By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
After traveling to Syria in the midst of a brutal war, 26-year-old Kayla Jean Mueller was captured by ISIS six months ago. The terror group now claims she was killed in a Jordanian airstrike while Americans hold out a little hope that she might be alive. As much as we understand the horror and sympathize with her family, for how many of us is our first thought something like this: What was she doing in a place like that in the first place? She is an aid worker who has worked in some risky places in the past, but a young American woman traveling to Syria just as ISIS is coming to power? The situation certainly invites a focus on the victim's choices. But it also plays into a strong and well-documented psychological bias called the "Just World Hypothesis," or more simply "Belief in a Just World" (Lerner, 1980). It is best understood as a need to believe that the world is a just place and people tend to get what they deserve. A corollary is that when something tragic does occur, we are motivated to find ways to blame the victim's own choices.
Just world beliefs are a psychologically understandable reaction to the perception that the world is a threatening place. Believing that things "happen for a reason" is one strategy for reducing that perceived threat. But just world beliefs carry some consequences anytime we evaluate the conduct or circumstances of others -- in court, for example. A recent column in The Guardian provides a timely reminder of these consequences. The piece by Oliver Burkeman is entitled, "Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person." The mindset invites negative biases by providing a strong psychological pull to place greater control within the hands of those who have suffered negative consequences. "Faced with injustice, we’ll try to alleviate it," Burkeman writes, "but, if we can’t, we’ll do the next best thing, psychologically speaking: blame the victims of the injustice." The net effect of that bias, in and out of court, isn't just.