I’ve been mulling over an idea sparked by the work of social psychologist Melvin Lerner. Mr. Lerner’s work surfaced in a recent New York Times piece. Curiously, the article had nothing whatsoever to do with infertility but that didn’t stop me from linking his work to those unable to conceive or successfully bear children. (Sigh. It’s true. No longer consumed with infertility treatment I am now on a mission to understand and/or find answers to explain why society harbors such apparent apathy and antipathy toward those who struggle with infertility and its fallout.)
The article referenced Mr. Lerner’s 1980 book, “The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion,” and his argument that people want to believe in inherent justice and to believe that people who appear to be suffering are in fact responsible for their own situations. According to the just-world hypothesis, society has a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve.
See where I’m going here?
Mr. Lerner’s work has been applied to many situations though I may be among the first to apply it to infertility. It certainly seems to fit given how often and quickly fertile folk seem ready and content to ignore or marginalize the challenges associated with infertility.
I have yet to meet or come across anyone who deserved infertility, yet I get the distinct vibe that society is just more comfortable and content in assuming anyone who can’t have children, well, they are somehow responsible. Case closed. Next!
Yes. I believe Mr. Lerner is on to something here. And this framework frees up people’s time and energy to focus on other less troubling topics. Like whether the Pistons are going to end the season on top. Or whether Indiana Jones still has the ability to draw crowds. Or whether Nicole Ritchie is going to edge out Angelina Jolie as the newest candidate for Mother of the Year. French fries or onion rings…
I wonder if Mr. Lerner would give me a passing grade. You can read more about how his Belief in a Just World thinking has been interpreted here.
May 23, 2008 6:18 am
interesting. blame the victim is such an easy response. it means no one else would ever have to be accountable for anything.
May 23, 2008 11:01 am
I think you may be over-generalizing when you say ‘Fertiles don’t care’. I’ve run into many who do.
As to believing in a just world, unless it hits close to home, don’t you kind of think similar things about people who have cancer, get killed in car accidents, etc… it’s a way of distancing tragedy from yourself so that you can keep believing it won’t happen to you.
May 23, 2008 12:51 pm
Using a little hyperbole here to make a point. Certainly there are some fertiles who care, but the just-world hypothesis helps explain why some 12.5% of the child-bearing population seems, well, overlooked …
May 23, 2008 1:14 pm
I think you have hit the nail on the head with this theory. I think it fits rather appropriately!
May 23, 2008 1:41 pm
It’s an interesting theory, which does open up a way of thinking about some of the unquestioned assumptions behind comments such as, ‘maybe it just wasn’t meant to be’.
May 23, 2008 1:45 pm
I haven’t looked at it from this angle, but from the opposite, which kind of comes out to the same thing.
People often talk about how they’ve been blessed with this or that, their prayers answered, their faith rewarded and so on. Luck falls into a similar category.
I always feel like these types of statements imply that if your prayers aren’t answered you just aren’t praying hard enough or living well enough to be blessed and so on. So in that way the blame thing seems similar to me.
We deserve our blessings or our lack of them. Except in reality good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people and that does not fit with what seems right and fair. It’s all pretty unjust and random from what I can see.
Randomness bothers most people.
To Rachel’s point: People may think those things about cancer or car accidents but with infertility they say it to your face. We encounter accusations like “you waited too long” or “maybe it’s just not meant to be.” I worked with cancer patients and they endured a lot, but that kind of assvice was not on the list.
But inwardly, I think you are right, people like to think that victims brought it on themselves, that way we are “safe” somehow.
May 23, 2008 2:15 pm
One case for your theory: the cultural obsession with blaming women for waiting too long to get married and start reproducing. Tick-tock! Just last weekend my dad said of my brother’s 33-yr-old fiancee: “Her time’s starting to run out.” I threw about a truckload of statistics at him, but who knows whether it made any difference…
May 23, 2008 2:36 pm
What bothers me most with the “just world” theory is the number of so-called Christians who subscribe to it. They seem to totally not get anything out of reading the Book of Job. Supposedly, these folks are scripturally cognizant. They mostly have only a very surface understanding of scriptural messages. :: sigh ::
The idea of a “just world” or God’s punishment in this world coming from the supposed Christians who I have encountered just flabbergasts me. All of them forget that a basic tenant of Christianity is that we are in bondage to the ruler of this world – Satan/Lucifer and his minions. (Demonologists actually are arguing about who reigns on earth and in hell these days. A few believe Asmodeus is in charge. Yes, I hang out with cosmologists cause my brain doesn’t hurt enough with other stuff.)
Can you tell that I find the entire “just world” idea blasphemous? And, yes, I meant to use a word that strong.
