International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences (2nd
Belief in a Just World
Claudia Dalbert and Matthias Donat
Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany
Dalbert, C. & Donat, M. (2015). Belief in a just world. In J. D. Wright (Ed.), International
Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (2nd ed., Vol. 2, pp. 487-492). Oxford,
UK: Elsevier. doi:10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.24043-9
This chapter does not exactly replicate the final version published in the International
Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (2nd ed). It is not a copy of the original
published article and is not suitable for citation.
Author for correspondence:
Prof. Dr. Claudia Dalbert
Department of Educational Psychology
Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg
According to just world research, people need to believe that they live in a world
in which everyone gets what they deserve and deserves what they get. This belief in a just
world is conceptualized as an interindividually varying disposition and has important
adaptive functions. The stronger this belief is the more people trust in justice and the more
they defend justice in the world, either behaviorally or cognitively, and the better their
justice motive, Melvin Lerner, justice, assimilation, blaming the victim, disdain,
justice judgments, trust, subjective well-being, implicit motive
Suggestions for Cross References (see Table of Contents)
deviant behavior, aggression, justice, prosocial behavior, neuroticism, subjective
well-being, authoritarianism, personality, academic achievement, motivation,
delinquency, religiosity, attribution, trust, risk, classroom climate
Conceptualization of the Belief in a Just World
Societies are full of inequalities and injustices -- the uneven distribution of wealth
or the inequality of access to health care and education to name just a few. Individuals
react differently to observed or experienced injustice. Some feel moral outrage and seek
to restore justice (e.g., Montada et al., 1986). Others show disdain for the victims (for a
review, see Lerner & Miller, 1978) or adopt belief systems that serve to justify existing
social, economic, and political arrangements (Jost et al., 2004). In other words, people
confronted with injustices restore justice in reality or they may try to restore injustices --
that are difficult to redress in reality -- cognitively by blaming the victim or justifying the
status quo. The more people believe in a just world the more they care for justice.
The Just World Hypothesis
Several psychological theories propose explanations for justice-driven reactions.
One of the most influential is the just world hypothesis introduced by Lerner (e.g., Lerner
& Simmons, 1966). The just world hypothesis states that people need to believe in a just
world in which everyone gets what they deserve and deserves what they get. This belief
enables them to deal with their social environment as though it were stable and orderly
and thus serves important adaptive functions. As a result, people are motivated to defend
their belief in a just world when it is threatened by injustices, either experienced or
observed. If possible, justice is restored in reality (e.g., by compensating victims). If the
injustice seems unlikely to be resolved in reality, however, people restore justice
cognitively by re-evaluating the situation in line with their belief in a just world. This
cognitive process is called the assimilation of injustice.
This just world dynamic was first evidenced by Lerner and Simmons (1966).
These researchers confronted their participants with an “innocent victim,” a young
woman participating in a learning task who was punished for each mistake by being
administered seemingly painful electric shocks. When led to believe that the experiment
would continue in the same way, the participants showed disdain for the victim on an
adjective measure; when led to believe that the victim would be compensated for the pain
of the electric shocks by receiving money for each correct answer in a second part of the
experiment, they stopped disdaining the victim. Finally, nearly all participants who were
given the choice between continuing the shock condition and switching to the
compensation condition voted for the latter. Note, however, that merely voting to award
the victim compensation did not stop participants from derogating the victim. It was only
when they were certain that compensation would be given that the injustice was no longer
assimilated. This innocent victim paradigm remains the most influential in modern
experimental just world research; it is only the type of innocent victim that has changed
(e.g., Correia et al., 2007). In sum, the confrontation with an innocent victim triggers a
motivation to restore justice.
The Belief in a Just World as a Disposition
A substantial amount of research on belief in a just world has been experimental in
nature (for a review, see Hafer & Bègue, 2005), focusing primarily on the maladaptive
functions of the belief in a just world, such as disdain for the victim. Since the 1970s,
however, another strand of research has examined individual differences in the belief in a
just world and found that it also serves important adaptive functions (for a review, see
Furnham, 2003). This research agenda was triggered by the introduction of the first belief
in a just world scale by Rubin and Peplau (1973), which assessed individual differences in
the belief that the world is generally a just place. This approach allowed the role of the
belief in a just world to be investigated within the framework of personality dispositions,
and positive associations were found particularly with authoritarianism and internal locus
of control (for a review, see Furnham & Procter, 1989).
