SR22. 14 June 2003
Copyright © 2002 by Kevin Sharpe.
All rights reserved.
Implicit Religion 5 (1) May 2002: 41-48.


The World is Just:

An Implicit Religious Belief?


Kevin Sharpe


Jonathan Walgate

ABSTRACT. We naturally try to believe that the world possesses a moral order. Melvin Lerner documented the Just World Phenomenon in 1966: we adjust our opinions of others and their behavior so that we believe they receive their just desserts. This intrusive faith in a fair world provides, we suggest, an example of an implicit religious belief. Our moral concern is so intensive that it colors every judgment we make of our fellows and stretches across the spectrum of human society. Following Lerner’s research, this paper examines how we develop this implicit belief and why it compels us so much. The paper also examines the consequences of belief in a just world: it can impel us to altruism when we perceive true injustice or suffering, but it can also impel us to callousness and evil if it deludes us into seeing the unjustifiable as reasonable.

"Life isn’t fair!"
We all know it ought to be.

Happy Endings

Movie producers know that the good guys triumph in the end. Successful scriptwriters ignore this tenet at their peril. Victorious villains will not sell.

Jose and Brewer examined this phenomenon among children by presenting them with stories to assess (Brewer, 1996). The youngest in their study did not follow the expected pattern: they liked stories with happy, benevolent endings regardless how deserving the heroes. A few years later, the children changed their minds and believed that unpleasant ends ought to befall unpleasant people.

Brewer extended this experiment in 1996 to include adults. He wrote two stories and provided each with two endings. Ninety men and women read one of the four stories.

His first tale, entitled "The Long Swim," tells of an attempt to swim across the Strait of Gibraltar. Pat trains long and hard for many years. She direly needs the money that success would bring because creditors are about to repossess her house and her two children need support. One quarter of Brewer’s subjects read that, overcoming fierce currents and jellyfish stings, Pat reached the other side. The other quarter learned that the currents were too strong and the jellyfish too numerous, that a pained, exhausted Pat resigned from her endeavor.

Brewer’s story two tells of an escaped convict who hides in the house of aging grandmother. She surprises him. He lunges at her with a knife, but she deflects the blow with her shopping and pushes him down the stairs. Or so thought the third section of Brewer’s subjects. His final group read that the escapee struggled with the woman and killed her.

The readers faced a set of questions when they finished reading their passage. One question asked:

To what extent were you satisfied with the outcome of the passage?

The unhappy endings fared badly. Those who read them rated the stories unsatisfactory and expressed a general dislike of their plots. The question:

To what extent was the passage complete?

also produced a significant result. Not only did the subjects dislike the downbeat endings, but a significant number did not consider them endings at all. They considered the passages incomplete. A third question illustrates the point even more:

Does this passage constitute a story?

While we might expect everyone to respond with a "yes" regardless, many thought that the immoral tale did not deserve the title "story." This result represents more than a simple preference for happy narratives. The readers felt that the "bad" stories told their facts incorrectly: good people win and bad people lose – the world just works that way.

The Just World Effect

Melvin Lerner documented this effect in the 1960s and it has since become a commonplace idea in social psychology. We like to believe that we live in a just, fair world and, therefore, we do feel that we live in a just, fair world. To defend this fragile belief, we twist our perceptions of others and reinterpret past events. To believe in a fair world, we constantly delude ourselves because examples of injustice parade daily in front of us.

Lerner looked for and found these illusions, even in those who intellectually know the unfairness of the world.

His suspicions became aroused during his work in medicine. Many of the doctors and nurses he met seemed oblivious to the pain and plight of their patients. These intelligent men and women lived in protective denial about the distressing state of affairs they confronted. He also noticed that his medical students derogated the poor in society as "lazy good-for-nothings who deserve the raw deal they get." His statistics and rhetoric did not disillusion them. So he took to the laboratory to devise an experiment (Lerner, 1965).

Tom and Bill assembled anagrams while their coworkers looked on. At the end of the task, one of the two received a large sum of money for his efforts. The other received nothing. The experimenters made it clear before work commenced that they would make the award randomly, without reference to the workers’ performances. They repeated this admonition about the random assignment of the prize, reminding the subjects that it would occur after they had observed Tom and Bill’s efforts. Still, the onlookers invariably thought that the man who walked away with the money was more productive, creative, and industrious than his penniless companion.

