Bad things happen to good people: The Just World hypothesis

We have three back doors in our house. Regularly someone leaves one of them unlocked. We have so many nickable items casually left in view, like this laptop (my baby), or the Samsung tablet we got free with the Smart TV. So far we’ve got away with it, though when I was pregnant with our daughter (who is now 18) a burglar burnt a hole through the back door of the house we lived in, with a blowtorch (he obviously didn’t know how to pick locks). I woke (smelling burning) and waddled downstairs to investigate, disturbing him, but he still got away with my purse and bike with a flat tyre – found discarded a few metres down the road (not the best getaway vehicle).

Of course, carelessly leaving a door unlocked is not in the same league as carelessly misplacing a child, but we have done that to. Twice my son has disappeared long enough for me to start considering the photo we would use on the missing posters. 

The first time, we’d just arrived in Germany, where my husband had been posted with the army. We had taken the children to the Social Club, where a welcome event was taking place. Outside the club there was a fantastic children’s playground and my four year old daughter marched off determinedly towards it, with our nearly three year old son struggling to keep up  – his gaze fixed on the sandpit.

I was immediately engulfed in the ‘wives of’ welcoming committee, and keeping half an eye on the play park answered their eager questions, sure my husband was watching the children.

About a minute or two later, I saw my husband come out from inside the club. My heart lifted in my throat and the hairs on the back of my neck lifted. I disentangled myself from the friendly women and strode purposefully towards the slide and climbing frame. I saw our daughter’s shock of dark hair straight away. She had already found a friend and they were jabbering at each other and holding hands. I couldn’t see our son, not yet three, but again that wasn’t unusual as he was likely to be found on the edge of things, an observer rather than a doer. However, within thirty seconds, it was obvious he wasn’t there at all, nor in the immediate area surrounding the play equipment. I ran back down the grassy slope, screaming his name. What followed was five minutes of hell as my husband and I searched the club and grounds becoming more and  more frantic. And then from across the road I saw him, in the arms of a woman I barely recognised. She was the wife of my husband’s Sergeant and she’d intercepted our son barrelling towards her, after crossing two – thankfully quiet – roads, heading, it seemed, towards our flat – obviously he was searching for his mummy.

I held him so tight to me and vowed I would never, ever let him out of my sight again. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach and still, to this day, 17 years later, my cheeks flush when I think how stupid and careless we were.

The second time, he was seven and we were camping in France. We were queuing for fish and chips at the bar, when he asked if he could play with his new friend Ben. We said, yes, assuming he meant at our tent. Five minutes later we returned. No sign of either of them. The enormity and anonymity of the campsite hit us like a lead football in the guts. There must have been a thousand people swarming the site, with cars and campervans coming and going. Thirty long minutes later, after I had convinced myself he had been whisked away and was already at the border with Spain, we found him playing with Ben as he said he would be, confused by my tearful hugs and kisses (and very embarrassed).

Then there was the time our daughter had a tantrum in John Lewis, one minute lying face down screaming in-between the dress racks, while I was doing my best to ignore her – the next she was running into the lift with the doors just about to close. Her grandmother did a ninja move any superhero would be proud of and got her arm in the way of the door, thank goodness.

So what’s my point? Just recently I have been distressed by the vitriol directed at April’s parents. It reminded me of the terrible, nasty things that were said about the McCann’s in May 2007, after Madeleine was taken from her bed in a hotel chalet. In both cases, I have no doubt the parents are torturing themselves with ‘what ifs’. If only I had called her in earlier… if only I had stayed in the chalet…


But it seems that many people need to find someone to blame (other than the sick perpetrator).

What was a five year old doing out at 7pm?

I don’t know for sure, but they’d just returned from parents evening, so maybe April was allowed to play out a bit later than usual for having a good report.

In psychology this need to blame the victim is a well known phenomena and it is called the ‘Just World Hypothesis’. This basically means we need to believe that we live in a just world, where people get what they deserve. Good is rewarded and evil is punished. When something bad happens, we need to restore equilibrium and to distance ourselves from the incident. We need to believe that somehow the victim deserved what happened to them.

Afterwards, they said that the 22-year-old woman was bound to attract attention. She was wearing a white lace miniskirt, a green tank top, and no underwear. At knife-point, she was kidnapped from a Fort Lauderdale restaurant parking lot by a Georgia drifter and raped twice. But a jury showed little sympathy for the victim. The accused rapist was acquitted. “We all feel she asked for it [by] the way she was dressed,” said the jury foreman. click here for source.

In the case of rape, psychological studies have shown that the more attractive the victim, or the shorter her skirt, the less likely it is the rapist will be found guilty.

“Both men and women who viewed a photograph of the victim in a short skirt attributed more responsibility to the victim than those who viewed a photograph of the victim in a moderate or long skirt.” Click here for abstract.

When the victim is an ‘innocent’ child, blame is shifted to the parents. We need to believe the same thing won’t happen to us, or our family because we are good parents and therefore by default they must be bad (parents).

The sad fact is; bad things happen to good people and the world is not a just place. Once we accept this, then blaming the parents, or the girl in the short skirt, becomes nebulous and we can start to address why our society fosters such rare, but despicable people. Child murderers don’t appear overnight. They will have a history of minor crimes against children and women and they often come from dysfunctional and toxic backgrounds. Intervention must begin in childhood. We must do more to protect children from abusive influences so they don’t grow up devoid of compassion for themselves as well as others. We must also ensure that police forces talk to each other, so someone with a record of child abuse cannot wipe the slate clean by moving to a new area with a new name (as did Ian Huntley). We must also examine how we deal with paedophiles, and not release them if we cannot guarantee they will not reoffend (as did Roy Whiting).

We all make mistakes. Tell me a parent that hasn’t lost sight of a child for a moment or two in crowded shopping centre or at the park. What is heart-warming is that for 99.9% of the time, nothing bad will happen; the vast majority of people are fundamentally good.

April’s parents are no more culpable than Madeleine McCann’s parents were. They, like all of us, probably believed it wouldn’t happen to them. They aren’t perfect parents, but who of us are? But they are not bad parents either. Something bad happened to their child.

Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of UCLA have conducted surveys to examine the characteristics of people with strong beliefs in a just world. They found that people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to “feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims.”

Next time you hear someone blaming the victim for the crime against them, just remember; ‘there but for the grace of god, go I.’ And don’t let it be a reason to accept things as they are.

Your views on this blog post are welcome.

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4 thoughts on “Bad things happen to good people: The Just World hypothesis”

  1. Brilliant post, Juliet.
    We had a similar, and eventually notorious experience of this issue in Australia when Azaria Chamberlain was taken by a Dingo. I was horrified by the number of people who instantly blamed the mother, despite the accounts supporting their story from witnesses who were with the couple when Azaria went missing. The witnesses were simply people they met at a campsite. I couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t listen to what they had to say, even in the court system. The reason, of course, is what you have written here. Well said.

  2. Hi Juli, even though I understand what is happening, in terms of needing to feel safe again, it still shocks me. I ask my year 10 class this morning whose fault it was that April had been abducted, the majority responded, vehemently, it was her parents fault for allowing her out to play at 7pm.

  3. Yikes, that’s scary. Although, I imagine peer pressure would come into play at Yr 10 level. If a strong outspoken class memeber stated his/her opinion, there would surely be those too timid to speak up against that opinion.

  4. You’re right Juli, about the outspoken class members, I have a few who force their v. conservative opinions on the rest. We are doing a lot of work in PSHE on respecting rights of others and being a little less judgemental.

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