What Is The Just-World Hypothesis, And How Does It Relate To Trauma?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 13, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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When something challenging, unexpected, or traumatic happens, how do you cope with it? Some people may make sense of the world by subscribing to the just-world hypothesis. While this concept may help individuals experience optimism in the face of struggle, it may also cause feelings of guilt or shame for trauma survivors.

It’s possible to move forward from trauma

What is the just-world hypothesis?

The just-world hypothesis is the belief that the world is a fair and just place and that people get what they deserve in life. Like the concept of karma, according to the just-world hypothesis, if you do good, good things will happen to you. However, it states that if you do wrong, bad things will happen to you.

The just-world hypothesis may help some people make sense of the world. For example, a single parent working two jobs to provide for their young children might feel more hopeful about their situation turning around in the future if they hold a personal belief in the just-world hypothesis.

One potential problem with the just-world hypothesis also referred to as the just-world fallacy, is that it often ignores life's complexities. People who are good-intentioned, hardworking, and kind may experience disappointment, failure, or tragedy. If we expect to be granted an easy life, we might not develop resilience to help us overcome adversity if it occurs.

Research on the just-world hypothesis

The just-world hypothesis has been researched in a few studies. These studies have insights into innate human behavior that may help us recognize the adverse effects of subscribing to the just-world hypothesis and may support us in moving through life with resilience and self-awareness.

Lerner and Simmons

The just-world hypothesis was developed in 1965 by a researcher named Melvin Lerner. He devised an experiment evaluating how individuals respond to injustice to study his belief that people believe good things only happen to good people.

In the study, a group of volunteers was asked to watch what they were told was a closed-circuit feed. They watched as a woman was brought into a room, and electrodes were attached to her body. Then, she was asked to take a test.

Each time the woman answered incorrectly on the test, she writhed in pain while the volunteers watched. The volunteers were told that the woman received an electric shock each time she answered incorrectly. However, the woman was a graduate student acting the part and wasn't electrocuted.

While they watched, the volunteers were given some choices. One group could end the woman's suffering and choose to let her learn in another way. Because these volunteers felt the woman was unjustly punished, they wanted to end her suffering.

The other group was told they couldn't release her. Instead, the volunteers in this group were given different explanations about the woman's situation. These stories ranged from indicating that she was getting paid to be shocked to accepting pain as a martyr to prevent others from experiencing it.

Some volunteers who didn’t end her suffering didn't see her as an innocent victim. Instead, they blamed her for her circumstances. They assumed she was getting what she deserved based on the story they were told.

Lerner concluded that people who cannot help someone who is suffering might think of them as deserving of their fate.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Rubin and Peplau

Two researchers, Zick Rubin and Letitia Anne Peplau, developed the just-world scale, a series of 20 questions that may evaluate whether the respondent believes the world is just.

They based the just-world scale on survey responses from people who strongly believe the world is fair. In creating the just-world scale, they identified several common characteristics of people who believe in the just-world hypothesis.

They were typically:

  • More religious
  • More conservative
  • More authoritarian

These people tended to:

  • Admire political leaders
  • Admire established institutions
  • Look down on people from underprivileged groups

They tended to feel:

  • Little need to work to change society
  • Little need to end the suffering of underprivileged victims

These results indicate that subscribing to the just-world hypothesis may inhibit societal change and increase the marginalization of underprivileged groups.

Andre and Velasquez

Two additional researchers, Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez developed the just-world theory. This theory explains that people may have a strong need for the world to conform to their just vision of it.

When a perceived injustice occurs, their need to see the world as fair may compel them to find a way to reframe their perception of the situation, even if they must distort the facts to do so. For example, some people may blame victims of assault for their clothing choices instead of showing sympathy for their trauma.

This research suggests that increased self-awareness can help people choose to make positive changes to their environment instead of victim-blaming and inaction.

Benefits of believing the just-world hypothesis

Believing the just-world hypothesis may help some people feel peace of mind. This hypothesis might make the world feel like an orderly, less chaotic place with a moral balance between positive and negative outcomes.

Just-world beliefs can encourage people to do good for themselves and others. It can even reduce feelings of vulnerability or fear because it may make people feel they have more control in a predictable world.

It can be comforting to believe in the just-world hypothesis when things are going well in life. However, this worldview has the potential to hold you back if you experience difficulties in life.

Drawbacks of believing the just-world hypothesis

While the just-world theory can provide psychological well-being and promote optimism in certain situations, it is important to be aware of the potential drawbacks associated with this strong belief. Just-world research over the past decade has uncovered several negative aspects related to the just-world bias, a cognitive bias that can lead to a fundamental delusion about fairness in the world.

Minimizing life's complexities and having a strong belief in just-world theory may lead someone to:

  • Blame innocent victims, contributing to injustice in the world
  • Have negative attitudes toward people in need, such as homeless people, victims of crimes, or those with substance use disorder
  • Experience shame when something bad happens to them, like trauma, disappointment, or failure
  • Blame themselves for their misfortunes, which may negatively affect their own behavior and mental health
  • Limit personal development by not embracing the complexity of social situations
  • Delude themselves into believing they’re safe when they aren't, leaving them unprepared when something unexpected happens

One of the primary challenges related to the just-world theory is the failure to restore justice. Believing in a fair world may blind individuals to the existence of an unjust world, where systemic issues like discrimination, poverty, and violence persist. By recognizing and addressing these issues, we can work towards creating a more equitable society.

Getty/Luis Alvarez
It’s possible to move forward from trauma

The just-world theory can also impact our own feelings and behavior. Subscribing fully to the just-world hypothesis may be problematic if we have lived through trauma. Traumatic events may be viewed either as punishment for mistakes that were made in the past or as evidence that the world is an unsafe place.

They may also blame themselves for bad things that happen to them, even when the circumstances are out of their control, like when they are survivors of a crime or experienced trauma. Any of these reactions can make it more challenging to move forward from traumatic events.

Therapy for trauma

Cognitive processing therapy, or CPT, is a specific therapy commonly used for people who have experienced different forms of trauma. CPT may help you recognize your complicated thought patterns and show you how to challenge them so that you can move forward from your trauma. An entire CPT course is usually 12 sessions and can be performed one-on-one with a licensed therapist or in a group therapy session.

Online therapy can be another convenient way for individuals who have experienced trauma to get support. Online therapists are often available via messaging, so you can message them between appointments if negative thought patterns and changes in social behavior arise.

The National Center for Health Research confirms that online therapy can be effective for people who have experienced trauma or are living with post-traumatic stress disorder. An understanding therapist may help you overcome adversity and move forward without blaming yourself for the trauma that occurred in your life.

Through platforms such as BetterHelp, you can browse many professionals who specialize in various areas, including trauma and trauma disorders like PTSD.


Many people strongly believe in the just-world hypothesis. However, for people who have experienced trauma and other individuals, believing in this worldview may cause fear, isolation, or feelings of shame. A learning task central to personal growth is understanding the complex relationship between actions and outcomes. Acknowledging the role of chance, for example, can help individuals develop a more realistic perspective on life outcomes. If it's challenging to view your past without guilt or shame, online therapy may help you reframe your thought processes.

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