Maybe a group reading of the Book of Job is in order for people to start thinking about the fact that even the Ancients of history did not believe in a just world. Or even ancient mythologies? After all, in almost all the pantheons, the gods were capricious and some were downright mean.
Those who come from a “just world” mindset often are victims of such false teachings as “The Secret,” or “The Power of Positive Thinking.” They misinterpret the Gospel’s message of “ask and you shall receive.” (Christ specifically says God will not give us stones and vipers – even if we feel that is what we received – so, to protect us from disaster on a spiritual level, the answer is sometimes “no” to our physical wants / needs.)
Ok, I’ll quit rambling my adamant agreement with you…
May 23, 2008 3:47 pm
I think our brains are wired to seek patterns, and that’s what the just-world delusion is: A desperate attempt at constructing a moral pattern. It’s also a distancing mechanism, i.e. if I’m good, nothing bad will happen. Very much a child’s perspective on existence.
As for fertiles caring or not, I think it’s something that just doesn’t make a lot of sense to people who had no trouble conceiving. They can’t relate at all. I do have wise fertile friends who are able to extrapolate from their own women’s issues to get a glimpse into what I’m going through. But these women are exceptionally engaged and thoughtful. Most people just aren’t, and don’t really care about much of anything that doesn’t feed their ego or bellies.
May 23, 2008 4:11 pm
Interesting theory, & I think you may be on to something too. I agree with Rachel that people like to distance themselves from anything too unpleasant (so that they can keep on believing that it won’t ever happen to them), and with Beagle that “Randomness bothers most people.” There’s a huge preference in our world to always look for the happy ending, to see things in simplistic terms of black & white, and ignore all the shades of grey in between. The older I get, the more grey I see (& I’m not just talking about my hair, lol).
May 23, 2008 4:22 pm
This theory is so true. I completely agree with Beagle. I no longer say I am blessed or lucky and I don’t believe in Karma. Bad things happen to good people for no reason.
I think IF gets the double whammy because the origins are related to sex and the mysteriousness of conception. Meaning, there is no clear cut explanation as to why it works for some and not others. It makes people think too hard.
Therefore they just decide that it is God’s will. Life is so much easier for the simple minded. Unfortunately, the rest of us have to put up with them. That is why I don’t talk about IF openly. Because I know they are secretly blaming me.
May 23, 2008 4:41 pm
Maybe this is also why we often blame ourselves or our bodies when we can’t or have difficulty getting pregnant. We want to continue to believe in a just world even though it has not been just in this aspect of our lives.
I think it is also about people being able to maintain the illusion of control in their lives.
Interesting articles. Thanks for bringing them to our attention.
May 23, 2008 6:18 pm
I couldn’t agree more. Our society isn’t just in the business of victim blaming, but in the business of blaming female victims. Whether it be sexual assault, workplace discrimination, or reproductive health, women are blamed for the choices they make. It’s an ugly and unfair truth.
You rock for bringing this article to our attention. Change can happen.
May 23, 2008 6:48 pm
That same general idea is ingrained into our society in a lot of ways, even in our axioms: “You reap what you sow,” “What goes around comes around,” “That’s what s/he gets for __ [fill in the blank with any bad deed].” It’s scary to think that bad things happen to good people because most consider themselves to be good people.
This is the thing: IF also proves another axiom false. The generally accepted notion that you’ll be rewarded if you work hard doesn’t apply to IF. This, along with having absolutely no control over the outcome, has been a harsh reality for me to accept.
I’m not really sure that fertiles don’t care about IF specifically so much as they just don’t care about anything that’s unlikely to affect them.
May 24, 2008 3:42 am
I first noticed the tendency to blame victims when my 33-year old sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. My mom wondered, “How could she get cancer? She didn’t take drugs or use birth control pills or anything.”
May 24, 2008 9:31 pm
I wonder if the desire to believe in a just world is not only a way to insulate ourselves from all the suffering out there, but also a byproduct of our ability to learn from the mistakes of others? Hang on now, I’m not saying blame the victim, I’m just saying there may have been an evolutionary benefit to it. How else would we be able to identify risk factors if we didn’t look for patterns? How else would we have learned that drinking and driving don’t go together? Or that you can reduce your risk of lung cancer by not smoking? (which is NOT meant at all to say that if you get cancer, it’s your fault because you smoke) It’s often the anecdotal evidence that spurs the research.
As for beagle’s comment about accusations and assvice: the most insensitive and hurtful comments I’ve gotten have come from those who care and didn’t know how to express it. The ones who don’t care don’t say anything at all.
May 25, 2008 3:14 am
PJ – definitely a thought provoking post!