Since the 1990s, more studies have investigated the positive as well as the
negative social consequences of the belief in a just world, and the focus of these
investigations has been extended to cover the consequences of holding a belief in a just
world for the believers. Based on suggestions originating from earlier research (e.g.,
Furnham & Procter, 1989), these studies have shown that it is necessary to distinguish the
belief in a personal just world, in which one is usually treated justly, from the belief in a
general just world, in which people in general get what they deserve (e.g., Dalbert, 1999).
In line with the self-serving bias in general and in fairness reasoning in particular
(Messick et al., 1985), research evidenced that people tend to endorse the personal more
strongly than the general belief in a just world and that the two constructs have a different
meaning. The personal belief in a just world is a better predictor of adaptive outcomes
(e.g., subjective well-being), and the belief in a just world in general is a better predictor
for example of harsh social attitudes (e.g., Bègue & Muller, 2006).
Of course, other differentiations of the just world construct have also been
proposed. For the general just world belief, e.g., a general belief in immanent justice has
been distinguished from a general belief in ultimate justice, and a general belief in
distributive justice has been distinguished from a general belief in procedural justice (e.g.,
Lucas et al., 2007). Finally, the general belief in a just world has been differentiated from
the general belief in an unjust world (Dalbert et al., 2001). This latter research showed
that general belief in a just world should not be seen as a bipolar construct, but as a
two-dimensional one. However, the differentiation between a more general and a more
personal just world belief thus far seems to be the most widespread and well examined
distinction. Thus, the present summary focuses on research on general and personal just
Belief in a Just World and Other Personality Dispositions
One of the first associations observed between the belief in a just world and other
personality dispositions was the positive correlation between just world belief and
religiosity (e.g., Rubin & Peplau, 1973). Research on the differences between the two has
confirmed that they are distinct dispositions, and cross-cultural research has found few
differences in the just world belief across cultures with contrasting religious and political
backgrounds (e.g., Furnham, 1993). A positive and sometimes substantial association has
also been found between authoritarianism and just world belief (for a review, see
Furnham & Procter, 1989). Analyses of the common factor structure of the two constructs
support the two-factor hypothesis and their differential meaning, with the belief in a just
world providing a more positive outlook than authoritarianism (e.g., Dalbert, 1992). The
positive associations repeatedly observed between just world belief and internal locus of
control have prompted speculation about an overlap between these two constructs as well
(for a review, see Furnham & Procter, 1989). The two constructs should be distinct from a
theoretical perspective, however. The belief in personal agency is consistent with the
belief in a just world as long as the justice principle endorsed is the equity norm. Other
ideas of justice (e.g., the equality or the need principle of justice or the belief in a just
God) are not consistent with the belief in internal control. Finally, there is some evidence
to suggest that the belief in a just world as a personality trait is correlated with global
personality dimensions. In particular, empirical findings indicate a negative relationship
between just world belief and neuroticism, consistent with the positive outlook that the
belief in a just world provides (e.g., Lipkus et al., 1996). Nevertheless, studies controlling
for neuroticism evidenced the incremental validity of the just world belief (e.g., Dalbert
& Dzuka, 2004). Taken collectively, research supports the differential validity of the
belief in a just world within the network of personality dispositions.
Justice Motive versus Justice Motivation
In the context of just world research and theory, scholars often speak of the justice
motive (e.g., Ross & Miller, 2002). The shift from the experimental to the individual
differences approach to the belief in a just world made it necessary to differentiate
between a justice motive and justice motivation. Motives are individual dispositions
reflecting individual differences in the tendency to strive for a specific goal. A justice
motive is thus an individual disposition to strive for justice as an end itself. According to
Lerner (1977), the individual belief in a just world can be interpreted as an indicator of
such a justice motive. The belief in a just world indicates a personal contract; the more
people want to rely on being treated justly by others, the more obligated they should feel
to behave justly themselves. Thus, the stronger the belief in a just world is, the stronger
the justice motive.
