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Melvin Lerner, a social psychologist, began studying why people accept social norms that result in suffering for the same reason I went to social work school, though I couldn’t articulate my reasoning so eloquently at the time. I had watched companies and lives fall apart in the downfall of the San Francisco dotcom economy and wanted to know why people behaved the way they did. Why could we all not work together and make decisions for the good of the organization? Why were former colleagues once equals immediately relegated to “the other” when they were laid off? I needed to understand and to unlearn what we are socialized to believe – that the world is just.

In a landmark experiment, Lerner found that when subjects were made to watch another participant experience shocks, and were unable to intervene, their opinion of their counterpart worsened as the shocks continued. The observers began to blame the participants experiencing the shock unless they were told the participant experiencing the shock was being paid. To explain the results Lerner established the Just World Hypothesis – humans’ overwhelming desire to believe the world is a just, orderly place where hard work and being “good” is rewarded and misdeeds are punished. To reconcile their discomfort watching an experiment participant receive a shock, the observers created a rationale that fit into the world view they could understand.

The Just World Hypothesis not only relates to our tendency to blame victims of crime and atrocities but also to the work world (which at times we may also consider atrocious). If we are good employees we will be promoted and we’ll get the recognition we deserve over those who are less deserving. Intelligence and hard work are positively correlated with success, but cannot nearly account for who does and does not rise to the top. We know this, but believe we are the exception. We want to believe that when we are rewarded it was our hard work alone that propelled us.

As humans we see black and white, to be humane we must see grey.
Black and white was so easy for me
But shades of grey are the colors I see
Now with the wisdom of years, I try to reason things out
And the only people I fear are those who never have doubts 
Billy Joel, Shades of Grey