Bad things happen to bad people. Or, more importantly, bad things only happen to bad people.
Is that true, even in the slightest sense of the word? Recently, many of us have been forced to consider the possibility that, actually, bad things can happen to anyone, anywhere. This simple idea goes against everything that humans want to believe, everything they are wired to trust in. But why, despite the contradictory evidence that surrounds us, do we still believe that we get what we deserve?
In 1978 two psychologists, Lerner and Miller, proposed the Just World Theory (JWT). The JWT is a cognitive bias in humans that means we are inclined to believe the world is a fair place. It is the idea that moral actions will be rewarded, that evil actions will be punished; JWT is karma, what-goes-around-comes-around, actions have consequences. It is understood to have adaptive value, helping us to survive, because when an individual sees their environment as predictable they are more likely to engage in long term planning.
We do not want to believe that bad things just happen. In fact, we sometimes can’t believe it. We can’t let ourselves contradict the JWT, this inbuilt bias, even when armed with evidence of the unfairness of the world in which we exist. A mismatch between what we believe and what is real can lead to cognitive dissonance: when a person holds contradictory beliefs in their mind.
People will go to extreme measures to avoid the cognitive dissonance that results from confronting evidence that the world is neither just or fair. This is one of the reasons why Holocaust deniers exist, or why homeless people are demonised as drug addicts and criminals. When people must confront the persecution and genocide of Jews in Europe, or that, sometimes solely through misfortune and poor circumstances, people similar to themselves are left without somewhere to live, their minds can fracture.
The theory was first developed by Leon Festinger, when investigating an American cult in the 1950s. The leader of said cult had predicted the world would end in a flood on December 21st, 1954, after claiming to have received a message from an alien planet called Clarion. Clarion had promised that an alien visitor would collect the believers before the flood destroyed Earth. The morning of December 21st arrived, and the day proceeded like any other. No visitor arrived. No flood. Cult members who had left their lives to commit to the cause had been duped. And yet instead of rejecting the cult, returning to their normal lives, and accepting that in reality aliens were not in communication with their small group, they instead became even more dedicated. They explained away the alien no-show as a result of the cult’s commitment. They avoided cognitive dissonance, the problem of conflicting reality (no flood, no visitor) with their beliefs (prophecy of flood, preparation for visitor), by rationalising that the flood was avoided because the cult members had been devoted enough to prevent the apocalypse.
"Right place, wrong time? Wrong place, right time?"
The avoidance of cognitive dissonance is not just limited to cults dealing with the (absent) end of the world; it is a huge motivator in everyday life. It is why your friend won’t believe her partner is cheating on her, despite all the obvious signs. She cannot handle the confrontation between her beliefs that surround them, as a good person who loves her, with the reality of betrayal and hurt. It is why you say you only smoke when you’re stressed while completely ignoring the stressful images on cigarette packages of the negative side effects of smoking. When you find yourself wilfully choosing not to acknowledge obvious truths, lying to yourself to dodge a mental confrontation, you are avoiding dealing with cognitive dissonance. This evasion occurs all the time, because of the almost recurrent clash between the JWT and reality.
The JWT has been found across cultures and is relatively robust, standing up to a significant amount of contradictory evidence. However, it can be undermined by inescapably random tragedy, such as terror attacks. That a person can be killed while shopping for Christmas presents, or working on a regular Tuesday morning, or going clubbing, while someone who did the exact same thing a week, day or minute earlier was never in any danger, does not seem fair. And yet, on the 11th September 2001 almost 3000 people died in their offices, in 2016 a truck was driven into a Christmas market in Berlin, and later that year, on a Saturday night in June, 49 people were murdered in an Orlando nightclub. It is completely unpredictable who was running late so avoided harm, or who wasn’t exactly where they were planning to be, when they were planning to be there. Right place, wrong time? Wrong place, right time?
The number of random incidents in any one day is staggering; thousands of small choices, compounded by millions of chance happenings. When the majority of the population has no possible way of preparing for imminent danger people are no longer responsible for their fate.
Nothing has made this point clearer than Covid-19. Yes, you can catch Corona by not following the rules, by protesting the lockdown, or going to a birthday party, or hooking up with someone on Tinder. But you can also catch it by walking behind someone who coughs, by going to the shops to buy food, by picking up a necessary prescription from the hospital.
"Because of all this chaos - the complete unpredictability that drives our new lives - blame is beginning to define the way we interact with others."
And even more arbitrary than catching the virus is how severely you have it. There are households where someone has a mild cough, and their brother is on a respirator. In general, there are factors that make people more susceptible to deadlier effects, but there are still many people who had no underlying health issues, who didn’t smoke, who were young, and who have now lost their lives.
Not only is the disease in itself unfair, but the widespread consequences are also not fair. The rippling effects of Corona are leading to over 36 million people in the US seeking unemployment benefits. Events have been cancelled. Relationships are breaking down. The pubs aren’t open. Some sectors (anything that can survive online) are stronger, and yes, there is a lot of positivity. There has been an incredible amount of creativity and compassion from every corner of the world, and people have helped each other, and there have been good things to come from this. But this article isn’t about that. This article is about everything that is wrong with this pandemic, and how none of it, is fair.
And so here comes the crux of the issue – the world around us has been shown to be unequivocally unfair. “Life isn’t fair, Potter.” “Life is pain, highness, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.” Witty quips in popular films and books are funny when reading, but a loss less funny when impossible to ignore. Anyone who has known someone diagnosed with cancer, involved in a car accident, or affected by a natural disaster, understands this. But now, this pandemic has forced everyone to confront the contradiction between the JWT and their own life experiences.
Because of all this chaos - the complete unpredictability that drives our new lives - blame is beginning to define the way we interact with others. According to the JWT, if you behaved responsibly, and lived by the rules, and are now having to deal with something problematic, it is not because of the general lack of order in the world around you; it must be someone else’s fault. By blaming someone else you can explain what you cannot see yourself as responsible for.
The manifestations of this blame can be seen in the increased reports of racial attacks and verbal abuse experienced by Asian minorities. It is why the newspapers are full of tirades about who was responsible for the lack of PPE, the confusion with testing, the missed warning signs. Conspiracy theories can be seen as an extension of this blame; a clutching at straws, a desperate attempt to understand why something is happening. An infectious disease laboratory in Wuhan which mysteriously closed late last year gives us a cause. Conspiracy theories give us a reason. Blaming someone gives a focus for the chaos. It should be noted that these reasons don’t have to be negative; a common message being broadcast at the moment is that, despite all the tragedy, the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown is actually a good thing. It slows us down, makes us reconnect, makes us realise what matters. Nature is healing, we are the virus?
Claims like this may have some truth. They might be as credible as the conclusions the cult members came to. But they all have the same root – people are trying to justify the way the world works. For those who need it (and really that is everyone, intrinsically) the finger pointing is understandable. But for those who can handle it the most productive thing to do is to confront the Just World Theory. Look it in the face. Stare it down. And realise that no, the world is not just. No, life isn’t fair. No one really said it was.