Privilege Blindness and the Just World Theory

Written by August 24, 2011 2:23 pm 60 comments


This article examines the link between privilege blindness – when people are unaware or unmindful of privilege – and the psychological phenomenon known as the Just World Theory, the perception that the world is essentially just and people deserve what they get. The article examines some well-intentioned but fallacious arguments that people make from positions of privilege, and posits that such arguments are based on a false premise of a “just world”.


1. What is Privilege?

“Check your privilege.”
“Your privilege is showing.”
You might have seen phrases like these being used in articles and debates about social justice. What does “privilege” mean exactly?

Privilege is an unearned advantage – an advantage that one has due to the circumstances of one’s birth, or by being a member of a certain social category. People who don’t have the right circumstances of birth, or such a group membership, lack the privileges conferred on those who do.

Here are some examples of the various types of privilege:

Class privilege or economic privilege: If you’re reading this, you’re a member of a select group of Indians – the 10% who can read and write English, and the 5% who have access to the internet. We like to think that our economic status is solely due to talent and hard work, but the truth is that for most of us, self-perpetuating circumstances of birth have given us a heavy advantage – having parents who are educated and employed, for example, or being of the “right” caste. For the 40% of Indians living below the poverty line, social mobility is a distant dream.

Caste privilege: This one needs little explanation. “Backward” caste is determined simply by being born, and with it comes horrific institutionalised oppression – from physical enslavement and torture to social exclusion and deprivation. Caste privilege in India typically intersects with class privilege – a pilot survey done in advance of the Below Poverty Line survey showed that Scheduled Castes and Tribes constitute half of India’s poor, deprived households.

Male privilege: We live in a patriarchal society, and while the status of women is better today than it was just a few generations ago, women are still very much a marginalised and oppressed group – while men are not. There is abundant evidence for this, from violence against women, to the corporate gender gap, to lack of legal rights and justice. Being born a man in today’s world immediately confers privilege – more access to education and employment, more human rights, not having to worry much about sexual harassment and sexual violence, and much more.

There are many more types of privilege – White privilege in Europe and America, for example. Heterosexual privilege. Cisgender privilege. Able-bodied privilege. Even religious privilege – the privilege that comes from belonging to a majority religion (or even any religion at all).  In addition to intersecting with other types of privilege, privilege can also be situational and relative – low-privilege groups might have certain privileges in specific situations, or in comparison to other even lesser-privileged groups.

So are people with privilege bad people? Are they protective of this privilege, and malicious towards people who lack it? Not necessarily. The nature of privilege is insidious, such that quite often people who have it don’t realise they have it. It takes an active effort to learn to recognise one’s own privilege – the default position is that of privilege blindness, or unexamined privilege. There are of course people who appear malicious, who actively seek to deny others the privileges they enjoy — not so much privilege blind as denying that they have privilege in the first place. This article will not focus on them. It will focus instead on largely well-meaning people who are simply unaware of their privilege – and what might be the reasons for this phenomenon. And this brings us to the Just World Theory.

2. The Just World Theory

The Just World Theory was first proposed by American social psychologists Melvin J. Lerner and Carolyn Simmons in 1966. In 1980, Lerner wrote the pioneering book on the subject: “The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion”. According to this theory, we are psychologically inclined to think that the world is fair, and that people deserve their happiness and their suffering:

People have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve. Such a belief plays an important function in our lives since in order to plan our lives or achieve our goals we need to assume that our actions will have predictable consequences. Moreover, when we encounter evidence suggesting that the world is not just, we quickly act to restore justice by helping the victim or we persuade ourselves that no injustice has occurred. We either lend assistance or we decide that the rape victim must have asked for it, the homeless person is simply lazy, and the fallen star must be an adulterer. [1]

The belief in a just world is thought to play an important positive psychological function – it allows us to invest in long-term goals. This is a human instinct – during childhood development, our minds shift from a focus on instant gratification to long-term strategies. I.e., we progress from the “pleasure principle” to the “reality principle” [2]. We plan and act in ways such that our future lives might be better. In order for us to do this, we need to believe that our lives will indeed be happier if we act accordingly – that our goodness will bring reward, and that others’ wickedness will bring them punishment and suffering. Therefore, when we see people who are happy, as well as people who are suffering or wronged against, we think that they must have done something to deserve it.

