Just World Hypothesis

Jonah Lehrer feels no sympathy for Madoff victim Alexandra Penney:

It's an awful story, and I can't imagine how terrible Penney must feel. And yet, I read her entire tale without feeling any genuine sympathy. Sure, she lost all of her money, but so what? It's her own fault for investing with Madoff in the first place. If she hadn't been so greedy then none of this would have happened. That was my callous first reaction. (And, if my friends are a representative sample, I'm not the only one who felt such heartless feelings.) I blamed the victim.

Such cold-hearted thoughts are actually a basic feature of human nature.

[...]This is known as the Just World Hypothesis, but it's really about how we tend to rationalize injustices away, so that we can maintain our naive belief in a just world. This, I believe, is what happened when I read Penney's woeful story - my just world mechanisms kicked into gear, and I started by blaming the victim, coming up with reasons why she deserved to get swindled. The end result was a complete lack of sympathy.

The irony of the Just World Hypothesis is that it demonstrates how our faith in justice leads directly to injustice. Because we trust that the world is fair, and that bad things don't happen to good people, we naturally skew our judgments of individuals to align with this unrealistic assumption. The truth, of course, is that bad things happen to good people all the time. The world isn't fair. Alexandra Penney deserves my sympathy.