Sharon Stone got in trouble today, and it wasn’t for her performance in Basic Instinct 2. No, Stone made headlines when she declared that the recent Earthquake in China, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives, was the result of bad karma stemming from the chinese government’s treatment of the Dalai Lama.
Stone’s moral intuitions are a nice example of an old finding. Melvin Lerner (1965) described the ‘just-world’ bias, which refers to people’s psychological need to maintain an image of a just world where bad things only happen to bad people or for a good reason. In one experiment (Carli, 1999), two groups of participants were each presented with a story about a man and a woman. The only difference between the stories was that one ended in the man proposing to the woman, while the other ended in the man raping her. Both groups of participants argued that the woman’s actions caused the outcome, regardless of which ending they heard! Consequently, the just-world bias is generally considered to be the root of our propensity to blame the victim.
Just world bias is a nice description of what’s going on, but it doesn’t really get at the ‘why’ or ‘how’ of this phenomenon. Why do we have this need to moralize suffering? And how do we make attributions toward supernatural causes when we have no evidence? These are complicated questions and psychology doesn’t have great answers to them yet, so maybe someone should start working on that stuff. Until then, avoid this lady
Melvin J. Lerner, The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion, (New York: Plenum Press, 1980).
Carli, L. L. (1999). Cognitive reconstruction, hindsight, and reactions to victims and perpetrators. Personality and social psychology bullitin, 25, 966-979.