There is experimental evidence to show that people have a fundamental belief in a just world. For example, Lerner and his colleagues did a study where

subjects watched a fellow student react with apparent pain to a series of supposed electric shocks. In one condition subjects had an opportunity to compensate the victim by voting to reassign her to a reward condition in which she would receive money rather than shocks.  Virtually all subjects availed themselves of this opportunity, and they were told that the victim would be reassigned. In this condition, then, subjects were able to restore “justice” to the situation.  In another condition, however, subjects could not reward the victim and were informed that the victim would continue to suffer. Subjects who knew that the victim would be compensated rated her more favourably than those who knew that her suffering was to continue. The ratings provided in the latter condition indicated considerable rejection of the victim, suggesting that she was seen as somehow deserving her fate. [2]


While this cognitive bias has the positive effect of giving us more confidence in our futures, it has a negative consequence in how we perceive injustice. The tendency to blame the victim is one of the most pernicious consequences of the belief in a just world. (Not only do people blame victims for their fate, but victims blame themselves too – “I must have done something wrong”.)

There is another field in social psychology called System Justification Theory, which could also explain such behaviours. This theory postulates that “people are motivated to bolster, defend, and justify the status quo – that is, the prevailing social, economic, and political arrangements. The system justification goal can be both conscious and nonconscious, vary according to situational and dispositional factors, and manifest itself in different forms, such as stereotyping, attribution, and ideology.” This article however focuses on the “justice motive” rather than system justification motives.

A belief in a just world can give rise – often unconsciously – to fallacious and unjust arguments from people with privilege. The next section shows how to detect privilege-blind arguments by presenting two case studies.

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3. Case Studies

Privilege-blind arguments can be identified by examining the argument to see if a belief in a just world is present as a hidden or unstated premise. You will seldom see this premise called out explicitly – it needs to be discerned; one must “fill in the blanks” and then show that the argument is invalid because this fundamental premise is false. Two case studies of such arguments are presented below: the first an example of male privilege, the second an example of caste and class privilege.

Case Study #1: The “Elevator” Controversy

If you’re part of the freethought/atheist community, you will remember the Rebecca Watson-Richard Dawkins “Elevator” controversy. It began on a post by PZ Meyers of Pharyngula, about a video by Rebecca Watson where she relayed an incident where a man propositioned her in an elevator, and how it made her feel uncomfortable. In the comment thread that followed, Richard Dawkins wrote the following comment:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

Richard then followed up with another comment on a subsequent post:

Many people seem to think it obvious that my post was wrong and I should apologise. Very few people have bothered to explain exactly why. The nearest approach I have heard goes something like this.

I sarcastically compared Rebecca’s plight with that of women in Muslim countries or families dominated by Muslim men. Somebody made the worthwhile point (reiterated here by PZ) that it is no defence of something slightly bad to point to something worse. We should fight all bad things, the slightly bad as well as the very bad. Fair enough. But my point is that the ‘slightly bad thing’ suffered by Rebecca was not even slightly bad, it was zero bad. A man asked her back to his room for coffee. She said no. End of story.

But not everybody sees it as end of story. OK, let’s ask why not? The main reason seems to be that an elevator is a confined space from which there is no escape. This point has been made again and again in this thread, and the other one.

No escape? I am now really puzzled. Here’s how you escape from an elevator. You press any one of the buttons conveniently provided. The elevator will obligingly stop at a floor, the door will open and you will no longer be in a confined space but in a well-lit corridor in a crowded hotel in the centre of Dublin.

No, I obviously don’t get it. I will gladly apologise if somebody will calmly and politely, without using the word fuck in every sentence, explain to me what it is that I am not getting.

Let’s break down Richard’s core argument into its premises and conclusion:

Premise #1: The man didn’t lay a finger on Rebecca. He propositioned her; she declined.

Premise #2: Women in Islamic countries suffer far worse atrocities than women in Europe and America.

Premise #3: Rebecca invites this behaviour by referring to herself as a “chick”.

Premise #4 (unstated): Women like Rebecca have no reason to be uncomfortable in situations like this.

Conclusion: Rebecca is over-reacting and making a fuss over nothing.

Is this argument valid? Premise #1 is true. Premise #2 is true as well (in general). But when we look at the third and fourth premises, using an awareness of male privilege and the Just World Theory, the argument falls apart. Premise #3 is false. Women are harassed by men regardless of what they call themselves or what they wear. To insinuate that she brought it on herself is a rather obvious piece of victim blaming (belief in a just world). Premise #4 is false as well. Women — even women in the first world — are in fact routinely sexually harassed and assaulted in situations just like this one. Not to mention the routine sexual harassment and objectification they suffer from men every day in public spaces, due to which even encounters which seem innocuous on the surface get charged with a feeling of threat. Richard genuinely seems to believe that women are not subjected to such treatment by men – or that they are, but are not harmed by it. This suggests that a belief in a just world is behind his unexamined male privilege.

Let’s do a little thought experiment, and imagine that we really did live in a just world, where there was no such thing as misogyny, sexism, and sexual harassment of women. In such a world, Premise #4 would be true. Unfortunately, we do not live in such a world.

