Cognitive Daily

The TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is a bit of a guilty pleasure for our family. I’ve never been quite sure why we like it: the plot of the show is always the same. We’re introduced to a family which has undergone some terrible tragedy through no fault of their own: the father has been blinded by the gunshot of a thief while he was working overtime at a convenience store, or the daughter is undergoing treatment for chemotherapy, or the grandmother has adopted six troubled teenagers. Despite (and sometimes because of) their best efforts, the family’s home has fallen into extreme disrepair.

Then Ty Pennington and his team ride in in a gleaming motor home, send the family off on a fabulous vacation, and demolish the old home, replacing it with a new, beautiful, state-of-the art structure guaranteed never to mold, mildew, or rust, in just 6 days. The kids are all given college scholarships, there are plasma HDTVs in every room, and everyone lives happily ever after. The whole thing seems rather like overkill, but at least the family seems deserving.

If we can’t have such wonderful things, the show suggests, it’s because we’re not selfless enough, because we’ve caused our own problems through our lack of hard work or caring for others. But plenty of people are willing to work to help these “deserving” families. Pennington’s gang mobilizes the entire community to give a single family the most luxurious home any of them have ever seen. Hundreds of volunteers work nearly nonstop for the six days of the project, sparing no effort or expense so this one family may live in luxury. Why do they do it?

A clever study led by Mary Turner DePalma may shed some light on the Extreme Makeover phenomenon. The study is based on a concept originated by Melvin Lerner in 1971, “Just World Theory,” the idea that individuals need to believe that people “get what they deserve.” The degree to which people subscribe to this theory is called their Belief in a Just World (BJW), and in 1975 a test was developed to measure the level of this belief. People with high BJW are actually more likely to help others when they themselves are in a period of great personal need — apparently expecting that their good deeds will be rewarded.

DePalma’s team combined the BJW inventory with a simple test to see how willing individuals were to volunteer to help others. Ninety-eight college student volunteers were told they’d be participating in a “personality” study. When each student showed up in the experimenter’s “laboratory” housed in a college dormitory, the experimenter told them the study was running late, and asked them to wait for a few minutes in a room which was open to the hallway.

While they were waiting, a student — actually a member of the research team, entered the room and told the study participant that she was working to help a local woman who had fallen victim to “HED,” a mysterious debilitating disease. She gave the student a brochure which explained the condition and asked for help. The brochure included a form with 12 different options for helping, ranging from “I’m not willing to help” to “I would be willing to read to this patient for 1 hour a week” (a four-week commitment). Students could also donate $1 or $5 to the cause, which was collected on the spot. If the student offered to help, contact information was collected and specific times were scheduled.

Of course, the disease and the patient were entirely fictitious — the point was to assess the degree to which each study participant was willing to help someone else. There were actually three different versions of the brochure: in the first version, the disease was explained to be a genetic disorder. In the next version, it was said to be transmitted through unprotected sexual intercourse. The third version made no mention of the cause of the disease.

Next, the experimenter returned and asked the participant to enter the laboratory and fill out the BJW assessment. Finally, participants were questioned to determine if any of them were aware that HED was not a real disease or that the “volunteer” was really a member of the research team. None of the students had any idea that the disease and its victim were fabricated (the “donations” students had made were returned at this time).

A separate group of participants rated the different volunteering options on a scale of 0 to 11, where 0 was “no effort” and 11 was “a great deal of effort.” So how did Belief in a Just World correspond to the level of volunteering offered? Here are the results:


DePalma’s team plotted the participant’s offers to help against their responses to the Belief in a Just World test, based on standard deviations away from the mean response (the probability that a value lies within one standard deviation of the mean is about 67 percent, and within two standard deviations of the mean is approximately 95 percent). Even at the average level of BJW, participants were significantly more likely to help the victim they believed was not responsible for the disease (since the disease was genetic), compared to a victim who brought it on herself (since she caught it through unprotected sex). As BJW increased, participants offered significantly more help to the victim not responsible for the disease, but their level of help for victims responsible for the condition stayed the same.

DePalma et al. say their results may suggest that organizations looking for volunteers should emphasize that the people they are helping aren’t responsible for their plight and thus deserve help. Certainly these results would explain the popularity of Extreme Makeover, with its emphasis on how deserving the recipients of its makeovers are.

