Just-World Hypothesis: Conservatism's Fantasyland
Imagine a world where individuals are perfectly rational and autonomous that everyone gets what they deserve and no one experiences mishaps in their lives. Sounds amazing, right? Bad news: It does not exist.
If people are asked to think of words they could associate with conservatism, it is certain that most of them would answer religion or free markets and we cannot blame them for that. Both a desire to uphold religious values and traditions and promote free-market policies had been a staple of conservatism, most especially American conservatism. However, asking people how conservatives perceive society and their surroundings would seem a more daunting task. Nevertheless, conservatives’ perception of the world could be summarised into three words: just-world hypothesis.
What is the just-world hypothesis?
Every one of us wishes to live in a perfect society wherein every individual are perfectly rational and autonomous in such a way that they could be take responsibility for every action they make. For instance, when women could be able to report sexual harassment instantly and not take days, months, or even years to do so. Or when poor people are responsible for themselves in such a way that they no longer seek to procreate in order to lessen their suffering and ensure their social mobility in the future. Or when hard working people get what they deserve and go up the social ladder due to their industriousness and diligence. Such a society would be perfect, right? The only problem is, that, reality isn’t always like that.
The just-world hypothesis is a cognitive bias which assumes that the actions of an individual would always bring consequences that is morally fair and fitting to that person. In other words, the just-world hypothesis believes that good actions would always be rewarded and that bad actions would always be punished. Hard work would always pay off while laziness would give little or nothing at all. This assumption, nonetheless, is not only irrational. It is also dangerous, as it is often used to rationalise negative consequences of certain actions and behavior for the reason that the person who had them “deserved” it (or in other words, you reap what you sow).
While almost every person could exhibit this assumption to varying degrees in some situations, conservatives are more likely to unwittingly promote and believe in just-world hypothesis due in part to their belief in religion and individualism that is promoted by free-market capitalism. This often leads them to deny societal problems such as systemic racism and economic inequality. Furthermore, most of them often use this cognitive bias to legitimise victim blaming when it comes to issues such as sexual harrassment and even poverty. They assume that if only women are responsible enough to report such incidents to the police or take actions that make them less likely to be harassed, then women wouldn’t experience this so often. They also believe that if only the poor are responsible enough to work harder, not have children instantly, or not be lazy, then they could be better off in life.
Unfortunately, this kind of thinking does not always go in line with reality. Victims of sexual harassment do not report sooner due to trauma, fear of gaslighting and denial, and lack of awareness that they had already been harassed. In addition, only a small percentage of people born in poverty will ever be able to rise to the middle class due to several factors, ranging from where you grew up to the income your parents earned. If working hard was enough to ensure social mobility, then perhaps every man and woman in Africa, Asia, and Latin America should all be billionaires by now. Unfortunately, there is more to poverty and lack of economic growth than simply not working hard.
The problems of poverty and sexual harassment had grown well enough to be systemic ones especially in the United States in a way that it had been a staple of the system and no single group or individual is entirely responsible for its continuation. And yet most conservatives either fail or deny to take a look at this perspective and they tend to focus only at the individual aspect of this issue. Not everyone is born the same and live the same life, and therefore it is illogical to assume that every hard-working person would have their efforts rewarded and women being able to fend off sexual harassment completely on their own. The world is much more complex than what most people think, and therefore the causes of each societal problem in the world is also complicated. There are instances when we have control over some things and not on the others. This applies to everyone. Society is not entirely like a mass of gas particles moving freely among each other, being able to go anywhere they like. Rather, it is more like pins impaled on a board with lines of cotton thread tied on each pin’s head connected to each other. The pins may remain separate from each other but flick the thread and you will see each pin and line affected by the movement.
Furthermore, humans are inherently imperfect. Therefore, just as how communism is often criticised on the grounds that a perfect system cannot be created by imperfect beings, the same could be applied to our society. Imperfect beings could not be able to create perfect worlds. Therefore, we should not expect people to move and act in a perfect manner.
A Possible “Antidote” to Just-World Hypothesis
To combat this kind of thinking and avoid falling from its traps, the best thing to do is to see the balance between the individual and the society. While it is wrong to put the blame entirely on the actions (or lack thereof) of one person or group in the face of a societal problem (e.g. poverty, sexual harassment), it is also wrong to assume that the misfortunes of one group (e.g. black people, women, the LGBT community) is due to the actions of another group that seems to hold societal dominance (e.g. white people, men, straight people). Furthermore, to believe that the mishap of one person is because of the entire society, as well as putting all members of one group into a perceived victimhood status without considering each individual’s background, is not only illogical but also irresponsible. While society is a system, this system is also composed of individual units connected to each other. And therefore without the individual, society would not take form or even exist. Recognise the systemic problems of each society, but understand also that each individual could be able to pass through these problems with their own strength, creativity, and a little help from their friends, family, and society. Solving societal problems requires more cooperation and understanding and less blaming.