Friday, November 14, 2014

Applying Social Psychology to Vegan Outreach: Just-world Phenomenon

The following essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.  Because I am publishing a book on this topic in 2015, posts will be significantly edited due to potential copyright conflicts.

November is World Vegan Month. To contribute to this month's activities, each day I will be presenting a social psychological concept or theory applied to abolitionist Nonhuman Animal rights. I began this series with a discussion of persuasion. Explorations into persuasion can be divided into research on the messenger, message, channel, and audience. Thus far, I have discussed what makes for an effective messenger, what channels are most appropriate, and some ways to improve the message. Yesterday, I discussed the tendency for people to selectively expose themselves to information that supports their beliefs (and ignore that which opposes).  Today I discuss another important barrier to attitude change: the just-world phenomenon.

The just-world phenomenon asserts that people, to protect their peace of mind, tend to believe that bad things happen only to those who deserve it.  This phenomenon surfaced in Nazi Germany where the Jews were blamed for their treatment and murder--but the dislike of Jewish people continued to grow after the Holocaust.  Similarly, victims of rape are often blamed for the assault they endure.  People often point to the survivor's clothing, flirtatiousness, or supposedly risky behavior, thus redirecting blame away from the perpetrator.  Many even rationalized that the gay community had somehow solicited the AIDS epidemic because of their "sinful" behavior.

The just-world phenomenon is one explanation for victim-blaming

The flip side of this concept, of course, is that those enjoying a privileged position can take pride in somehow "deserving" their success or health.  In the United States, Americans celebrate the rich, but ignore the reality that most people who are rich had substantial advantages (wealthy parents, a better education, better healthcare, influential contacts, etc.).

This does not bode well for Nonhuman Animal rights advocates.  Essentially, people are more likely to believe that other animals deserve their treatment than they are to empathize, and this has been a difficult barrier to overcome.  Advocates are all too aware of the many blaming beliefs that humans hold in regards to exploited other animals.  Other animals are "dumb," "dirty," "uncooperative," and "ungrateful."  Many also claim that a higher power or "god" created other animals to be our resources and these animals willingly fulfill this role and give us their bodies and labor.  The website Suicide Food documents thousands of images of other animals who appear to be "delighted to be killed, and sometimes despoiled and tortured, for you."  Exploiting other animals isn't wrong if they're willing participants...or if they deserve it.  

Deer are often accused of being "stupid" for freezing in roadways, falling for "hunters'" traps, or for trusting human spaces

Complicating this is the feeling of entitlement that privileged humans often harbor.  We humans arrogantly view ourselves as occupants of the top of the food chain--and we must have earned that position due to some admirable cunning and skill.  Some believe this hierarchy is divinely sanctioned.  This privilege that we feel we deserve thus reinforces the powerful ideology of human superiority and right to domination.  The tendency for humans to blame victims and see privilege as deserved will be a particularly difficult hurdle for nonhuman animal advocates to overcome.

The other side of the just-world coin: Notice the agency and ownership of privilege evidenced in the word "climb"

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Challenge victim-blaming
  • Highlight that other animals are not willing participants
  • Challenge individualistic understandings of oppression; focus on systems


Carli L. et al. 1999.  "Cognitive Reconstruction, Hindsight, and Reactions to victims and Perpetrators."  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 25:  966-979.

Imhoff, R. and R. Banse.  2009.  "Ongoing Victim Suffering Increases Prejudice:  The Case of Secondary Anti-Semitism."  Psychological Science 20:  1443-1447.

Lerner, M.  1980.  The Belief in a Just World:  A Fundamental Delusion.  New York:  Plenum.