Just World Fallacy and the Challenge of Inequality in Organizations

Does inequality pose special challenges for organizations? Drawing on ancient moral philosophy, as well as more recent work on a particular cognitive bias known as the ‘Just World Fallacy’, I argue that it does.

Research into the Just World Fallacy reveals that when confronted with examples of injustice, experimental participants tend to show disdain for innocent victims and admiration for the undeservedly successful. In his original 1965 study, Melvin J. Lerner found that participants who were told that a fellow student had won a cash prize in a random draw were inclined to believe that the student worked harder than another student who had not won the prize. In a later study, Lerner and Simmons found that, when confronted with an innocent victim – in this case a woman apparently being punished with electric shocks for making mistakes in a learning task – participants chose to “devalue and reject the victim” (1966, p.209), and were more likely to do so the more severe the punishment.

Other research into the Just World Fallacy has shown that people are inclined to blame AIDS victims, victims of assault, victims of spousal abuse, and to praise beneficiaries of gambling gains. Furthermore, those most prone to commit the Just World Fallacy are least likely to take action when they perceive an injustice.

These are interesting findings in their own right, but they also have important consequences for organizational life. This is because many scholars, particularly those in business ethics, have been attracted to the idea that organizations are communities. I take it that this is an attractive idea to people generally, given that many of us spend around 50% of our waking lives at work, and presumably we’d prefer to spend that time in communities that are characterised by a of sense friendship, compassion and, perhaps above all, of shared purpose.

This way of thinking about communities is rooted in the thought of ancient Athenian philosopher, Aristotle (1998, 2000). Aristotle held that we have a natural impulse to form communities – we are ‘political animals’ as the saying goes – and that it is only within communities that we can flourish. A true community is not a haphazard assemblage of people, but is unified by common values, and requires us to be active participants if we are to be genuine members.

Why does the just world fallacy threaten the community status of organizations? Because it endangers the sense of participation that communities require. Such participation requires us to be able to deliberate together about the good of that community, and a key part of that deliberation pertains to justice within the community. Unless we are able to assess whether people deserve the rewards or harms they receive, we will be unable to follow the basic principles of justice that a community requires. According to research into the Just World Fallacy, people are liable to believe that others are due precisely what they are given, and so what should result from shared deliberation—judgments about who deserves what and why—in fact precede and shape it. The undue deference or disregard that seems to result from the Just World Fallacy therefore undermines our ability to be full participants in the life of the community.

While this argument makes me pessimistic about the possibility of achieving a genuine sense of community within organizations, I think it would be unduly pessimistic to think the situation is hopeless, and in my article, I suggest some ways in which we can try to shape organizations so that they approximate the ideal of community as closely as possible. These are: to cultivate a suspicion of inequality, to minimise displays of unequal power and thus the perceived distance between the most and least powerful members of an organization, to emphasise face-to-face interactions that might help to encourage the emergence of friendships, and to ensure relatively equal pay in the organisation. These recommendations are, no doubt, difficult to achieve, and even where they are they may not be sufficient to meet the challenge posed by the just world fallacy entirely – after all, the fortuitous reward in Lerner’s original study was US$3.50 (worth approximately US$27 today) – but they may make the aspiration to community more achievable.

Matthew Sinnicks, Northumbria University

REFERENCES

Aristotle. (1998). Politics (Reeve, C. D. C., Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Aristotle. (2000). Nicomachean ethics (Irwin, T., Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Lerner, M. J. (1965). Evaluation of performance as a function of performer’s reward and attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1, 355–360.

Lerner, M. J., Simmons, C. H. (1966). Observer’s reaction to the “innocent victim”: Compassion or rejection? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 203–210.

 

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