Updated: Feb 15, 2021
The other day I was listening to a podcast when I was reminded of a piece of research from 1960’s America which really seemed to speak to the world we live in today. In 1965, Melvin Lerner carried out a study in which volunteers were given power to decide on the level of punishment (in the time-honoured form of electric shock) meted out to a woman when she failed on a learning task. The woman was actually a researcher, who was instructed to feign pain by screaming at the appropriate moments. The first time the test was run, the observers were given the opportunity to change the woman’s punishment for something non-violent. The vast majority chose to do this, often citing that she was an innocent victim. The second time, the observers were told that the woman was being paid for her involvement in the test. Each group of observers were informed that she had received different levels of payment. Lerner found that the less money the observers were told the woman was being paid, the less likely they were to sympathise with her. Broadly speaking, many considered that if she would put herself through that ordeal for a small sum, she deserved what was coming to her.
Lerner’s developed what became known as the ‘Just-world hypothesis.’ It goes like this…
Most people believe in a ‘just’ world. This is one in which everyone’s actions have predictable and appropriate consequences. These actions are seen to reflect an individuals' behaviours or attributes. In short, ‘good things happen to good people’ and ill-doers are punished by fate/karma/God.
Arguably, this hypothesis underlies a contract with the society around us: we behave well because the world will then treat us well. Of course, you could also say the opposite; ‘I am successful, therefore I am good.’
Lerner was originally inspired by noticing people blame victims for their suffering. It isn’t hard to see how this mind-set can lead us towards victim-blaming…suggesting people bring assault upon themselves through their behaviour or that some communities are harder hit by economics or epidemics than others because of who they are and not their circumstances.
I think the ‘Just world hypothesis’ underlies many of our day-to-day judgements. Just look at two of the biggest news stories of recent days.
Politicians imply that the failure to feed your own children and having to visit food banks and rely on free school meals out of term time is a moral failure on the part of a parent. Surely, a worthy, decent person would be rewarded by the universe (or God) and wouldn’t find themselves relying on hand-outs?
People (apparently over 70 million of them in one current instance) believe that the wealth and material ‘success’ of a public figure (let’s say, for argument’s sake, a President) indicates worthiness and moral standing, despite all evidence to the contrary. Surely, if he wasn’t in the right, k
arma would have caught up with him; God would not have gifted him so generously?
Of course, the effect predates 1965. In 1834, the Poor Law offered the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving poor’, the latter being the feckless and work-shy, a burden on their communities and undeserving of anything but harsh treatment from good hardworking people and the state. Money and morality were inextricably tied. The wealthy had earned their riches and the poor their rags.
So, I hear you ask, how does this relate to counselling? (Which after all, is meant to be the point of this blog.)
I have never met a survivor of trauma or abuse who did not blame themselves, directly or indirectly for their experience. I have never met a person dealing with dependency who didn’t carry immeasurable shame about their perceived weakness. I have rarely met someone who struggled economically who felt they were truly ‘deserving’.
I feel that this association of ‘greatness’ with ‘goodness’ of ‘wealth’ with ‘worthiness’, of ‘progression’ with ‘propriety’ (the idea of ‘betterment’ didn’t disappear with the Victorian age) fuels the deficit in esteem that the disadvantaged carry. When you don’t value yourself, you are more likely to make misjudged and self-destructive decisions. This, inevitably, leads to a spiral of deteriorating self-esteem.
There may be a social value to believing in a ‘just world’. Don’t we all sometimes need a reminder that our deeds have consequences? I think that most if not all of us are unconsciously influenced by this. After all, who hasn’t thought ‘He got what was coming to him’?
The truth is that many, many humans have lived long and relatively unchallenged lives, despite carrying out inarguably dreadful actions. Many, many more have struggled through short and largely blameless lives; and yet we hold on to this idea that ’ As ye reap, so shall ye sow.’ The impact on society has rarely been more evident. At a time when mental health concerns are growing daily, the impact on individuals may be invisible, but no less damaging.