Experimental just world research typically does not assess individual differences,
however, but interprets experimental reactions in the light of just world reasoning. Such
research thus addresses justice motivation, and not the justice motive as an individual
differences disposition. Motivation can be defined as a person’s orientation toward a
specific goal in a specific situational state; thus, justice motivation means the orientation
toward justice in a given situation. Justice motivation is triggered by specific situational
circumstances in interaction with personal dispositions. In the case of justice motivation,
that personal disposition may be the justice motive or other dispositions (e.g., Lind & van
den Bos, 2002). As an extension of this reasoning, belief in a just world is an indicator of
a justice motive; justice motive theory (Dalbert, 2001) moreover perceives it as an
implicit justice motive that operates on an intuitive level of information processing and
predicts intuitive reactions to injustice (for a review, see also Hafer & Bègue, 2005).
Consequences of the Belief in a Just World
Today belief in a just world represents a disposition that can easily be measured.
Thus, a growing number of research in the last decade was able to show important
consequences of that belief. In line with justice motive theory, this research indicates
that belief in a just world leads to intuitive justice-driven reactions as the striving for just
behavior and the avoidance of unjust behavior, assimilation of injustice, and trust in
justice. Therefore, belief in a just world serves adaptive functions and can thus be seen
as a resource that sustains subjective well-being (Dalbert, 2001).
Belief in a Just World and Social Behavior
In a just world, a positive future is not the gift of a benevolent world, but a reward
for the individual’s behavior and character. Consequently, the more individuals believe in
a just world, the more compelled they should feel to strive for justice themselves. The just
world belief is thus indicative of a personal contract (Lerner, 1977), the terms of which
oblige the individual to behave justly. Therefore, strong just world believers are more
likely to help people in need (Bierhoff et al., 1991), at least as long as the victims are seen
as “innocent” or as member of the in-group (e.g., Correia et al., 2007). In addition, the
belief in a just world has been shown to be one of the important correlates of social
responsibility (Bierhoff, 1994), commitment to just means (e.g., Hafer, 2000), and,
inversely, delinquent and cheating behavior (e.g., Donat et al., 2014), and bullying
behavior (e.g., Donat et al., 2012). Moreover, the obligation for reciprocity has been
found to be stronger among individuals with a strong just world belief (Edlund et al.,
2007). Finally, a laboratory study revealed that own unjust behavior is censured by a
decrease in self-esteem only for those with a strong belief in a just world (Dalbert, 1999).
Belief in a Just World and the Assimilation of Injustice
When individuals with a strong just world belief experience an injustice that they
do not believe can be resolved in reality, they try to intuitively assimilate the experience
to their just world belief. This can be done for example by justifying the experienced
injustice as being at least partly self-inflicted, by playing down the injustice, by avoiding
self-focused rumination, or by forgiving (e.g., Dalbert, 1997). As a result of these
mechanisms, positive relationships have been observed between the belief in a just world
and justice judgments in various domains of life. Most research into this assimilation has
dealt with blaming the victim and justice judgments.
Blaming the Victim
A wealth of evidence from traditional research into the just world construct shows
that individuals confronted with injustice are motivated to defend their just world belief.
When observers are given the opportunity to adequately compensate an “innocent” victim
(e.g., Berscheid & Walster, 1967) and thus restore justice in reality, nearly all choose to
do so (Lerner & Simmons, 1966). If they are not in a position to secure compensation for
the victim, observers tend to defend their belief in a just world by psychological means.
Two of these means have been examined in detail in just world research. Observers can
either show disdain for victims, reasoning that their fate is a deserved punishment for a
bad character (characterological attribution), or they can blame victims for having
inflicted their fate upon themselves -- after all, a self-inflicted fate is not unjust
(behavioral attribution). Just world research has shown that observers prefer to blame the
victim rather than to show disdain. The more a fate is seen as self-inflicted, the less
disdain is observed (e.g., Lerner & Matthews, 1967). In sum, when people are confronted
with the victim of an unjust fate, blaming the victim seems to be a crucial element in the
defense of their belief in a just world.
Similar mechanisms can be assumed to operate for the victims of injustice
themselves. Comer and Laird (1975) have shown experimentally that internal attributions
seem to be a way of re-evaluating one’s fate as just. The significance of causal
attributions, and especially of internal attributions, has thus been a subject of much
discussion in the context of the just world hypothesis (e.g., Lerner & Miller, 1978).
People with a strong just world belief are expected to be motivated to defend their belief
by making internal attributions of negative outcomes, thus maintaining their subjective
well-being. Although some research evidenced the hypothesized positive association
between just world belief and internal attributions of the victims themselves (e.g., Hafer
& Correy, 1999), other studies found no association between them (e.g., Fetchenhauer et
al., 2005). Overall, the pattern of results for the belief in a just world and victims’ internal
attribution is rather mixed.
