Do people turn mean because they're helpless?

Illustration for article titled Do people turn mean because they're helpless?

The just-world theory, infamous in psychology and sociology, is the theory that people get what they deserve. The unfortunate bring their suffering upon themselves while the fortunate are reaping just rewards. One study showed this rather graphically. But do we think this because we hate others, or because we hate ourselves?


The first just-world experiment was first set up by Melvin Lerner in the late 1970s. As a psychologist he worked in both an academic and clinical setting, and was surprised by his students' and colleagues' reaction to patients. While they were professional, in private their attitude suggested that the patients had somehow brought the affliction on themselves - even for illnesses that couldn't possibly be attributable to anything but bad luck. To investigate the attitude, he set up a quick experiment.

A group of people - all women - watched another woman participate in a "learning exercise." Whenever the woman made a mistake, she received a painful shock. The woman getting shocked was an actress, and the scenario was staged, but the observers were all upset by witnessing the procedure. As the procedure went on, though, they became hostile to her.

After watching the faked session, the women were given a break, during which they were told that they would soon be watching the next session with the same woman. Some of the observers were told that the session would be another painful course of shocks. Some were told that it would be a reward session, where the woman would be paid handsomely for her participation. After the hostility towards the end of the last session, it would be reasonable if the observers were furious that the woman would be rewarded, and insult her. Upon learning that the woman was soon to be compensated for her suffering, though, the observers began to praise her. It was those who were told that she would keep getting punished that hated her. They insulted everything from her performance to her intelligence to her appearance.

Lerner came to the conclusion that the observers wanted to believe that they were living in a just world. Since this meant that only bad people would be punished, and the woman would continue to be punished, she had to be bad. It doesn't paint a rosy picture of human nature.

But what does the yearning for a just world at all costs mean? The idea of living in an unjust world has to be scary. If there's no way, by skill or virtue, to avoid pain, then no one is safe. Then again, maybe the observers weren't just frightened for themselves. Maybe they were disappointed in themselves. The first instinct of the observers - when they realized the woman was being hurt - was dismay. By making mistakes and getting shocked, the woman wasn't just hurting herself, she was hurting them. It's only when it was clear that they wouldn't be able to stop the pain to the woman that they stopped the pain coming to themselves. Perhaps the angry response isn't so much a defense mechanism against feeling unsafe in an unjust world, as feeling disappointed in not being able to bring justice to the world. Perhaps we don't need safety as much as we need an outlet for altruism.

Top Image: Sam Howzit

Via APA and Social Psychology Alive.



Johnny Lemuria

Except that so, so many people throughout history have been hurt by well-meaning altruism. Our desire to help, our notion that what any situation needs is our input to get better, is just as irrational and destructive as the 'just world' mindset.