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Economic inequalities are legitimized by the belief that people get what they deserve

Isabel Correia, a researcher from the Center for Psychological Research and Social Intervention (CIS-Iscte), contributed to a study on perceptions of justice and legitimation of economic inequality in 27 European countries. The results indicate that people with a higher tendency to consider that people get what they deserve, or deserve what they get, are more likely to justify wealth inequalities in their country.

© 2020 Benjamin Disinger | Unsplash


The belief in a just world, consisting of the idea that people get what they deserve or deserve what they get, was first proposed by Melvin J. Lerner, a clinical psychologist who, in the 1960s, began to question certain behaviors he observed, such as co-workers blaming people with a mental health condition for their circumstances, or his students scorning poor people. Lerner explained these behaviors as a defense mechanism that can result in a distorted perception of people suffering injustice when it is impossible to lessen it. In this way, they restore the perception of justice by seeing the situation as less unfair and the victims as less innocent than they are. These distortions result in additional victimization that can reduce the support these innocent victims need to mitigate their situation.


More recently, the belief in the just world has been investigated regarding its association with political ideologies, such as Meritocracy, Neoliberalism, or Economic System Justification. Using data from over 45,000 people interviewed in 27 European countries from the European Social Survey 2018, this study conducted by Isabel Correia, Researcher at CIS-Iscte and Professor at Iscte, sought to examine the association between the belief in the just world and the population's perception of justice concerning three indicators: overall wealth inequality, the income of the wealthiest 10%, and the income of the poorest 10%. The results reveal a predictive effect of belief in the just world on legitimizing economic inequality. More specifically, the greater the belief that people get what they deserve, the greater the legitimation of wealth inequality, an association that holds for all three indicators. Additionally, this effect was stronger for legitimating the income of the poorest 10% compared to the legitimation of the income of the wealthiest 10%. In other words, the results suggest that blaming the poor is easier than praising the rich. Also noteworthy is that this association can predict attitudes toward wealth redistribution. The effect is again more evident in legitimizing the incomes of the poorest 10%, consistent with the notion that negative evaluation of the poor leads to opposition to redistribution policies.


Analyzing other factors, the results suggest that the greater the economic inequality in the country of residence, the smaller the predictive effect of belief in the just world in legitimating economic inequality, which paradoxically seems to suggest that perceptions of justice present themselves as a mechanism that seeks to restore the dissonance of observing injustice in relatively just places.


Isabel Correia has investigated perceptions of justice and negative attitudes toward victims. On the topic, a 2018 study showed that in a representative sample of the Portuguese population, perceptions of justice were associated with greater culpability of the Portuguese people for the 2008 economic crisis and the Troika bailout in 2011. The study presented here was recently published in the scientific journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and co-authored by researchers Efraín García-Sanchez (Univ. of São Paulo, Univ. of Granada), Cícero Pereira (Univ. Federal de Paraíba, ICS-ULisboa), Guillermo Willis (Univ. of Granada), Rosa Rodríguez-Bailón (Univ. of Granada) and Jorge Vala (ICS-ULisboa). It suggests once again that the fundamental need for justice may paradoxically lead to legitimizing injustices. Considering that economic inequalities are fair, the deprived deserve to be poor, and the privileged deserve to be rich.



This text was written by Gonçalo Queirós, a student of the Master in Social and Organizational Psychology (Iscte) as part of his curricular internship at CIS-Iscte.

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