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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Background
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References
  9. Appendix

Immanent justice reasoning involves causally attributing a negative event to someone's prior moral failings, even when such a causal connection is physically implausible. This study examined the degree to which immanent justice represents a form of motivated reasoning in the service of satisfying the need to believe in a just world. Drawing on a manipulation that has been shown to activate justice motivation, participants causally attributed a freak accident to a man's prior immoral (vs. moral) behaviour to a greater extent when they first focused on their long-term (vs. short-term) goals. These findings highlight the important function believing in a just world plays in self-regulatory processes by implicating the self in immanent justice reasoning about fluke events in the lives of others.


Background

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Background
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References
  9. Appendix

Immanent justice reasoning involves causally attributing a negative outcome to someone's prior misdeeds, even when such a causal connection is physically implausible. When we infer that a man came down with a mysterious illness because he robbed many people of their money, we are engaging in immanent justice reasoning (Raman & Winer, 2004).

Although Piaget (1932/1965) proposed that the use of immanent justice reasoning declines with age, recent research has shown that adults, at times, also entertain notions of immanent justice (Callan, Ellard, & Nicol, 2006; Callan, Sutton, & Dovale, 2010; Maes, 1998; Raman & Winer, 2002, 2004; Young, Morris, Burrus, Krishnan, & Regmi, 2011). In fact, Raman and Winer (2004) call in to question developmental stage accounts of immanent justice reasoning by demonstrating that immanent justice responses to events are more common among adults than school children. But why would adults indulge in causal explanations for events that do not jibe with the physical laws of cause-and-effect?

Several explanations for why adults sometimes engage in immanent justice reasoning have been identified. Raman and Winer (2002, 2004) suggested that culturally normative principles of justice, such as religious teachings (e.g., ‘Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap’), might exert an influence on adults’ causal reasoning via enculturation. They also suggested that immanent justice accounts of events might result from adults’ capacity to entertain various models of causal explanation, of which immanent justice is one possible choice. This explanation resonates with work on magical thinking more generally, where contrary to replacement/stage models (cf. Piaget, 1932/1965), coexistence theories suggest that science-based explanatory frameworks and supernatural or magical explanatory frameworks coexist across the lifespan (Legare & Gelman, 2008; Subbotsky, 2004; Woolley, Cornelius, & Lacy, 2011).

A further explanation, explored in this research, is that immanent justice reasoning is one means of satisfying the need to believe in a just world (Lerner, 1980). According to just-world theory, people are motivated to sustain the functional belief that the world is a just, fair, and non-random place where people get what they deserve. From this perspective, immanent justice represents a form of motivated reasoning engaged to construe events as consistent with the belief that people get what they deserve, thus serving the same functional purpose as other strategies aimed at maintaining a commitment to justice and deservingness (e.g., victim rejection; Hafer & Bégue, 2005). In other words, immanent justice reasoning allows people to maintain the assumption that bad things happen for a reason, and the reason can be located in the prior misdeeds of an unfortunate victim (‘bad outcomes are caused by bad people’).

Offering some support for a just-world theory account, Callan et al. (2006, 2010) found that immanent justice reasoning is related to people's concerns about deservingness, and that immanent justice reasoning is heightened when observers have witnessed an unrelated injustice (Callan et al., 2006). Specifically, Callan et al. (2006) found that participants causally attributed a man's misfortune (car accident) to his past behaviour more when he was perceived to deserve his outcome (i.e., when he was a bad vs. good person).

Although this research shows that perceived deservingness is related to immanent justice attributions as just-world theory predicts, it is not clear whether a concern for justice subserves immanent justice attributions or is a justification for them because these constructs were assessed simultaneously. Moreover, experimental work examining whether the adoption of immanent justice accounts of events fluctuates as a function of people's concern for justice is limited. The objective of this research, then, was to provide further experimental evidence for the notion that one of the reasons why people engage in immanent justice reasoning is the need to believe in a just world. To do so, we adopted an experimental paradigm that has been shown to activate the need to perceive the world as just: long-term (vs. short-term) goal focus (Hafer, 2000).

