A Fundamental Slow Burner by Melvin Lerner

Consider these examples:


Ever wondered why people are awe-struck by Kim Kardashian?

When stopped at a traffic signal and approached by a beggar, do you roll up the window and feel a complete lack of compassion?

When I get a bad result, I believe that this isn’t because of my lack of hard work but is the doing of “I reap what I sow” or “Cosmic Intervention”.

When I see a girl being whistled at, I believe that there must be something obscene in the behavior that is compelling people to react to her like this.

Now, what is the conjunction between Kim Kardashian, a beggar on the street, my reaction to a random result, and the girl being harassed?

Before I tell you, do you think psychology would condone victim blaming?

A social psychologist, Melvin Lerner, proposed a theory on the basis of Sextus Empiricus’ (from the 180 CE) hypothesis that people believe that a moral force is at play in the world; the force ensures that people’s actions are always aimed at attaining morally fair objectives and, thus, deserve the consequences of such actions. The basic conclusions being:

  • When misfortune befalls people; other people find ways to rationalize (read; justify) these misgivings, often finding something to blame for the circumstances.
    • Corollary 1: If good things happen to people, others will approve of the fortunes, often believing that the people are deserving of the success, even if it is serendipity
    • Example: Kim Kardashian may be considered to be more attractive or intelligent (intrinsic qualities), and people may overlook her good fortune
  • When studying obedience and people’s response to it, the theory provides answers to questions such as, when authoritarian, even dystopian situations prevail, people, come to accept cruelty and misfortune.
    • Example: Public memory is short, or they are so prone to holding themselves responsible that they will come to accept communism while forgetting the massive number of deaths (65 Million from 1957-2017) that followed this type of government.
    • This is also the reason that people may overlook the ill-effects of capitalism (and ignore the beggar on the streets), by believing ‘ what goes around comes around’.
  • When there are victims of a situation ( let us presume sexual assault), people believe that the victim was somehow at fault. Often, they resort to recreation or denial of the actual events and construe the events in a way that derogating the victim is the only plausible explanation.

While the theory may be seen as acceptable for self-preservation, it also highlights several areas of contention. Denial being the major contributing factor, our belief in a “divine intervention” also borders on naivete. Anxiety alleviation and attempting to create a sense of order are acceptable collateral, but victim shaming is just one problem that is escalating in a frightening way.

If children are taught to believe in reason as their only guiding constellation, the need for ‘daily horoscopes’ and similar cosmology should be busted, along with the comatose and often overbearing faith in “cosmic interference”.

Mind you, this has been prevalent since The Bible and The Ramayanas, how long will we take to prevent asphyxiating cognition for a beloved tragicomic saying, ‘The Chicken comes home to the Rooster”.

Melvin Lerner is the social psychologist who brought forth the ” Just World Theory”. Practically unheard of and sparingly studied, the theory proves that we often blame “Cosmic Forces” for the things that happen to us. Essentially, we believe that bad things happen to people because they deserve bad things. We take “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction” and apply it (albeit erroneously) in our daily lives. A moral belief that good things happen to only good people is wrongly thought to be the driving force for most of our actions. We thus stick to a narrative that praiseworthy actions bear good result, and often, use it to prevent people from falling out of line. Victim shaming and false glorification of products of nepotism are some collateral damages we bear. This cognitive bias is apparent to me, every time someone pacifies others by stating “You reap what you sow”.

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What is your reaction when mishaps befall people?

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