Is It Their Own Fault? Account for ‘General Belief in a Just World’ to Understand Jurors’ View of Blame

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So Donald Trump now has the coronavirus. As of press time for this blog post, he is fighting the illness from the Presidential Suite at Walter Reed Medical Center. It is news that struck many as both surprising and predictable: Surprising in the way that it has upended a campaign in its final stretch, and predictable as a consequence of the failure to take more seriously preventative measures against the virus, such as masks and distancing. Attention has turned to the largely maskless crowd, that was seated without distancing, in the White House Rose Garden at the formal nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court seat recently vacated by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Many positive diagnoses seem at this stage to trace back to that gathering, with White House Advisor Kellyanne Conway, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, University of Notre Dame President John Jenkins, Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Thom Tillis of North Carolina and, of course, the President and the First Lady all coming down with the virus.

Many commentators have noted, in essence, that they had it coming. With rhetoric that played down the seriousness of the threat and eschewed wearing masks, and acting as though we had already turned the corner on the pandemic, the chickens, they say, are coming home to roost. Attributing responsibility is in some ways a rational response: It isn’t wrong to say that practices have consequences in the current pandemic. But at the same time, the blame reflects a common human tendency, a “General Belief in a Just World.” The worldview is that “things happen for a reason” and “people get what they deserve.” When we see bad things happen to other people, that leads us to a motivated search for reasons why they may have brought that bad outcome on themselves. Of course, the other name for that is “victim blaming,” and it can be a strong bias that matters in criminal and civil trials.

Biases Are Comfortable 

The bias is attractive because it is comfortable. A recent study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences (Wang et al., 2020) looked at the influence of this style of “Just World” thinking in the context of the coronavirus. A Chinese research team manipulated groups of participants to focus on the coronavirus or not, and to adapt a General Belief in a Just World (GBJW) or not. Unsurprisingly, a focus on the pandemic led to more negative emotions, but a high GBJW reduced those negative emotions and increased positive emotions. In other words, believing that bad things happen to those who had it coming because they were not careful enough is a reassuring way to think about the pandemic and other crises. “GBJW can protect individuals’ emotions when they face a major social disaster,” the team concludes. It is an interesting result, because it seems to suggest that, as a false sense of security, the bias is effective. It provides a layer of insulation so that people feel that they are personally less at risk. And I suppose that works until one tests positive.

The idea that a bias works because it creates comfort is a useful way to think of biases generally. If cognition is, to some extent at least, a matter of rewards and punishments, then we are going to gravitate toward ways of thinking that give us rewards. Hindsight bias, for example, is rewarding because it makes us think that bad events are more predictable and more preventable going forward. An anchoring bias is comfortable because it is easier to have a starting point. Confirmation bias is comfortable because we want to believe that our preferences are bourn out by the evidence. Even a racial bias is comfortable because, in reinforcing the perception of a “less than me” group, racists are able to feel better about themselves. So one way of thinking about biases is that we adopt them as efficient ways of maintaining the ease and the positivity of our thinking. That suggests one general way of addressing biases, or debiasing.

Address Biases by Making Them Less comfortable 

If people gravitate toward biases because they are psychologically comfortable, then it stands to reason that you can wean individuals away from biases by making them less comfortable. For example, if people have gotten comfortable with the idea that the virus is a hoax, or at least overblown, then each new high-profile figure coming down with the virus should make them a little less comfortable. In trial, victim-blaming is likely to be less comfortable when it is one’s own safety that is at risk. This is one of the reasons that the Reptile approach works: Trying plaintiffs’ cases by personalizing the ideas of danger and safety is designed to make jurors less comfortable with “Just World” thinking that tragedies are things that happen to other people who have failed to take proper precautions.

To be sure, encouraging jurors to reduce their reliance on a bias can be an uphill battle. But with a sustained focus on promoting a little discomfort with that bias, advocates may be able to move the meter. So focus on a few tactics that have a chance of reducing your jurors’ comfort with a biased attitude:

  • Share facts that are at odds with their default beliefs.
  • Find ways that their bias might conflict with some of their other higher-order beliefs.
  • Look at the risks and harms of being wrong in their assumptions.

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Wang, J., Wang, Z., Liu, X., Yang, X., Zheng, M., & Bai, X. (2020). The impacts of a COVID-19 epidemic focus and general belief in a just world on individual emotions. Personality and Individual Differences168, 110349.

Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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