Life Isn’t Fair

So why do people behave as though it is?

James Walton

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 [1]. 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 [2].

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 [3].

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Faith in fairness does have a dark side. One study found that women who believe strongly that the world is fair are more likely than other women to blame the victim of a hypothetical stranger rape [4]. And people who believe in a just world are less likely to hire a job candidate who’s been laid off [5]. Even 3-year-olds like another child less when she is unlucky (gets hit by a baseball, say) than when she is lucky (sees a rainbow) [6].

When bad things happen to good people, we sometimes convince ourselves that the bad things are in fact good things—blessings in disguise. After people’s appetite for justice was deliberately stoked, they tended to see a 30-year-old who had suffered a debilitating accident in childhood as enjoying a more meaningful life than one who hadn’t [7].

Such thoughts may ease the pain associated with injustice, and even lead to support for the status quo: Researchers found that when people felt powerless, they were more likely to say that race, class, and gender disparities were justified [8]. Certain social institutions and ideologies, including religion and political conservatism, may further increase our complacence. (God must be just, right?) In a series of surveys, respondents’ religiosity correlated with belief in a just world, belief that capitalism is fair, social and economic conservatism, acceptance of income inequality, and belief in the fairness of the American social system [9].

No, life’s not fair. And in a cruel twist, our wish to see it as fair keeps us from making it so.

The Studies:

[1] Reczek et al., “Lucky Loyalty” (Journal of Consumer Research, Dec. 2014)

[2] Converse et al., “Investing in Karma” (Psychological Science, Aug. 2012)

[3] Xie et al., “Belief in a Just World When Encountering the 5/12 Wenchuan Earthquake” (Environment and Behavior, July 2011)

[4] Strömwall et al., “Blame Attributions and Rape” (Legal and Criminological Psychology, Sept. 2013)

[5] Monteith et al., “Out of Work and Out of Luck?” (Social Psychological and Personality Science, Jan. 2016)

[6] Olson et al., “Judgments of the Lucky Across Development and Culture” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, May 2008)

[7] Anderson et al., “In Search of the Silver Lining” (Psychological Science, Nov. 2010)

[8] Van der Toorn et al., “A Sense of Powerlessness Fosters System Justification” (Political Psychology, Feb. 2015)

[9] Jost et al., “Belief in a Just God (and a Just Society)” (Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, Feb. 2014)