As a consequence of the assimilation process, individuals with a strong just world
belief are expected to evaluate observed events and events in their own life as being more
just. For example, school students with a strong belief in a just world have been found to
be more likely to evaluate their school grades and their teachers’, peers’, and parents’
behavior toward them as just (e.g., Peter & Dalbert, 2013), and feel less excluded from
school and generally (Umlauft et al., 2013). Similarly, prisoners with a strong personal
just world belief were more likely to evaluate the justice of the legal proceedings leading
to their conviction, the treatment by their prison officers, and decisions on prison affairs
as more just (e.g., Dalbert & Filke, 2007).
The personal just world belief is usually seen as a personal disposition, but results
indicating an additional, reverse effect of justice experiences on the belief in a just world
qualify this assumption. Research has shown that justice experiences in the school and the
family modify the personal just world belief (Dalbert & Stoeber, 2006), and that factors
such as length of imprisonment (Otto & Dalbert, 2005), monotony at work, and mobbing
experiences at work (e.g., Dzuka & Dalbert, 2007) are negatively related to the personal
just world belief. Thus, the belief in a personal just world must be seen as a partly
experiential construct. Nevertheless, an unambiguous pattern of results clearly indicates
that a strong personal just world belief leads to events being evaluated as just. Cubela
Adoric and Kvartuc (2007) have suggested that injustice experiences only impact the
belief in a just world when they reach a specific degree of adversity. Further studies are
needed to determine under which conditions the just world belief fosters the assimilation
of injustice and under which conditions injustice can no longer be assimilated, but instead
undermines the belief in a just world and leads to adverse consequences as embitterment
Belief in a Just World and the Trust in Justice
People with a strong belief in a just world are thought to be confident in being
treated justly by others, and it is this trust in particular that is hypothesized to give the just
world belief the character of a resource in everyday life. Assuming that people get what
they deserve, they will be punished for deceiving others. Accordingly, in a just world,
people are expected to be honest with one another, and people who have been deceived
may conclude that they deserved it in some way. It can thus be hypothesized that people
with a strong just world belief prefer not to think they have been deceived or taken
advantage of. In line with this reasoning, research has shown a positive association of just
world belief with general interpersonal trust (e.g., Bègue, 2002), trust in societal
institutions (Correia & Vala, 2004), and young adolescents’ trust in the justice of their
future workplace (Sallay, 2004). This trust in future justice has a number of implications.
Individuals with a strong just world belief are convinced that good things happen
to good people and that bad things happen to bad people. Because individuals tend to
think of themselves as good people (e.g., Messick et al., 1985) the belief in a just world
can be expected to give them an optimistic outlook on the future. This buffering effect is
expected to be particularly evident when people are threatened by injustice. Lambert et al.
(1999) were the first to study the meaning of the belief in a just world for risk perception
and showed that the just world belief seems to enable fearful individuals (i.e., those high
in authoritarianism) to be confident of avoiding an unjust fate. It is particularly important
for individuals exposed to external risks -- i.e., those perceived to be controlled by others
or by fate (e.g., robbery) -- rather than to internal risks -- i.e., those that are under their
personal control (e.g., suicide) -- to be able to rely on the environment being just. Indeed,
Dalbert (2001) found that the buffering effect of the just world belief for fearful
individuals held only for external risks, and not for internal risks. Finally, Hafer et al.
(2001) found that individuals with a strong just world belief, but low in interpersonal
control, seem to put themselves at greater risk, presumably as a consequence of a lowered
risk perception. In sum, just world belief appears to function as a buffer against the
perception of external risk for those who tend to need such a buffer, but this mechanism
may result in higher exposure to risks in reality.
Investment in One’s Future
The belief in a just world enables individuals to rely on their good deeds being
rewarded at some point in the future. The certitude that everyone will ultimately get what
they deserve encourages individuals to invest in their future. In contrast, those who do not
believe in a just world doubt the value of such an investment, because the return on it is
uncertain. Zuckerman (1975) was the first to observe that people with a strong just world
belief may choose to invest in their future when in a state of need to trust in the justice of
their own future. Hafer (2000) corroborated these findings and demonstrated
experimentally that individuals with a particular need to believe in a bright future
defended their just world belief more strongly in the face of threat. In the same vein,
questionnaire studies with students facing the school-to-work transition (Dette et al.,
2004), young male prisoners (Otto & Dalbert, 2005), and young adults living in assisted
accommodation (Sutton & Winnard, 2007) have shown that just world belief is positively
associated with confidence that personal goals will be attained.
