaL - March 9, 2006

yeah i do. u can click on my name in my comment or alcheong.blogspot.com =)–>

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