Case Study #2: Objections to the Right to Education (RTE) Act

The Right to Education Act is an act passed in August 2009 that provides for free and compulsory education to all children in India of the age of six to fourteen years. When the act came into force in April 2010, India became one of 135 countries having such a constitutional provision. It also aligned Indian education policy with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in Article 26 states that “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

The act is of crucial importance in a country like ours, where

Of the nearly 200 million children in the 6 to 14 age group, more than half do not complete eight years of elementary education, as never enrolled or dropouts. Of those who do complete eight years of schooling, the achievement levels of a large percentage, in language and mathematics, is unacceptably low. It is no wonder that a majority of the excluded and non-achievers come from the most deprived sections of society – dalits, OBCs, adivasis, girls, Muslims and poor – precisely the people who are supposed to be empowered through education.[3]

One provision of the bill is a 25% reservation in private schools for underprivileged children, with the state and central governments sharing the financial burden. Private schools however have objected to the provision. One objection is that the compensation by the government is not sufficient. Some schools took a different approach however. In July 2010, the Deccan Herald broke a story where Bethany High School in Bangalore sent out a circular to the parents of its students, warning them of the dire consequences of the reservation:

In a circular to parents, the schools said: “Once this Act is enforced, a child could beat up your child, smoke on the campus, misbehave with a girl or a teacher and the school will have to watch helplessly.”

Schools have asked parents to give suggestions on the Act and how they feel its provisions would affect their children.

“Parents need to know with whom their children will be studying in future. Incidents mentioned in the circular about misbehaviour of the students have occurred in the past. But after the Act is in place, even if such incidents occur, we will not be in a position to take any action,” Akash Ryall, principal of Bethany High School, said.


Mohan Manghnani, president of ICSE schools in Karnataka and chairman of New Horizon Educational Institution, justified the stand of the schools, saying, “Free and compulsory education is a very good initiative from the government but not at the cost of children studying in private schools.”[4]

Others have made similar arguments:

Soon after, Ms. Singh visited the principal, Ms. Sharma. “If they want to do it to improve the country, fine,” Ms. Singh recalls saying. “But they should segregate the poor kids until they get up to par.”

Many parents have similar complaints. “I don’t blame them,” Ms. Sharma says. “There’s no denying the reality that their kids’ learning will be slowed.” [5]

Let’s repeat the exercise of breaking down the arguments above into their premises and conclusion:

Premise #1: 25% reservation will compromise discipline.

Premise #2: It will compromise quality (school results).

Premise #3: It will slow down other students.

Premise #4: Meritorious students will miss out.

Premise #5 (unstated): Lower castes and classes have equal access to education as higher castes and classes, as well as an equal chance of success.

Conclusion: There should be no 25% reservation.

Premises #1-4 are true to an extent – it should be no surprise if underprivileged children have more discipline and attention problems, and are more likely to be slower learners. And having a reservation will indeed deny some privileged children admission to the school, even though they meet its academic standard. (Note however that a moral argument could be made that the thing causing premises 1-3 is the very discrimination the act is trying to counter, and therefore a greater common good is being served by having a reservation. I.e., the conclusion might not follow even from premises 1-3 alone.)

Premise #5 is false however, and is indicative of a belief in a just world. Let’s perform a similar thought experiment as before, and imagine we lived in an India where there was no class and caste-based discrimination – where the underprivileged were welcomed with open arms into our educational institutions, offices and households, and where poverty did not drag them back and prevent them from succeeding. In such an India, Premise #5 would be true. Alas, India is not like that at all. The parents and teachers making these arguments have an unconscious belief in a just world – perhaps in order to believe in a happy future for their own children – which leads them to make such arguments.

In concluding, here are a few more commonly heard arguments which are based on a false, unstated premise of a just world:

  • “Africans are lazy.”
  • “Autorickshaw drivers fleece their passengers because they are thugs.”
  • “Women are bad drivers.”

The analysis of these arguments is left as an exercise for the reader.


[1] The Just World Theory – Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez


[2] Who Believes in a Just World? Zick Rubin and Letitia Annd Peplau

[3] What are the different strategies and approaches to realize Right to Education (RTE) in India? Shantanu Gupta

[4] Private schools dig in their elitism heels

[5] Class Struggle: India’s Experiment in Schooling Tests Rich and Poor

The Justice Motive in Everyday Life – Melvin J. Lerner, Michael Ross, Dale T. Miller

Belief in a Just World and Commitment to Long-Term Deserved Outcomes – Carolyn L. Hafer, Laurent Begue, Becky L. Choma, Julie L. Dempsey

The Justice Motive: Where Social Psychologists Found It, How they Lost It, and Why They May Not Find It Again – Melvin J. Lerner

Observer’s reaction to the “innocent victim”: Compassion or rejection? Melvin J. Lerner; Carolyn H. Simmons

A Decade of System Justification Theory: Accumulated Evidence of Conscious and Unconscious Bolstering of the Status Quo –  John T. Jost, Mahzarin R. Banaji, Brian A. Nosek

The psychology of system justification and the palliative function of ideology – John Jost, Orsolya Hunyady

This post was written by:

- who has written 9 posts on Nirmukta.

