Belief in a Just World

by Joy Icayan

416_cp24_quake_fire_110311 I was home sick when the news of the Japan earthquake came in. I could only hear the television from the other apartment talking about something huge, because the local reporters started referring to CNN, when normally the news would be comfortably confined to local political bickering and showbiz chutzpah. It was on Twitter when I later learned about the magnitude of the earthquake’s damage, and the extent of the tsunami reports, which have also reached certain provinces of my country. In Facebook, a close friend in Tokyo sent us a picture of a burning building and said that while there still small tremors now and then, she was at least physically safe.

And as in every calamity, there was the usual phenomenon in social networking sites—the exchange of information, call for prayers, the expressions of worry, and then there were the more worrying status updates and messages—fairly decent people starting to justify the earthquake as an act of God, or much more worryingly, as something the people over there deserved, although in very very subtle tones.

PZ Myers, better known in the science blogging world as Pharyngula has compiled several Facebook messages of people saying that the Japan earthquake was due revenge for Pearl Harbor.

Psychologist Melvin Lerner first discussed the just world phenomenon in 1980 in “The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion”. The just world phenomenon explains the need to see the world as orderly, predictable and just, that people get what they deserve. It is the belief that good things happen to good people, and bad things to bad people. It is why we can afford to think that the poor are lazy, because really if they were not lazy, they wouldn’t be poor, or why we think rape victims are somehow deserving because they dress up rather provocatively. It’s why we feel pity for children with terminal cancers—those poor things, and yet scoff at gay men who get HIV, if you hadn’t been so slutty… if you hadn’t been gay…

I once volunteered a few years back to provide relief to affected families of a destructive typhoon. The stories were the same—in every neighborhood, the families whose homes had been submerged and ruined in floodwater would gather in a plaza or a basketball court and there would be an hour or so of getting people to line up while the rest of us retrieved the relief goods from large sacks—small packs of rice, sardines, biscuits, noodles and water and assigned ourselves various tasks in distribution, crowd management etc. The whole affair would take at most two hours, then we would ride the company truck and leave.

In the middle of that commotion, a child covered in soot, perhaps around seven years old, took a biscuit from the relief pack handed to him and threw the wrapper on a muddy canal. This other volunteer, a baby faced college student, who has survived several relief trips like these, looked in horror and said, this is why you get flooded. None of us who saw the child spoke, but there was that awkward silence. We were thinking the same thing.

Of course, logically, they were not flooded because they threw wrappers on a canal but because there was a natural calamity none of them could have prepared for. Still, at that point we couldn’t figure out another cause of their calamity but this consistent shameful throwing of plastic wrappers in canals, this utter lack of concern for environmental rules which would in turn be our problem when they get flooded and they cry foul and expect us to come to their aid. It was disgusting behavior on our part, but at that moment, there was no other way to see it.

The just world phenomenon, can be quite adaptive at least in helping us process a reality which does not quite conform to our own rules. It tells us if we act this way or that, we can pretty much control what happens. If we dress up properly, we will not get raped. If we keep working for what we want, we will get it. This is why we cry foul when bad things happen to us, because how can bad things happen to good people? We would like to be in control, or at least perceive that we are in control, and when that control is taken away, we have to reexamine our beliefs, and then perhaps realign them with what is happening. Our minds are not quite suited for chaos.

And yet this can be quite disastrous, shielding us from the more brutal aspects of reality and exacting real costs. Research from Royal Holloway, University of London shows that people are more willing to donate to victims of natural disasters than to those of man made disasters such as wars or armed conflict. In the latter situation, regardless of perception of suffering, it is easier to construe human blame, easier to give judgment.

It is very human to want to control situations, to ascertain root causes of such. One can argue with those silly Facebook individuals that no, no one deserves an earthquake, no one deserves getting the worse lot. In the end, it becomes a comfort—a reason why we were spared perhaps, why we continue being spared; an illusion we keep to confine the irrationality of events in one tidy space, something we glean at but would never like to touch.