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People subconsciously believe that the world is ‘fair’ and that those who suffer will be rewarded later on

A new study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology reports on one of our more curious subconscious mechanisms. People expect their suffering to mean they have a greater chance of getting a reward in the future, the team explains.

Image credits Christine Schmidt.

We like to think of ourselves as fully factual, logical people, but that’s not always the case. Our brains still rely on ancient mechanisms to get us through the day, week, month, or year — and those tools don’t always follow cold facts. There’s nothing wrong or shameful about that, but it does pay to know ourselves (and what makes us tick) better. A new study looks at one such mechanism and delves into its roots.

I suffer, therefore I am (deserving)

The team reports that there are two main theories for why people believe suffering now means a greater reward later on. The first is known as the “just-world maintenance” hypothesis, which posits that people often believe we’re living in a just world where everyone gets what they deserve. In this light, unnecessary suffering would need compensation later on to restore the balance and make the world just. In essence, that their suffering will be compensated later on.

The second one is known as the “virtuous suffering” explanation, which holds that experiencing suffering can improve our moral character. This belief has been hinted at by previous research which found that committing self-punishment can make someone appear more moral. In essence, this explanation holds that suffering makes people more moral, and moral behavior leads to greater rewards in the future.

What the authors set out to determine was which one of these explanations has more merit. They started by presenting the participants with a vignette about a protagonist who had a cleft lip. Participants were either told the protagonist wasn’t suffering (the ‘low suffering conditions) or that he was experiencing a ‘high suffering condition’ due to his cleft. Next, the participants were told this protagonist had been entered into a draw where they could win free medical treatment for the condition and asked to rate the likelihood that he would win.

Based on the results, the team says that the virtuous suffering explanation doesn’t really have much support. However, they report that when the protagonist was shown to experience more suffering, participants perceived them as more ‘deserving’ of future rewards — which would support the just-world maintenance explanation.

After this, the team wanted to see how participants would react if the protagonist’s suffering was presented as being self-inflicted. Such suffering, the team believed, would be perceived as being deserved, and thus likely wouldn’t threaten participants’ belief in a just-world. To test this, they gave participants a vignette about a student who is majoring in French and recently had a limb amputation. The student applied to study abroad in France in a program that was nearly full, where the few vacant spots were to be awarded by random draw.

Depending on which group each participant was assigned to, they either read that the procedure was caused by the actions of another individual (‘other condition’), by his own decision (‘self-condition’), or as the result of random chance (‘stochastic condition’). They were then asked to rate the likelihood that the student would win the draw.

People rated the student as more likely to win if he was suffering (compared to the control condition where he wasn’t). However, they rated his likelihood of winning a spot much lower if his own actions led him to the amputation. In fact, people rated his chances in this scenario as low as they did in the control condition.

All in all, the authors write that their results support the “just-world maintenance” explanation, meaning that most people intuitively believe that the world is just and ‘acts’ fairly. They base this on the observation that unjust suffering would threaten this belief much more than the virtuous suffering one, which means people would expect needless suffering to be followed by a reward as a means to make the world just — their results, they note, align with this.

The paper “Why and when suffering increases the perceived likelihood of fortuitous rewards” has been published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.