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A test of the just world hypothesis : sympathy for victims, blame for victimizers Boutilier, Robert Gordon

Abstract

The performance before personality subhypothesis specifies that victim devaluation only occurs when witnesses cannot find the victim responsible for the suffering on the basis of any performed act. Devaluation consists of attributing negative personality traits to a victim and claiming that he deserved to suffer. The Just World Hypothesis attempts to provide a motivational explanation for the phenomenon. In so doing, it attributes two needs to the observer. First, the victimization evokes inequity anxiety which must be reduced. It can be reduced by construing the victimization as justified. Second, observers are therefore hypothesized to have a need to believe that the world is just. Consequently, observers devalue victims thereby denying the occurrence of injustice. Since this preserves the just world belief, it also helps reduce inequity anxiety. In the only published experiment correlating Just World Belief (JWB) scores with victim devaluation (Rubin and Peplau, 1973), uncontrollable confounds and equivocal results prevented any conclusive data interpretation. The present research used items for two independent sources to assess subjects1 JWB. The scores were combined to produce a third, highly homogenious index of JWB. After a critical literature review, two addenda, and one alternative, to the performance before personality subhypothesis were presented. The alternative was the blame-sympathy-hypothesis. The predictions of both hypotheses were compared. Several possible meanings of the term "responsibility" and the dependent variables designed to assess them were discussed. Sixty-three subjects completed two JWB scales three to four weeks before participating in the experimental sessions along with 31 unpretested volunteers. Among the 12 to 19 subjects assembled for each session was a female confederate. The experimenter stated that in order to study people's perceptions of other people in stress it would be necessary to select one person to receive shocks in a verbal learning task which would be broadcast over closed circuit T.V. By a contrivance, the confederate-victim appeared to be randomly chosen to be the "learner". She left the room before the experimenter began playing one of two versions of a videotape on which the victimizer-experimenter (another confederate) shocked the victim either contingently upon wrong responses (CS condition) or non-contingently (NCS) at random intervals throughout the task. At the end of the videotape subjects completed a questionnaire which measured personality evaluations and attributions of responsibility for the victim and the victimizer. The Just World Hypothesis was not supported. JWB predicted nothing. No victim devaluation occurred. JWB may be related to victim devaluation but the Just World Hypothesis is not detailed enough to predict when it will occur. The absence of victim devaluation may be a result of an interaction between information provided by post-test items and the perceived unfairness of the shock contingency conditions. The fact that, in the responsibility items, an experimenter was asking subjects to comment on his own research ethics may have created demand characteristics especially in the condition where the victim suffered greater inequity (NCS). Inequity anxiety does, at least, influence the intensity of reactions to both victims and victimizers. There are many alternate pathways along which the inequity anxiety might be manifested. It was suggested that a move towards more mundane realism in this line of research might eliminate some of the pathways which arise primarily from artifacttial sources of information embedded in the context of the psychology experiment itself. The performance before personality subhypothesis received no support. The alternative blaming hypothesis was strongly supported. There was a significant main effect for shock contingency. In the NCS condition the victimizer was blamed while the victim received sympathy.

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