Lerner’s conclusion?

A person takes into account the outcome of a social event in making sense out of what he [or she] has observed....This is true even when the outcome is established as being fortuitously related to the behavior of the actors in the situation.

The observers, after seeing the money handed out, thought they had seen the unlucky worker deserve his poor fortune. Sometimes, though, injustices confront us in which the victims’ plights are clearly unavoidable. Lerner expected that, unable to find fault in their actions, we would lower our estimation of the victims’ intrinsic worth.

He and fellow psychologist Carolyn Simmons carried out a study on university students in 1966 (Lerner and Simmons, 1966). They convinced 72 women that they were watching an experiment on learning processes when, in reality, they were the subjects of the experiment. The women watched a female actor perform a complicated task for a number of minutes. Whenever the actor made a mistake, she received a powerful and painful electric shock (or rather, she acted as if she had). The students afterwards filled in a questionnaire about the actor – her attractiveness, charisma, and so on. They also commented on the experiment itself. Approximately two thirds of the women found the experiment interesting, valuable, and justified. They thought little of the actor and judged her unattractive. The remaining third of the subjects considered the situation barbaric and cruel and the victim quite pretty. Outside the experimental context and in a control test, people consistently judged the actor attractive. The majority of the subjects had maintained their belief in a just world at the expense of their good opinion of the victim.

The Just World Effect resides in us all, but more pronounced in some. Zick Rubin and Leititia Peplau devised a crude scale for measuring this belief (Rubin and Peplau, 1975). They asked many questions, such as, "Are good drivers as likely to be involved in an accident as bad drivers?" and the more blatant, "Do you think that, by and large, the world treats you fairly?" They gave such a test in 1971 to 60 19-year-old men who were participating in the U.S. lottery for the military draft. Those unlucky men who drew "short straws" would find themselves in the army. One might expect a degree of camaraderie to emerge, that the fortunate would feel sympathetic toward those with less luck. Not so among the men who believed in a just world; they resented the draftees. They felt that the winners of this lottery were "bad" people.

Experiment after experiment identifies this seeming blind faith in the fairness of the universe. It exists in societies across the globe. And it disadvantages us by inducing errors of judgment about our fellows.

Implicit Religion

The phrase "blind faith" suggests religion. Is the idea of a just world built into humans as some sort of religious belief? It does not appear to be a universal aspect of explicit religious beliefs, as research in Northern Ireland demonstrates (Bensen, 1992; see also Armatas, 1962, Meredith, 1968, and Wright and Cox, 1967, 1971). Is it, perhaps, a more "implicit" religious belief?

Frederick Welbourn, in his essay "Towards a Definition of Religion," argues that the category of "religions" is not a useful object of study (Welbourn, 1960). The word implies the organizations and institutions that permeate society rather than the beliefs of those who follow them. It also excludes the many who, despite holding strong opinions about many things, do not describe themselves as "religious." Welbourn would rather look at the category of "faiths."

Nearly 40 years from Welbourn’s writing, Edward Bailey proposed the notion of "implicit religion" to encompass what Welbourn saw as secular faiths. Bailey provides three definitions of implicit religion in his book Implicit Religion in Contemporary Society (Bailey, 1997). The shortest is the most general: "commitments." The most complex is "intensive concerns with extensive effects." Bailey’s work ties down many similar but disorganized ideas that a large number of scholars have expressed across the twentieth century. Erich Fromm wrote this on the topic four decades before Bailey:

everything depends upon what we call religion. If we are referring to religion in its widest sense, as a system of orientation and an object of devotion, then, indeed, every human being is religious, since nobody can live without such a system and remain sane.

Fromm’s passages preceding this discussion of "religion in its widest sense" in his book, The Sane Society (Fromm, 1956), deal with the ethics of our society. This natural connection between religion and ethics arises from their inseparability throughout history. Further, ethics provides the bedrock upon which we found our ideas of justice. A strong connection should therefore link religious beliefs with those about justice and a just world. Rubin and Peplau, devising a scale for measuring belief in a just world, did not only experiment with Vietnam-bound conscripts. They also searched for a correlation between religious belief and high "just world" scores. They found a very strong link.

