When you see a corporate scoundrel go unpunished, or a puppy die of cancer, or Rashida Jones gifted with talent, beauty, and smarts, you might be forgiven for asking: Is life fair? And yet most of us cling to the idea that people generally get what they deserve.
Our belief in the world’s fairness can veer into magical thinking. For example, one study found that people who frequently patronize a business believe they are more likely than other customers to win a given prize drawing by that business—a phenomenon the researchers called the “lucky loyalty” effect . A similar logic leads people to invest in karma. In one experiment, people at a job fair who were led to think that the job-search process was beyond their control offered to donate more money to an unrelated charity than did those who were led to believe the opposite. In a follow-up study, job seekers who were encouraged to see their job search as beyond their control were more optimistic about their employment prospects when they gave money to charity than when they didn’t .
Belief in a just world can be shaken by disaster, but it can also provide psychological stability in that disaster’s aftermath. Among survivors of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, which killed nearly 90,000 Chinese, those who lost family and friends were—not surprisingly—more likely than others to believe the universe was unfair. Yet those who continued to believe the universe was fair suffered the least anxiety and depression .