The Rational Future Institute

Cognitive Biases: Just-World Hypothesis

Lisanne Lombardo, December 17, 2011

Here are two statements reported in a news article on August 4, 2011. Some of you will want to stop reading after just the first sentence of the first statement, but I encourage you to hang strong and go on. After each statement I have provided some thought provoking questions for internal consumption or discussion.

As context, if you were not already aware, you should know that the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia, is currently experiencing the effects of a severe drought and famine.

Statement One

“The U.N. on Wednesday declared three new regions in Somalia famine zones. Out of a population of roughly 7.5 million, the U.N. says 3.2 million Somalis are in need of immediate lifesaving assistance.

Getting aid to the country has been difficult because al Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab controls much of the country's most desperate areas.”[1]

 Questions for thought or discussion

1.     This is a really hard thing to read about. Do you have an urge to stop reading or tune out?

2.     Do you really believe that 3.2 million Somalis are near starvation? I mean, if this were true, wouldn’t you be aware of it already?

3.     Are the Somalis responsible for the famine themselves in some way? If so, how?

4.     Do the Somalis deserve the situation they are in?

5.     Are the Somalis good people or bad people?


Statement Two

“Nancy Lindborg, an official with the U.S. government aid arm, told a congressional committee in Washington on Wednesday that the U.S. estimates that more than 29,000 children under age 5 have died in the last 90 days in southern Somalia.” [1]


Questions for thought or discussion

1.     Did you think about the impact to children when reading Statement One, or only after reading Statement Two?

2.     Do the children deserve this situation?

3.     Do you feel you have a responsibility to help when there are helpless children involved?

4.     Do you feel you have a responsibility to help children more than adults? If so, why?

Cognitive biases cause a distortion of rational thinking in the human mind.[2] There are many different types of cognitive bias and we are all influenced by them to varying degrees. Some of us may be prone to some particular types of cognitive biases in some situations more than others.

In this article, I’d like to discuss one particular cognitive bias, the Just-world Hypothesis. This is the tendency for people to want to believe that the world is fundamentally just, causing them to rationalize an otherwise inexplicable injustice as deserved by the victim(s).[3]

Someone in the United States reading paragraph one of Statement One might initially feel empathy for the 3.2 million starving people. But after reading paragraph two of Statement One, and finding out that al Qaeda linked groups control much of the areas, some might cut off their feelings of empathy. They might reason that the people are involved in terrorism in that country or simply “allowing” terrorism to happen and are thus getting what they deserve. But upon reading Statement Two and understanding that tens of thousands of children of a completely innocent age have died, it is difficult not to re-establish our feelings of empathy.

Now ask yourself, if you rationally consider that there is a pool of 3.2 million people who are near starvation, is it really hard to extrapolate that a good portion of those people are children under the age of 5? Would it also be hard to extrapolate that starving children under the age of five are at a significant increased risk of death over that of adults? If your answer is no to both of these questions, then ask yourself, did your feelings or thoughts change significantly between the second paragraph of Statement One and Statement Two? If so, how and why?

There are several theories for the cause of the Just-world Hypothesis. People like to believe that the world is a predictable place of actions and consequences and they can control outcomes by their behaviors. This belief is important because it gives us reason to set goals and strive for them. If we had no reasonable trust in positive outcomes it would be difficult to invest a cost in attaining goals.

If we believe that somehow people suffering have deserved that suffering (such as allowing their areas to be controlled by terrorists) it makes us feel safer from experiencing that same suffering. We can reason that since we are not deserving of suffering that suffering will never happen to us.

In order to maintain our security in the belief in a just world, we can use non-rational strategies like denial, withdrawal, or reinterpretation of the events. Did any of those strategies pass through your mind as you were reading Statements One and Two?  This is not a test and you don’t really need to provide a confession to me. But it would be great if you were honest with yourself.

Personally I do not have a hard time believing in injustice so I would not likely have experienced denial. But I will confess that my first response to this sort of horrific injustice is withdrawal. If I were reading this blog instead of writing it, my instinct would have been to immediately flip to another web page. I would rather not consider it at all because it causes me sharp pangs of empathy. I mean, if I do consider it too much, I would want to do something about it. 29,000 dead children from starvation, which is a particularly painful and slow way to die, is a lot of “bad” to absorb. If you are still reading this blog, I applaud you.

The good news is that there are rational strategies for dealing with the fact of undeserved injustice.

  1. Accept the Reality of Injustice: In this case you could say to yourself “There are innocent people dying of starvation who completely do not deserve the suffering they are undergoing.” and resolve yourself to accept that. You might also want to add to that “It could happen to me, but it is not happening right now, thankfully.”
  2. Accept your Limitations: If, in facing the reality of undeserved suffering of tens of thousands of innocent children, you feel a flood of empathy and subsequent guilt over your relative riches in comparison, yet at the same time you are worried if you will have enough money to buy groceries next week for your own kids, you can try to accept your own limitations.
  3. Try to Prevent the Injustice: In this case you could give money to a fund to help feed the starving children in Somalia.

The reality is that the world is a place of cause and affect and our positive behaviors often produce positive outcomes. But there are inconsistencies in this. Sometimes we are impacted by the cause and effect of the natural world or other people. Sometimes the cause is not ours and the effects impact us but are out of our control. Really bad things do happen to really good people or completely innocent people.

 Some further good news is that by now (December 17, 2011) the rains have come in Somalia and the situation has eased. However, it will take until the next harvest until things really start to turn around, so if you’re employing the “Try to Prevent the Injustice” strategy, Somalia could still use your help. If you are reading this post way past its written date, don’t worry, there surly are innocent starving people somewhere who could use your help.

 I’m signing off now. I feel a need to meander over to Heifer to donate some chicks to a needy family to help restore my sense of balance in the world.


[1]CBS News:,
Retrieved December 15, 2011.

[2]Wikipedia: Cognitive Bias:,
Retrieved December 15, 2011.

[3]Wikipedia: Just-world hypothesis:,
 Retrieved December 15, 2011


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