Sunil D'Monte is a freethinker, feminist and secular humanist.


  • This is one of the less/non- convincing articles I’ve read here. The issues presented are solid, but the explanation is off the mark (according to *me*). It reads like the political-correctness police manifesto.

    Re: Elevatorgate:

    > Premise #3: Rebecca invites this behaviour by referring to herself as a “chick”.

    Wrong. Her calling herself ‘chick’ is supposed to symbolise self-confidence and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, appropriating an essentially sexist, objectifying word as a badge of honour (I’m a geek and proud of it!) The man in quoestion may not be assumed to be aware of it. This premise has nothing to do with the incident.

    > Premise #4 (unstated): Women like Rebecca have no reason to be uncomfortable in situations like this.

    I should change this to ‘Women should have no reason to be uncomfortable in situations like this.’ That’s what *I* think. Its a first world country, only a temporarily secluded place that can be exit with little effort, and the lift may even have security cameras and emergency radio (becoming more and more common). Also, the man kept his intentions to himself until they had *some* temporary privacy to avoid a public embarrassment, ‘propositioned’ politely, and dealt with rejection very well. Not a ‘gentleman’, but not someone completely dishonourable either. In a society where women are seen as slutty if they even give a *hint* of sexuality, how else is a man to propose to a woman he likes, especially when he has no way of knowing if the attraction is mutual without asking? He was not even stalking her. For all he knew, she could have had an attraction for him too.

    > Conclusion: Rebecca is over-reacting and making a fuss over nothing.

    Absolutely. An honest proposition from a man is nothing to feel uncomfortable about for a smart, sexually confident woman in a safe, public environment. A man looking for a healthy relationship (may be sexual) who takes rejection well is a *good* thing rather than a repressed stalker and potential rapist.

    Where I agree: Richard Dawkins has handled this in an atrocious way. He should either have written a proper response, or not responded at all. His attack using the plight of some Muslim women was completely out of the blue, and inappropriate to the relative triviality of the issue at hand.

    Re: Right to Education

    I agree with your assessment of the problem, then again I’m doubtful that more reservation is the answer. Of course, your liberal viewpoint is bound to clash with my more individualistic (libertarian?) thought, but we have some common ground here. BUT, Premises 1-3 are not true in my view and experience. Poor students are unfairly characterised by the school, and that characterisation is accepted by you. It should not be. Poor students may be even *more* motivated than their well-to-do schoolmates.

    Poverty is not a barrier to merit at all if quality schooling is available. I know, because my father was one. He didn’t even get the benefit of reservation, and says that if he had failed any class, there’s where his education would have likely ended. I studied for the most part in an excellent Catholic school myself, which has only nominal fees, and those too are subject to waiver/rebate on need basis. I was roughly in the middle economic demographic, and I found that the poorer classmates worked very hard indeed. There was no smoking/beatings/general mayhem (with *very* strict discipline, the priests knew how to straighten all boys out, heh, heh) without mass corporal punishment (change from the old days).

    I am tempted to say that direct financial aid would be better, but given the level of corruption in the Government, I keep that idea out. However, I’m not here to talk about the solution. My points are:

    1. Reservation is not the answer *here* (if it ever is anywhere).

    2. Poor people are not necessarily lawless/fools/unmotivated. Of course, there are poor fools, just like there are rich fools, but you get the point.

    3. Equal access to education is good, but equal chance of success is very difficult to ensure, and is WRONG to try to ensure. Some kids may be inherently smarter in some fields, some in others, others may just scrape through to get into a cricket team. All are avenues to success, and none can be ‘ensured’ to have equal chance. Given the terrible lack of employment opportunity in India, the majority of kids (middle-class and poor) are bound to not rise above their parents’ social class due to the herculean effort and prodigious luck required.

    4. I was greatly impressed by the Christian schooling standards and nominal fees, and I dallied with the faith for many years (not born one), until I finally realised my doubts were not about my parents’ religion, but about religion itself. I was liberated then. My beef with the religious leaders who have massive donations is exactly this– Why don’t they provide needy scholarship funds and grants for poor/orphan children? Why aren’t the old Muslim Yateemkhanas, Hindu Anathaalayas, etc. expanded and funded for this purpose? Why are tax rupees being spent in this futile exercise (no doubt to line the pockets of corrupt netas)? God knows the godmen have a lot of money, far more than is needed, and they can even inspire such beneficiary children with their faith! Why is private charity, especially religious charity, not tapped as the source for funds?

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