Explaining the inexplicable: Who is responsible for injustice in the world?

In 2010, the only son of the famous Dutch writer A.F.T. van der Heijden died. He was hit by a car while biking home late one night. In the first interview A.F.T.H gave after the accident, he was asked whether he blamed the driver for the death of his son. His answer was: the driver was to blame, so was my son, but ultimately this was just fate.

How do we cope with injustice?

In the 1970/80s Lerner already wondered how people cope with what we social psychologists term injustices (Lerner, 1980). He gave the example of a doctor working in a hospital and seeing children dying on a daily basis. How do people deal with such injustices without life becoming senseless? His answer was that people have the fundamental belief that the world is a just place in which people ultimately do get what they deserve (Lerner, 1980). This belief can buffer them against situations in which they are confronted with injustice.

So people tend to agree with sentences such as “people get what they deserve” or “the world is a fair place”. Yet interestingly, we don’t actually know who or what people consider to be ‘the world’ or who or what they think will ensure they get what they deserve.  This is the question we sought to answer in our research.

“People feel that the world is a fair place, but who or what is ‘the world’?”

We find there are six dimensions that people hold responsible for (in)justices in the world: God, nature, other people, oneself, fate or chance (Stroebe, Postmes, Täuber, Stegeman, & John, 2015). Take the death of A.F.T.H’s son: the author held fate responsible for the death, but we have good reason to believe that others might, for example, say the death was God’s will, bad luck (chance), or life taking its natural course (nature).

What are the consequences of such beliefs?

These beliefs affect how people interpret important life events and consequently, the actions they take in response to these events (see Stroebe et al., 2105 for examples), but also societal attitudes, such as how people interpret criminal behavior. Consider the following examples:

A tornado causes ravage. You bike through a red light and are hit by a car. What ultimately caused these events? Objectively one might say ‘ nature’ in the case of the tornado – and, if you bike through a red light, is that not just your own fault? But that is not quite how people explain these events, we find in our research. Interestingly, people’s beliefs regarding the dimensions of justice influence such interpretations: someone who sees nature as responsible for outcomes in life is more likely to attribute outcomes to nature, even when it concerns biking through a red light.

Such perceptions are consequential: they may affect the extent to which people suffer. Take the earthquakes in North East Groningen. Someone who believes the self causes negative outcomes in life might focus on how he/she should never have moved to this region and engage in self-blame which is likely to further increase distress (despite the knowledge it is not one’s own fault one is suffering from the earthquakes). Whereas someone who has a high belief in chance might be more likely to ‘accept’ (if one can) the earthquakes as just bad luck.

How about people’s societal beliefs, such as causes of criminal behavior? We find that the explanations people give are determined by their justice beliefs. For example, someone who sees nature as responsible for injustice will consider criminal behavior as due to genetic disposition, whereas someone who sees chance as responsible may say that criminals just took a bad turn in life.  Such beliefs can be consequential: think to court cases in which one has to decide what caused a crime. In a recent case a criminal got a reduced jail sentence because he had a gene that makes persons more vulnerable to aggressiveness. Thus, the extent to which we see behavior as nature-caused or self-caused influences the harshness of our judgment.


So people have different beliefs about who or what is responsible for (in)justice in life and these beliefs are consequential, they affect perceptions of responsibility for important life events, societal attitudes and, although I have not discussed this here in much detail (but see Stroebe et al., 2015), the types of actions people engage in. If we think back to A.F.T.H., we might suppose such beliefs also impact how you perceive and respond to such major events as the death of a child. We plan to study this in the future. For now, I hope I have taken you a small step in the direction of understanding how people may explain ‘the inexplicable’.

Note: image by Reimund Bertrams (pixabay).


Barber, N. (2010, July 13th). Pity the poor murderer, his genes made him do. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/201007/pity-the-poor-murderer-his-genes-made-him-do-it

Lerner, M.J. (1980). The belief in a just world. A fundamental delusion. New York: Plenum Press.

Stroebe, K., Postmes, T., Täuber, S., Stegeman, A., & John, M-S. (2015). Belief in a Just What?: Demystifying Just World Beliefs by Distinguishing Sources of Justice. PLoS ONE. 10.1371/journal.pone.0120145

Katherine Stroebe completed her PhD at Leiden University in 2009 and is currently working at the University of Groningen as an associate professor in Social Psychology.  Her research interests lie in the intersection of intergroup relations and social justice research. Very broadly speaking she is interested in how people cope with injustice. Among others she studies determinants of inaction in response to different types of disadvantage (e.g., as ethnic minority, woman). People often fail to act out against experiences of disadvantage, such as when they are a target of discrimination. Why is this the case? And can we distinguish and predict different forms of inaction (e.g., acceptance, frustration)? Another line of work focuses on who or what we see as sources of justice: People believe in a just world in which they receive the treatment and life outcomes they deserve. In this work Dr. Stroebe and her colleagues examine whom people consider to be the ultimate source of justice when they experience negative life events (e.g., death of a young child). Dr. Stroebe also conducts research looking at female dominance in human and non-human primates. More recently she has started studying the earthquakes in North-East Groningen from a social-psychological perspective. More information can be found had her website.


Selected publications

Stroebe, K., Postmes, T., Täuber, S., Stegeman, A., & John, M-S. (2015). Belief in a Just What?: Demystifying Just World Beliefs by Distinguishing Sources of Justice. PLoS ONE. 10.1371/journal.pone.0120145

Stroebe, K., & Missler, M. (2015). A resource pathway to action against discrimination: How burnout and work-family balance form obstacles to action. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology.

Stroebe, K. (2013). Motivated inaction: when collective disadvantage does not induce collective action. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(10), 1997-2006. 10.1111/jasp.12153

Stroebe, K., Dovidio, J. F., Barreto, M., Ellemers, N., & John, M-S. (2011). Is the world a just place? Countering the negative consequences of pervasive discrimination by affirming the world as just. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50(3), 484-500. 10.1348/014466610X523057

Stroebe, K., Ellemers, N., Barreto, M., & Mummendey, A (2009). For better or for worse: The congruence of personal and group outcomes on targets’ responses to discrimination. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 576-591.

You may also like

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.