The ‘Just-World’ Fallacy Could Explain Some of the Reactions to the United Airlines Incident

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Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

If you know anything about human beings, it won’t surprise you that shortly after a video of Kentucky doctor David Dao being dragged off a United Airlines flight went viral, people began looking for excuses to blame Dao himself for what had happened — despite his having appeared to incur a serious gash on his head or face, simply because he didn’t want to give up a seat he had paid for. I first saw this manifest as a bunch of random tweets, but by yesterday, the Louisville Courier-Journal was digging deeply into Dao’s troubled past, seemingly in an attempt to “explain” what had happened to him — and much of the internet reacted in disgust.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that we still don’t know the entire story about what happened on the plane, and people shouldn’t be criticized for wanting more details and context. But whenever an incident like this happens, and the inevitable (s)he-had-it-coming backlash forms, it’s helpful to keep one psychological concept in mind: the just-world hypothesis.

The basic idea is simply that people tend to get what they have coming to them, in some sort of general moral sense. Reasonable people can differ on the extent to which this is the case, of course; the problem arises when people fall for the associated just-world fallacy, in which they attempt to explain terrible events by suggesting the victim must have done something to deserve their fate — despite lack of evidence and the fact that bad things happen to people randomly and for no reason, or as the result of human malevolence, all the time.

Over the years, psychologists have done some really interesting research isolating this form of bias, as a Santa Clara University page explains:

Melvin Lerner, a social psychologist, has conducted a series of experiments to test this hypothesis. In an impressive body of research, he documents people’s eagerness to convince themselves that beneficiaries deserve their benefits and victims their suffering. In a 1965 study, Lerner reported that subjects who were told that a fellow student had won a cash prize in a lottery tended to believe that the student worked harder than another student who lost the lottery. In another study a year later, Lerner and a colleague videotaped a simulated “learning” experiment in which it appeared that the “participants” were subjected to electric shocks. Lerner found that subjects who observed the videotapes tended to form much lower opinions of these “victimized” participants when there was no possibility of the victim finding relief from the ordeal, or when the victim took on the role of “martyr” by voluntarily remaining in the experiment despite the apparent unpleasantness of the experience. Lerner concluded that “the sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character.”

This bias appears to be fairly tightly woven into our thinking, which should make sense to those who study human biases and cognition. We’re not big fans of ambiguity, and the statement “Terrible things happen to people completely randomly” contains embedded within it a particularly potent, barbed form of ambiguity; it’s more or less an admission that the universe doesn’t really “care” about us — that an awful fate could befall us for no good reason at all. That’s an uncomfortable psychological state to linger in for any length of time, and one way to dispel it is to search for some bigger, clearer way to contextualize an event. Hence: “Why was she wearing such a short skirt?” And so on.

The Dao incident is interesting, but as the excerpt above suggests, the just-world hypothesis could also have much bigger ramifications. A general human desire to see outcomes as fair could explain a lot of empirically unjustified folk beliefs about wealth and privilege, for example, as well as many political attempts to manipulate people into thinking unfair outcomes are fair. The just-world fallacy certainly casts an interesting light on a lot of talk about “makers” versus “takers,” for example.

Of course, calling out the just-world fallacy in an individual case is tricky. People don’t always have a great grasp on what is motivating their own reasoning, and it’s not as though the just-world fallacy — or any other bias — hijacks a person’s thinking, Body Snatchers–style, jerking their opinions in a completely different direction. Biases and heuristics are more complicated than that. They’re more like tides: Sometimes tides are just a nuisance, nudging you in the direction you don’t want to go; sometimes they push you in the direction you want to go anyway; and sometimes, more rarely, they drag you helplessly away from shore. Like tides, biases and fallacies affect different people in different ways at different times. What’s important is to recognize their potential influence — to never forget that cognition really is a roiling ocean, not some placid pond.

The ‘Just-World’ Fallacy Could Explain Victim-Blaming