Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2006, 36, 3, pp. 664–682.
2006 Copyright the Authors
2006 Blackwell Publishing, Inc.
Coping With Threats to Just-World Beliefs: Derogate, Blame,
University of Western Ontario
The present research investigated Lerner’s (1970, 1980) just-world theory by ma-
nipulating victim-related factors in a scenario and measuring several possible strat-
egies for dealing with the threat to participants’ just-world beliefs created by the
victim’s intense suffering. Participants read a story about a victim who varied in
terms of his character (likeable vs. unlikeable) and behavioral responsibility for
causing his accident (high vs. low). The general pattern of results showed that for
the unlikeable low-responsibility victim, the primary response to protect justice
beliefs appeared to be character derogation; for the likeable high-responsibility
victim, the primary protective strategy appeared to be blame; and for the likeable
low-responsibility victim, the primary protective strategy appeared to be compen-
sation. Implications for just-world theory are discussed.
In our daily activities, we frequently see or hear about people who suffer
from various plights (e.g., victims of crime, accidents, disease, or poverty).
Although societal norms dictate that we should be sympathetic and helpful
to those who are suffering (Berkowitz, 1973), our own motives sometimes
can deter us from acting generously. As Lerner (1980) noted, ‘‘there is a limit
to which even the most saintly among us can tolerate being in the presence
of human misery’’ (p. 89).
Responding positively to a victim can be inconvenient, unpleasant,
stressful, and dangerous. Research over the past 40 years on people’s
responses to different types of victims has found that, instead of offering
assistance, people often will ignore or even respond negatively to victims
(see Hafer & Be
gue, 2005; Lerner & Miller, 1978; Olson & Hafer, 1996,
The research reported in this article was supported by a research grant to James Olson
from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The authors thank
Carolyn Hafer and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on previous versions of this
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Graeme A. Haynes, De-
partment of Psychology, University of Western Ontario, London, ON, Canada N6A 5C2.