Albert Pepitone and Kathleen L’Armand conducted a more telling study as recently as 1996 (Pepitone and L’Armand, 1996). They used a method parallel to Brewer’s and presented male and female students with four "life event cases" that described positive and negative outcomes happening to both good and bad people. Students read a story and then freely commented on it in writing. Then they answered a 100-point questionnaire that ended by asking for the strength of the student’s religious commitment (extremely, moderately, slightly, or not-at-all). The more religious a student’s persuasions, the more justice he or she saw in each case. We might expect that a devout person would demonstrate more sensitivity to the issues of justice, and judge each case more extremely. This did not happen. When good outcomes befell the bad and bad outcomes the good, the religious students still saw more justice than their agnostic and atheist counterparts. The world they saw was fair, come what may.

Justice connects with religion in all western traditions: a religion prescribes what is just, by example and by commandment. Everything will be put to rights in the afterlife or on Judgment Day; everything evens out in the end. This doctrine appeals enormously. The concern for justice appears universally though cultures differ about what justice comprises. The concern for justice, however expressed, runs deeper than culture. "But it’s not fair!" is the most common of childhood protests and one of the hardest to answer.

The Just World Phenomenon is faith in the fairness of the world. We share this belief to some extent; it springs from our passions for justice. Its subconscious commitment effects our attitudes, behaviors, and reason. It occurs in many religious traditions and extends beyond them. In short, it could form an implicit religious belief.

Considerable research in the social sciences centers on the Just World Phenomenon. These results provide an opportunity to examine the nature of an apparent implicit religious belief, especially one that appears not to bear on explicit religiosity. One of the future avenues for this examination is field research. The results also allow us to explore two key questions: how do we develop belief in a just world, and why?

How Do We Develop This Implicit Religion?

The origins of the just world belief involve the origins of justice. Much psychology relies on the principle that each of us seeks to maximize our personal gain in every situation. The psychology of justice follows this too. Tyler explains the theory of distributive justice by saying that individuals form "contracts" with others of the form, "I’ll be fair to you, if you’ll treat me fairly in return" (Tyler, 1994). It boils down to the adage, "Do as you would be done by."

This contract is unconscious. We perform many acts of altruism beyond the eyes of our peers. Laboratory studies have tested this everyday fact. One study placed subjects in a position where they could assist a colleague in trouble but knew their efforts would go unnoticed. They strove as hard as those whose help clearly would receive acknowledgement. We trust in a level of reckoning beyond our peer group, whether located within our conscience or without.

When do beliefs like this take hold? Deborah Fein studied six to nine-year-old children (Fein, 1976). She presented them with videotapes of a girl helping a friend, stealing a playmate’s candies, finding money, and being hit by falling books. Different children saw different sets of videotape and then judged the "goodness" of the girl on a scale from 1 to 14. Those who saw her help her friend gave her over 11 points – quite virtuous. Those who only saw her finding the money ranked her at just under 12 points. Good fortune alone provided as much evidence of good character as did the act of friendship. The unlucky girl suffered insult as well as injury with an eight-point rating to add to her bruises from the books.

Children exhibit just world beliefs very early. Lerner provides an analysis of their development that uses the "social exchange" model of justice to track the development of empathy and strategy through infancy (Lerner, 1980). Young children are quite selfish, slaves to their immediate desires. A point arrives when children realize that, by undergoing some present privation, even greater pleasure can result in the future. Perhaps not eating the chocolate now will lead to a pleasure greater than it, namely, avoiding a punishment. This presents a difficult transition. The pleasures of the present appear tangible and available, but no sign exists of the rewards in the future save the child’s own anticipation. Lerner theorizes that, as children, we enter into contracts with our future selves. We promise ourselves great rewards in exchange for which we undergo some temporary discomfort. We must feel confident, however, that these contracts will come to fruition because we primarily act in our own best interest.