Individuals with a strong belief in a just world show more trust in their future and
in others’ behavior toward them. It is thus hypothesized that they expect to be confronted
with fair tasks in achievement situations, and for their efforts to be justly rewarded. They
can thus be hypothesized to feel less threatened and more challenged by the need to
achieve, to experience fewer negative emotions, and to achieve better results. Tomaka
and Blascovich (1994) conducted a laboratory study to test the basic hypotheses outlined
above and confronted their participants with two rapid serial subtraction tasks.
Participants with a strong just world belief felt more challenged and less threatened, and
performed better than those with a weak belief.
Extending this laboratory research to the school and work setting, studies have
revealed a positive correlation between just world belief and school achievement, and
self-rated performance at work (e.g., Kahileh et al., 2013). Finally, Allen et al. (2005)
have observed that nations whose citizens have stronger just world beliefs show a faster
pace of workforce modernization and GNP/capita growth.
Belief in a Just World and Subjective Well-Being
Because the main properties of the belief in a just world -- indicating commitment
to a personal contract, endowing trust in the justice of the world, and providing a
framework for the interpretation of the events in one’s life -- have a variety of adaptive
implications, the belief in a just world can be expected to positively impact subjective
well-being, either directly or indirectly, mediated by these implications. There is ample
evidence of a positive relationship between just world beliefs and subjective well-being.
Moreover, research has shown that the belief in a personal just world is more important
than the general just world belief in explaining well-being (e.g., Otto et al., 2006), and
that this positive association between just world belief and well-being is true for
non-victims (e.g., Dzuka & Dalbert, 2006) and various groups of victims (e.g., Otto et al.,
2006). In addition, Dzuka and Dalbert (2007) demonstrated that teachers’ well-being was
positively associated with their belief in a just world and that this relationship held when
exposure to student violence was controlled. This study is one of the few to have found
evidence for a buffering effect of the just world belief: It was only among teachers with a
weak just world belief that exposure to violence was associated with more negative
affect; exposure to violence did not explain negative affect among those with a strong just
A personal resource can be defined as a personal disposition that helps people to
cope with the events of their daily life. The stronger the resource, the better equipped they
are to cope. A personal resource thus implies a main effect hypothesis. A personal buffer,
in contrast, is usually seen as a resource that takes effect only under specific adverse
conditions. A buffer thus implies a moderator hypothesis; the buffer moderates the
association between strain and outcome. Overall, research findings are very much in line
with the resource hypothesis and do not support the buffer hypothesis. The just world
belief should thus be seen as personal resource helping to sustain the well-being of people
of all ages in diverse situations, victims and non-victims alike.
Just world research has shown that people need to believe in justice, and that they
strive for justice in order to maintain their basic belief in a just world (e.g., Lerner &
Miller, 1978). This justice motive is reflected by an interindividually varying belief in just
world and this disposition explains the differences in people’s striving for justice as an
end in itself, including their own behavior and assimilation of observed or experienced
injustices. In return, the justice motive endows trust in the justice of the world and in
being treated justly by others.
The basic idea of the just world hypothesis is that people confronted with
injustices suffer and feel the unconscious need to restore justice (e.g., Lerner & Simmons,
1966). As a consequence, the belief in a just world particularly impacts intuitive
justice-driven reactions such as, for example, the assimilation of injustice. Thus, research
suggests that the belief in a just world is an essential but unconscious source of responses
to injustice, in line with the role of other implicit human motives (McClelland et al.,
1989). Justice motive theory (Dalbert, 2001) thus interprets the belief in a just world as
indicating an implicit justice motive. Lerner and Goldberg (1999) argue that conscious
and intuitive justice-driven reactions co-exist, and may be elicited simultaneously in the
same situation. The belief in a just world seems to operate on an unconscious level and
can thus be expected to better explain intuitive than conscious reactions to injustice
(Dalbert, 2001). Important challenges for future research on the just world construct
include integrating just world research within such a broader framework of human
motives and differentiating between the explanation of more controlled versus more
intuitive justice-driven reactions in the light of just world reasoning.
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