And I have lots of thoughts, but I am too tired to organize them into words. I may be back!
May 25, 2008 7:14 am
Without referencing this particular work, we had a discussion of this tendency to blame, and thus separate self from the afflicted, about a year ago. Except the context was dead babies and their parents, who, you know, must’ve done something. But yes, I believe the underlying mechanism is the same. And I call practitioners of it chickenshits.
May 27, 2008 6:30 pm
I have actually gone off about this topic a few times with RL friends – both about being overweight and subfertile. When people blame me for both conditions, they are implying that their own bodies are a product of harder work or just more “rightness.” No one likes to admit that bad stuff happens to those who do nothing to ask for it.
May 28, 2008 2:56 pm
I think that this stance isn’t limited to blaming others for their own misfortunes.
I know that, whenever I catalog the list of improbable disasters large and small that I’ve experienced, I conclude that, really, I deserve my misfortunes and that, on balance, it’s perfectly fair that others seem to be insulated from the Very Bad Things that keep happening to me.
May 28, 2008 6:20 pm
Wow, that is really interesting. I’ll definitely be checking that out. I agree that sometimes it does seem like that is the way people feel.
By the way, you mentioned the Pistons? Are you in Michigan? If so I was wondering if you’d heard about our blogger get together in Troy? Check out Soapchick’s blog for details.
Or maybe you’re already coming and I just missed it? This is quite possible! Either way, I just wanted to make sure you knew about it!
May 30, 2008 1:45 am
The other side of this coin, the belief of people on the whole that we will have a child for the simple reason that it would be unjust if we did not.
June 10, 2008 2:49 pm
do you happen to have the link to the NYT’s article about Lerner’s theory? I looked for it and couldn’t find it and his book is too expensive to buy.
thanks if you can help me out.
June 10, 2008 5:52 pm
“I am now on a mission to understand and/or find answers to explain why society harbors such apparent apathy and antipathy toward those who struggle with infertility and its fallout.”
June 10, 2008 8:09 pm
It’s great to see so many well-written, compassionate posts about the issue of blaming people for their fates. I find it disheartening how many people think promoting the “just world” hypothesis is some sort of virtuous act, and not the insult that it really is – especially when being presented to someone with health problems. (Even worse, is when someone tells you that you are suffering so you can “learn something.”)
An interesting article in the June/July 2008 “Free Inquiry” magazine (“Healthcare for All is a Human Right” by Peter Phillips) talks about the U.S.for-profit healthcare system’s “educational” efforts that promote the idea that ill people have done things that contributed to their health problems as a way to diminish the public’s expectation that health insurance is responsible for financing the improved health &/or comfort of the sufferer. (In truth, few illnesses are related to lifestyle choices)I would add that, the wellness movement can create patient-blaming even when the origin of a health problem isn’t directly blamed on the patient – by encouraging patients to feel that they should contribute some sort of effort toward their treatment: going to a “support group” to talk with other disease sufferers, taking up “mind body” practices (though there’s no evidence they make any difference in the course of a disease). It’s like we expect sick people to earn their sympathy. (Me? I’d rather spend my time with people who are already my friends, and doing things I already like to do, instead of being expected to bare my heart to strangers and take up tai chi…)
I also see this idea leaking into other areas of life – if the poor aren’t making enough money, that’s their problem, for example.
I think that, besides the blaming-of the-victim, what makes the “just world” attractive is that every “good thing” that happens to a “JW” believer is evidence of the “JW” believer’s “specialness” -for example: “I’m healthy = I’m virtuous” “I have a good job = I’m smart” and so on.
Whew, it felt good to get that out.
Again, I’m so glad to see so many articulate, compassionate comments on the subject.
June 20, 2008 5:09 pm
I read with great interest a recent article in the international Miami Herald “infertility”. Our story, like so many others involved the monthly mental torture of pregnancy tests, no luck,well let’s try again. Bad humour followed and the painful cycle repeated one more time,but never for the last time. After two years or more of clinics,fertility treatment and then the final sit-down with the doctor who said “we can do nothing else,it’s over”. We knew we had tried our best, but it wasn’t good enough. Mother’s day is the worst for me, how do I make this day special for my wife? She is a step-mother to my three sons, but I can always feel the void. It is probably one of the most difficult days of the year and I dread it.
My mother said wait for the Grandchildren, they are now on the scene, two, the eldest shouts out “Nanny”when he comes to visit and runs towards my wife. The joy is written all over her face and the talk of little Jeff will run into the night and onto the next day.
For everybody who is going through or is going through the pain I can only say, do your best, do your utmost and if it doesn’t happen you can always say “we did our best”.