Such vulnerable confidence requires a leap of faith and this leap requires support. A society of friends and relatives surround us growing up and we must deal with these people on a daily basis. Any evidence that the other people do not receive the rewards their contracts entitle them to threatens our childhood faith in our own contracts. Parents and teachers therefore bombard us with just world propaganda throughout our childhood. They tell us how important figures earned their places in the history books. They set us targets that we strive for so we will deserve what we want. Clergy preach about a god who sees our every act. Hollywood’s heroes always win. Our models of social behavior and our empathic responses to those around us form at this stage. They develop, therefore, around the faith essential for cognitive development, and we begin to accept implicitly that the world possesses a moral order. Thus emerges childhood innocence: a creed that may vanish from our heads as we mature, but never from our hearts.

The implicit belief of a just world arises in individuals in a personal way, but it owes a deal of its widespread success to a society devoted to maintaining it. It does not form by isolated contemplation and reflection, and only disseminated to others after the fact. Its heart lies in the maelstrom of social interaction and relationships that prescribe our waking lives. It is born not of individuals, but of communities.

This begs the question why. Why do we need the implicit belief in a just world?

Why Do We Hold This Implicit Belief?

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution raised the popularity of the idea of selective systems. Any system that offers a disadvantage to those who employ it will soon vanish in a world of competition. The Just World Effect seems negative because it significantly impairs the judgments of its strongest adherents and they thus become more, not less likely to support injustices. Why does the Just World Effect therefore not vanish? Should not our convictions in a fair world disappear after they serve their role in childhood, leaving us rational masters of social judgment?

The majority of research on the Just World Effect has looked at its negative consequences, but Issac Lipkus and Victor Bissonnette recently explored its positive aspects (Lipkus and Bissonnette, 1996). They studied a large number of married couples. The subjects rated their "marriage satisfaction" in nine domains: money, sharing of household duties, expression of spousal love, ability to solve problems, provision of emotional support, time spent together, raising children, freedom of individual action, and sex. They also answered detailed questions about their perceptions of conflict within the marriage and about their strategies for dealing with it. The experimenters found that individuals with a strong belief in a just world had more satisfying and stable relationships than those without.

People with a high belief in a just world tended to respond more constructively in disputes than those with a less firm belief because they found it easier to take a positive long-term view. They trusted their partners more and consequently offered more self-sacrifice. They accommodated their partners’ needs and desires more because they implicitly believed that their partners would reciprocate in kind. They had also consistently experienced and observed that forsaking immediate self-rewards does pay off.

We can generalize this result. Members of societies that emphasize and exaggerate their implicit beliefs in the world’s fairness cooperate with and trust their fellow citizens more than do the members of other societies. A more cooperative society succeeds more. Human cultures therefore support this phenomenon both explicitly and subliminally because those that do would supersede those that do not. Pepitone and L’Armand’s 1997 paper, "Justice in a Cultural Context," recognizes the innate attitude of a just world as a socially cohesive force. The authors identify the belief with the society’s survival.

The deep functions of some important moral beliefs [are] to generate an incentive in group members to behave morally by a priori holding them, rather than others, or the nature of God, responsible for the misery in their lives.

They foresee disaster for a society without a deeply held conviction in the success of justice.

The experience of unbalanced life events is psychologically unsettling to the individual and ultimately destructive to the cohesion of groups.

Belief in a just world forms an implicit belief that persists because of its value. It forms an implicit religious belief because, in Bailey’s terms, it is a deep-seated "commitment" of its adherents.


In this paper we propose a hypothesis open to further study, namely that belief in a just world is an implicit religious belief not necessarily related to explicit religiosity. Research on this may offer ways to compare and contrast implicit versus explicit religion.

We wish to conclude with a caution. The Just World Phenomenon can harden and blind us to others’ misfortune because the convictions involved run deeper than our conscious mind. It serves us well to be aware of this.

  • After World War II, a survey of Americans found that, far from evoking sympathy, the Nazi persecutions had caused a rise in anti-Semitism.
  • British troops marched German civilians around the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. "What terrible criminals these prisoners must have been," the local people said, "to receive such treatment."


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Copyright © 2001 by Kevin Sharpe. Submitted for publication.