According to Lerner and colleagues (1977; Lerner, Miller, & Holmes, 1976; Long & Lerner, 1974), people need to believe in a just world because doing so enables them to commit to long-term goal pursuits with confidence. Believing the alternative – that the world is a random, capricious, and unfair place – would likely discourage investing in anything but the most immediate outcomes, because longer term investments made by an individual may not pay off. Research supports the notion that the belief in a just world is related to people's long-term goal pursuits (e.g., Bal & van den Bos, 2012; Callan, Shead, & Olson, 2009, 2011; Hafer, 2000; Hafer, Bégue, Choma, & Dempsey, 2005; Laurin, Fitzsimons, & Kay, 2011). For example, beliefs in a just world have been positively linked to people's tendencies to plan for and invest in future goals (Xie, Liu, & Gan, 2011), considerations of the consequences of future behaviour (Hafer, 2000), and confidence in achieving life goals (Sutton & Winnard, 2007). Most relevant to the current research, Hafer (2000) experimentally examined the effects of a long-term goal focus manipulation on the strategies people adopt to maintain a belief in a just world. She found that participants derogated a victim whose fate threatened their just-world beliefs more strongly among those who focused on their future plans after university than those who focused on their current extracurricular activities. In a recent conceptual replication of this effect, Bal and van den Bos (2012) found that individual differences in future orientation (Zimbardo, 1990) positively predicted victim derogation and blame when the victim was innocent, but not when the victim was non-innocent (i.e., when their just-world beliefs were threatened vs. not threatened).

Taken together, this research shows that a concern with one's long-term (vs. short-term) goals increases the use of strategies to maintain a commitment to justice. Thus, we adapted a modified version of Hafer's (2000) paradigm to test the notion that immanent justice reasoning is a social-cognitive strategy used to construe events as being consistent with a just world. After focusing on their long-term (vs. short-term) goals, participants read about a freak accident that occurred either to a good person (respected swimming coach) or a bad person (thieving swimming coach). Participants were asked to rate the extent to which they believed the accident was a result of the person's prior conduct. If the belief in a just world is more essential when people are focused on their long-term goals (Hafer, 2000), then we should expect immanent justice attributions for a random bad outcome that occurred to a bad (vs. good) person to increase when people are asked to think about and list their long-term goals. Thus, we predicted that the effect of the target person's moral worth (good vs. bad) on immanent justice attributions would occur more strongly when participants were first asked to think about their long-term (vs. short-term) goals.

Method

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Background
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References
  9. Appendix

Participants

Participants were recruited across two mediums (paper-based and online). One sample consisted of 116 staff and students from the University of Essex, United Kingdom, who were approached on campus to complete a survey in exchange for a candy bar (62% females; Mage = 29.18, SDage = 13.10). The other sample consisted of 251 participants recruited via Amazon's Mechanical Turk to complete an online survey (see Buhrmester, Kwang, & Gosling, 2011; 65% females; Mage = 32.41, SDage = 11.46). Participants from both samples were told that the study concerned ‘Life Activities and Perceptions of News’.1

Materials and procedure

We informed participants that they would complete two separate studies involving ‘a content analysis of the different types of goals/activities people carry out in their lives’ and ‘how people make sense out of and find meaning in the things that happen to others’.

Long-term goal focus manipulation and validation study

Participants were first presented with an open-ended questionnaire that introduced the goal focus manipulation (entitled either ‘Life Goals Study’ or ‘Daily Activities Study’). We told participants that the study was a content analysis of the different types of goals people set for themselves (or activities they carry out). Participants in the long-term goal focus condition were asked to think about and list up to four goals they wanted to accomplish in their lives for each of three extended time periods (1–5, 5–10, and 10–15 years). Participants in the short-term goal focus condition were asked to list up to four activities they would carry out on that day within each of three time periods (next 1, 1–12, and 12–24 hr). Within the description of the questionnaire, participants were given examples of the sort of goals/activities they could provide (e.g., interpersonal goals or activities, such as getting married or meeting with a friend that day). Participants in each condition were given four lines for each of the time periods to list their goals (activities).2 Thus, one group of participants was asked to focus on their ‘here-and-now’ activities, whereas the other group was asked to consider their longer term goals.

Using a separate sample of participants from Mechanical Turk (= 70; 53% female participants; Mage = 30.42, SDage = 9.63), we tested the previously unexamined assumption that believing in a just world is more crucial and important to people in light of achieving their long-term versus short-term goals. Participants completed the long-term/short-term goal manipulation described above and then, across three items, rated how much they believed that to achieve their goals, it was crucial, important, and essential that they live in a just and fair world (α = .89; ‘In order for you to achieve the things you listed above, how crucial is it to you that the world you live in is a just and fair place’?; ‘How important is it to you that people get what they deserve in life in order for you to achieve the things you listed above’?; and ‘In terms of accomplishing the things you mentioned above, how essential is it to you that the world you live in treats people fairly’?). These items were rated on scales ranging from 1 (crucial/important/essential) to 7 (extremely crucial/important/essential). Consistent with our conceptual analysis, in terms of achieving their goals, living in a just world was rated as more important for participants who focused on their long-term goals (= 5.08, SD = 1.21) than for participants who focused on their short-term goals (= 3.97, SD = 1.80), t(68) = 3.06, = .003, = .74.

