Once upon a time, I thought that if I worked hard, played by the rules and treated others the way I would want to be treated, I’d be happy, successful and trouble would never find me.
It turns out that a lot of people think that way. In fact, it’s such a common perspective that the social psychologist Melvin J. Lerner described it as the “just world hypothesis.”
In a just world, the hypothesis goes, actions and conditions have predictable, appropriate consequences, and people can impact the world in predictable ways. Lerner described it as a “contract” regarding the consequences of behavior.
So what happens when something bad happens to someone? Well, according to those who believe in a just world, the injured person must have done something to deserve it. Why? Because if the injured person were at fault, the just world theory is unchallenged—he or she got what he or she deserved. The result is that many people who believe in a just world also engage in blaming the victim.
There’s a good chance that you, like me, experienced multiple aspects of this cognitive bias. Perhaps you, too, believed that people are basically good, the world is basically fair, and that if you did what you were supposed to do, life would be grand.
Then the sociopath came along, playing by a totally different set of rules. Or make that, no rules at all. Your life was put through the meat grinder, and even though you didn’t do anything wrong, other people berated you for your stupidity, naiveté, and gullibility. You were the victim, and you were blamed.
Please pause now and read the Wikipedia article on the Just World Hypothesis.
Violating the contract
Now, suppose people knew about sociopaths—knew that they existed, that these social predators had no conscience. If people knew that some who live among us have no interest at all in a just world, that these people lie, manipulate and cheat to get what they want, with no concern about who gets hurt, what would happen?
First of all, people would know that there might be another reason for bad things happening to people. It’s not necessarily that victims were stupid or flawed and got what they deserved. It could be that they were targeted by a sociopath. So perhaps there would be less blaming of victims.
But perhaps something even better would happen. If we want to believe in a just world, where playing by the rules allows us live happily, peacefully and successfully, how can we continue to allow sociopaths to get away with ruining everything? After all, they are violating the contract.
Perhaps it would mean that people would have to take action against sociopaths.
Naming the problem
The first step is naming the problem. The news media frequently publish stories about crime statistics, domestic violence statistics and abuse statistics. For example, the Lovefraud Blog recently linked to the following newspaper article:
In the article, a researcher decried “an epidemic of thefts and fraud targeting the elderly.” Well, who is committing these crimes? Who is causing the financial abuse of the elderly? When the perpetrators are family members, financial advisors and caregivers, it’s reasonable to believe that these people are sociopaths. Who else would engage in this type of behavior?
With the exception of natural disaster, sociopaths probably cause most of the problems the world faces. So, if we want to hold on to our beliefs in a just world, where behavior results in predictable consequences, we have to make sure that sociopaths experience consequences for their behavior.
Yes, it’s a tall order. But perhaps in 2012, we can at least start naming the problem.