This week lets tackle a Cognitive Bias that I think we either fully subscribe to, or we don’t at all. This week’s bias is called the Just World Hypothesis. This bias is a really old one, relating back to the he Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus in 180 CE according to Wikipedia. In the 60’s Melvin Lerner expanded on this hypothesis and gave it its name.
The Just World Hypothesis suggests that people think the world is inherently just. And that actions we take are either rewarded if they are positive or punished if they are negative in the long-term schema of our existence. Its literally the impetus of “what comes around goes around”. It is Karma embodied. That if we do something good, good things will come to us and vice versa.
I know firmly where I fit into the two camps that either subscribe to or do not subscribe to this theory. I do not subscribe. I have often wished I could get front row tickets to the karma show, but it hasn’t happened yet. In truth, I believe doing good things is rarely rewarded, and doing bad things is rarely punished. In my belief system, the world just works that way. Let’s check out a fun example of this, and for shits and giggles, lets make it a work setting.
I once had a boss who felt strongly and vocally that my work, even when dependent on the decision making of other teams, should be completely done in isolation. I was forbidden from discussing my project with the team that had created the work I was trying to expand on. Bad boss, right? Yes. Bad boss. So, I had a choice. I could let the cosmos punish my boss for the closed-minded thinking, and watch the project fail because that would be the just thing to happen. Or I could make it work come hell or high water. Because ultimately the failure would rest on me. While the project should have failed, I worked even harder to make it successful. (Ultimately, it was neither successful nor a failure). Oh, did I want it to fail, in spite of my efforts, just to serve as a punishment to the bad behavior. Because, if this was a just world, that is what would happen.
Some would say that somewhere down the road this person will ultimately continue this behavior and that there will be grand failures. But not me. I know this world isn’t just. I know this leader will continue to behave that way. I know there will be no consequence. Could that person be more successful? Probably. But they won’t be a failure. Because of people like me who will work all the harder to make up for their bad behavior.
Not the best example, but one that I think we see fairly often at the workplace. Bad behavior is not punished because other people find a way around it to avoid failure. So, the bad behavior is ultimately rewarded. Because this world isn’t just. And our jobs aren’t just. And our lives will never be just. So sad.
But this bias isn’t about the world being just. It’s just about believing it is. So how do we combat this bias? The bias could go either way. There isn’t a whole lot of harm in being on either side of the coin, right? Maybe there is. Maybe we let people live the consequences of their actions because we realize that the world may or not be just, but that we make our own decisions and when its in our power, we should allow it.