Immanent justice scenario

Next, adapted from a real news report (Razaq, 2008), participants read a news article describing a freak accident in which a swimming coach, fictitiously named Keith Murdoch, was seriously injured when a tree collapsed on his vehicle during high winds (see Appendix). The content of the article was identical in both conditions except for the title and the last paragraph. To vary the moral value of the target character, participants either read, ‘Sources confirm that Keith Murdoch volunteered as a swimming coach at the Bitterne Leisure Centre and is a valued and beloved member of the community’ (‘good person’ condition) or ‘Sources confirm that Keith Murdoch volunteered as a swimming coach at the Bitterne Leisure Centre and is awaiting sentencing for theft. He had used his master keys to steal money, jewellery, and cell phones from swimmers attending their classes’ (‘bad person’ condition).

Following Callan et al. (2006), we then asked participants to provide their immanent justice attributions within a ‘sense-making survey’ by answering the item, ‘to what extent do you feel that what happened to Keith Murdoch was a result of his conduct as a swimming coach’. For the paper-based sample, this item was answered using a 7-point scale (1 = Not at all, 7 = A great deal), whereas for the online sample, this question was presented with a 6-point scale (1 = Not at all, 6 = A great deal). Thus, scores on this measure from the online sample were rescaled for a common 7-point scale.3

Results

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Background
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References
  9. Appendix

Immanent justice attributions were analysed using a 2 (Medium: online vs. paper) × 2 (Goal Focus: long-term vs. short-term) × 2 (Moral Worth: respected vs. thief) between-subjects ANOVA. Analyses revealed no significant main or interaction effects of recruitment medium (all ps > .11). Most important, the predicted Moral Worth × Goal Focus two-way interaction was not significantly different between samples (i.e., there was no three-way interaction), F(1, 359) = 1.12, = .29.

Conceptually replicating Callan et al. (2006) findings, analyses revealed a significant main effect of the moral value of the swim coach's prior behaviour on immanent justice attributions, F(1, 359) = 41.64, < .001, = .73, such that participants causally attributed the freak accident to his conduct more when he was a thief than when he was a respected swim coach. Crucially, analyses revealed the predicted Moral Worth × Goal Focus interaction, F(1, 359) = 6.84, = .009, ηp2 = .02.4 Shown in Figure 1, the effect of the coach's moral worth on immanent justice attributions was stronger for participants who first focused on their long-term goals, t(359) = 6.51, < .001, = .86, than for participants who first focused on their short-term activities, t(359) = 3.39, < .001, = .60. Looking at the interaction in a different way, when the coach was a thief, immanent justice attributions were higher when participants focused on their long-term (vs. short-term) goals, t(359) = 3.42, < .001, = .39. Thus, these results show that a long-term goal focus, which has been shown previously to enhance justice motive effects (Hafer, 2000), increased the extent to which participants were willing to causally attribute a fluke accident to a person's prior misdeeds.

image

Figure 1. Effect of the protagonist's moral conduct (respected coach vs. thieving coach) on immanent justice attributions as a function of goal focus (long-term vs. short-term). Error bars show standard errors of the means.

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Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Background
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References
  9. Appendix

Early treatments of immanent justice reasoning regarded it as a naïve, childlike, heuristic way of understanding events. More recently, it has been conceptualized as motivated cognition designed to uphold the apparent justice of the world (Callan et al., 2006, 2010). The present result adds weight to this interpretation of immanent justice reasoning by demonstrating a novel effect: long-term (vs. short-term) goal focus, which theoretically activates the need to perceive the world as just (Hafer, 2000; Lerner, 1977), increases immanent justice reasoning.5

The current findings resonate with a growing body of research interested in the interplay between people's concerns about justice for the self and justice for others (e.g., De Cremer & Van Hiel, 2010; Loseman & van den Bos, 2012; van Prooijen & van den Bos, 2009). By revealing that the effects of thinking about one's own life goals impacts immanent justice reasoning, these findings highlight the importance of justice for the self on how people make sense out of the fluke events in the lives of others. Thus, the effects reported here highlight the important function that believing in a just world plays in self-regulatory processes (Callan et al., 2009; Laurin et al., 2011; Lerner, 1977).

One limitation of these findings is that we did not ask participants to provide explanations or rationales for their immanent justice attributions. Taking this approach, Callan et al. (2006) found that participants’ invoked notions of justice (e.g., ‘what goes around comes around’) compared to other possible explanations (e.g., fate, chance, naturalistic processes) more strongly when they learned that a bad chance outcome happened to a ‘bad’ person and when their belief in a just world was previously threatened. One avenue for future research, then, might be to examine how people's causal explanations for fluke events might be qualitatively different depending on the degree to which they are focused on their long-term versus short-term investments.

