Karma is a Mental Model – But You’ll Probably Disagree

Chinwetalu Agu and Patience Ozokwor are probably some of Nollywood’s most prolific actors. They are also famous for reprising roles or characters where they somehow contrive to poison or kill the “whole village”.

Nollywood's infamous couple

The good thing, however, is they always get served by the end of the movie. Some mysterious force or illness strikes them down and gets them to confess before they pass on to the great beyond.

Our societal programming leads us to expect the world to be a decent place. So, when the character falls to the ground, foaming from the mouth and confessing, we feel at peace, knowing that she deserved what was coming to her.

“After all, she has been committing evil crimes for the past 90 minutes.”
But we don’t just do this to our movie characters. Anytime we hear something happen to someone who we feel deserved it; we use phrases such as “she was always going to suffer for what she did” or “what goes around comes around”.

The idea that right actions beget good results and evil actions generates evil results is a prevalent theme among most religions and cultures. Your actions and decisions define the rewards or punishment you receive.

However, correlation is not causation.

As pattern-seeking animals, our deeply ingrained need to apply logic to everything that happens around us makes it seems reasonable to believe the concept that good things come to the do-gooders and vice versa.

The Just-World Phenomenon

As I posited earlier, we badly want to believe that the world is a fair place 😏. Known as the “just-world hypothesis”, this cognitive bias is our way of rationalizing events that happen around us.
Once we fall victim to misfortune, we automatically start looking for something or someone to blame for what has befallen us.

Rather than merely attributing it to a random lousy turn of events or bad luck, we assume that it is our past behavior or sometimes the behavior of our ancestors that is to blame. We believe the universe is merely restoring the moral order, serving the appropriate rewards or punishment according to our past actions.

Which is why you shouldn’t be surprised when you hear arguments such as “if the social media is regulated in Nigeria, we Nigerians are to blame”.

In the early 1960s, Melvin Lerner – a social psychologist – conducted seminal research on the just-world phenomenon, attempting to understand how regimes that cause cruelty and suffering maintain popular support among its people.

His biggest surprise was watching his students fall victim to the same hypothesis they were studying. They belittled the poor, seeing them as individuals who were either lazy or of low intelligence, unable to rise out of poverty on their own. Utterly oblivious of all the systemic factors that keep people in the poverty cycle.

So why are we beholden to the just-world phenomenon? What makes us want to believe in a world where all our actions – both positive and negative – have predictable consequences even though reality says otherwise?

1. We need to be in control

We prefer to believe that we have or can influence the various events in our lives. Most humans are selfish, and we want good outcomes in return for our good deeds. This thought process makes it easier for us to plan for the future and set goals.
Following this logic makes us comfortable. As we know that we have a high chance of achieving those goals as long as consistently act or behave in a certain way.

2. We despise vulnerability

We love to assume, or maybe the right word is hope that we can’t be victims of certain kinds of misfortune. An example would be a violent crime such as assault or rape. Whenever we hear about one, we rationalise it by blaming the victim’s behaviour.
This helps us believe that we can avoid being victims of such misfortune by merely avoiding past victims’ behaviours.

3. We need to be at peace

The human brain hates incongruity with a passion. It’s painful to watch good things happen to bad people, or bad things happen to good people. It doesn’t seat well with our moral code or how we expect the universe to operate.
To deal with this anxiety, we try to justify the situation. For instance, you might think, “he must have done something wrong for that to happen. What goes around always comes around.”
It doesn’t matter if our conclusions are correct or not; this logical fallacy helps with our mental well-being and helps keep us sane in an irrational and unpredictable world.

4. We ascribe patterns to random events

Humans are pattern-seeking creatures, and so we naturally try to ascribe meanings to everything that happens around us. These patterns provide us with mental shortcuts to navigate our environment and make “informed” decisions.
The just-world phenomenon helps us make sense of why certain situations occur to us or those around us.

The truth is – most of the time, life is a sequence of random events.

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