The belief in a just world has two big negative effects on the ability to acquire power. First, it hinders people’s ability to learn from all situations and all people, even those whom they don’t like or respect. I see this all the time in my teaching and work with leaders. One of the first reactions people have to situations or cases about power is whether or not the individual “likes” the person being studied or can identify with the object of study. Who cares? It is important to be able to learn from all sorts of situations and people, not just those you like and approve of, and certainly not just from people you see as similar to yourself. In fact, if you are in a position of modest power and want to attain a position of great power, you need to pay particular attention to those holding the positions you aspire to.
Second, this belief that the world is a just place anesthetizes people to the need to be proactive in building a power base. Believing that the world is fair, people fail to note the various land mines in the environment that can undermine their careers.
The pervasiveness of the belief in a just world, called in social psychology the “just-world hypothesis,” was first described by Melvin Lerner decades ago. Lerner argued that people wanted to think that the world was predictable and comprehensible and, therefore, potentially controllable. Or, as another psychologist described it, from early childhood “we learn to be ‘good and in control’ people.” How else could we navigate a world that is random and can’t be controlled without feeling thwarted and frustrated much of the time? The desire for control and predictability results in a tendency to see the world as a just place because a just world is one that is also understandable and predictable. Behave by the rules and you will be all right; fail to follow the rules and bad things will happen.
The just-world hypothesis holds that most people believe that “people get what they deserve; that is, that the good people are likely to be rewarded and the bad to be punished.
I really like the point about trying to learn from any and all sources, regardless of whether we respect or like that source. I think when I was a small child I had a very acute sense of fairness. It was only after I (at a very young age) realized that the world was not fair that I attempted to do my own version of gaming it. Sometimes I wish that the world was more meritocratic, but if I'm honest with myself, I like the element of chance and excitement that this world provides. It's hard work, and I often find myself on the losing end of a power struggle, but I bet I would be immediately bored if it were any other way.
A final thought from the book about the just world hypothesis and how good a judge of character most people are:
Most important, the phenomenon works in reverse: if someone is seen to prosper, there is a social psychological tendency for observers to decide that the lucky person must have done something to deserve his good fortune. He or she becomes a better person . . . simply by virtue of the observed rewards.