The effects we report might also be limited to people who hold Western or Christian worldviews. Using a scenario much like the one in this research, Young et al. (2011) found that Christian participants inferred that a target person's misfortune was fated only if that person performed a prior misdeed, whereas Hindu participants, who generally believe that people have past lives and ‘karmic’ payback comes in the next lifetime, inferred that the person's misfortune was fated regardless of her misdeeds. The Hindu participants’ responses to such a misfortune are similar to ‘ultimate justice’ reasoning (Anderson, Kay, & Fitzsimons, 2010; Lerner, 1980; Maes, 1998), a form of which Christian cosmologies also ascribe to (e.g., heaven and hell). The challenge for future research will be to determine the interacting role that justice motivation and different cultural and religious principles of justice play in how people find meaning in and make sense out of the misfortunes that befall themselves and others.

Footnotes
  1. 1

    We excluded 15 (3.9%) additional participants because they incorrectly answered a simple manipulation check question (‘In the article you read, was Keith someone who stole from his students?’).

  2. 2

    Of the 1,921 long-term goals listed by participants (not all participants provided 12 answers), 51% concerned career, financial, or material goals (e.g., ‘graduate college’); 22% concerned social, family, or relationship goals (e.g., ‘get married and start a family’); 22% concerned self-development/self-experience goals (e.g., ‘learn a new language’); and 5% concerned physical/health goals (e.g., ‘lose weight’). The short-term goals people listed largely involved mundane activities (e.g., eat lunch, watch television, sleep).

  3. 3

    Standardizing the scores within samples results in the same conclusions.

  4. 4

    Because immanent justice attributions tend to be positively skewed, we conducted resampling analyses that do not require normality of the data (Manly, 2007; described by Howell, 2009). These analyses used 5,000 random permutations of the data and yielded the same Moral Worth × Goal Focus interaction effect (= .02).

  5. 5

    Long-term focus can alter construal level, so we tested whether construal level might have influenced the present effects (Trope & Liberman, 2010). We conducted a similar study in the laboratory (= 152; 62% female; Mage = 21.83, SDage = 4.53) using our good vs. bad ‘swim coach’ scenario preceded by a validated construal-level manipulation (‘how’ or ‘why’ one maintains good physical health vs. a no construal control condition; see Freitas, Salovey, & Liberman, 2001). In this study, participants provided their immanent justice attributions across four items (the ‘result of’ item above along with items assessing the extent to which participants believed it was worth considering, plausible, and possible that the accident was a result of Keith's past conduct; α = .94). A 2 (moral worth) × 3 (construal level) ANOVA showed that the effect of the coach's worth on immanent justice attributions, F(1, 146) = 6.09, = .015, = .42, was not moderated by construal level, F(2, 146) = .20, = .82. The results of this study suggest that construal level does not impact immanent justice attributions in the same way that long-term (vs. short-term) goal focus does.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Background
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References
  9. Appendix

We thank Clare Hyland for her assistance with data collection and Will Matthews for his help with statistical analyses.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Background
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References
  9. Appendix

Appendix

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Background
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References
  9. Appendix

Text for the thieving swim coach condition is presented in italics

Volunteer Swim Coach Critically Injured by Falling Tree [Thieving Swim Coach Critically Injured by Falling Tree]

Southampton – In an unlikely turn of events, volunteer swim coach Keith Murdoch, 37, was critically injured Thursday morning when a tree fell on his van on Mountbatten Way in Southampton.

Commenting on the incident, one nearby office worker said; ‘I heard an almighty crash and I ran to the window and saw the tree was lying in the road. It was chaos. People were standing around watching’.

Southampton Transport, which is responsible for the safety of trees along the road, said they are maintained regularly and that an investigation will be launched, with other trees checked.

‘There were strong, gusty winds and rain in the early morning. Trees are full of leaves at this time of year so are more likely to be uprooted. Even so, we must remind people that this is a freak accident and they should not be unduly concerned about their safety’, said a spokesman from Southampton Transport.

The tree struck the van where the windshield and roof meet, crashing into the front-seat area. Emergency crews were eventually able to remove Mr. Murdoch from the vehicle. He was rushed to Royal Southampton Hospital where he is in critical condition.

Sources confirm that Keith Murdoch volunteered as a swimming coach at the Bitterne Leisure Centre and is a valued and beloved member of the community.

Sources confirm that Keith Murdoch volunteered as a swimming coach at the Bitterne Leisure Centre and is awaiting sentencing for theft. He had used his master keys to steal money, jewellery, and mobile phones from swimmers attending their classes.