I’m interested to hear what Cognitive Daily Readers think of these results — is Belief in a Just World the best way to motivate people to serve others? Let us know what you think in the comments.

DePalma, M.T., Madey, S.F., Tillman, T.C., & Wheeler, J. (1999). Perceived patient responsibility and belief in a just world affect helping. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 21(2), 137-137.


  1. #1 David
    March 30, 2006

    I can’t access the article, but I find it very curious that people with extremely low BJW are more likely to help if the victim is herself responsible than if she not to blame.

    Is this an actual result or is it is just an artifact of the regression lines?

    Is it discussed?

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    March 30, 2006

    Excellent question, David. I suspect it’s an artifact of the regression, but the article itself does not discuss this. I suspect the difference is not statistically significant, because the authors make a point of saying the difference is significant for the mean, one SD above the mean, and two SDs above the mean.

    For the lay audience, what David is pointing out is that these graph lines are not actual data points; they represent “best fit” lines over the range of the data. The actual data points would be more like a cloud, distributed all over the chart. The lines themselves are the closest statistical fit to the data for each group.

  3. #3 coturnix
    March 30, 2006

    What other beliefs and other psychological variables correlate with the Belief in a Just World?

  4. #4 Gary
    March 30, 2006

    If memory serves (sometimes), BJW was positively correlated with authoritarianism, spanking as family discipline measure, a tendency to blame the victim, and also other measures of helping where those needing help clearly were not responsible for their plight–such as intervening in a mugging where the situational, isolated nature of the act suggests no need to invoke, internal, longstanding responsibility on the part of the victim. Another key factor would be that the believer sees the situation as one in which their action could help restore justice. I suspect marketers and volunteer groups already know how to frame appeals to those high in BJW, as well as other groups. For example, get a personal touch, show the injustice and randomness of the problem, and suggest an action that the audience can use to feel they are restoring justice or helping to undo wrong to hapless victims. If the problems are seen as due to long-standing and pervasive issues, then those high in BJW will blame the victim to maintain their view that the world is basically fair and just. “Life is mean to the mean of heart, and only fair to the fair,” wrote G. K. Chesterton

  5. #5 Dana Leighton
    March 31, 2006

    is Belief in a Just World the best way to motivate people to serve others? Let us know what you think in the comments.

    Dave, I think the question is flawed – BJW is usually considered a dispositional trait (though perhaps one which can be influenced, especially early in life), and thus difficult to “induce” in people. I’m guessing you’re asking (correct me if I’m wrong) whether emphasizing the unfairness of situational contributors to distress (and perhaps reminding people of the injustice involved) would be a useful way to induce helping behaviors?

    coturnix & Gary: Yes, BJW is correlated with authoritarianism and its correlates. A recent study found a negetive correlation with Openness (from the Big Five Inventory), and positive correlates with security and conformity (Wolfradte & Dalburt, 2003).

    A brief lit search reveals a couple of articles that may help identify other ways helping behavior might be induced. One indicates that increasing attachment security may improve helping behavior (Mikulincer, Shaver, Gillath, & Nitzberg, 2005). Another shows that inducing affective perspective-taking increases helping, as measured by volunteering time (Oswald, 1996). A third proposes that there are differences between people who maintain a Just World Belief for the self, and people who maintain a Just World Belief for others (Sutton, 2003).

    So, it seems clear that the answer to your question, Dave, remains very unclear at this point.

    Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., Gillath, O., Nitzberg, R. A. (2005). Attachment, caregiving, and altruism: Boosting attachment security increases compassion and helping. Journal of personality & social psychology, 89(5), 817-839.

    Oswald, P. A. (1996). The effects of cognitive and affective perspective taking on empathic concern and altruistic helping. The journal of social psychology, 136(5), 613-623.

    Sutton, R. (2003). Justice for all, or just for me? Psychological and social correlates of just world belief. The abstracts of the 32nd annual meeting of the Society for Australasian Social Psychologists, p. 63.

    Wolfradte, U. & Dalbert, C. (2003). Personality, values and belief in a just world. Personality & individual differences, 35(8), 1911-1917.

  6. #6 Yoel Inbar
    April 3, 2006

    As BJW increased, participants offered significantly more help to the victim not responsible for the disease, but their level of help for victims responsible for the condition stayed the same.

    The level of help for the unprotected-sex-haver looks a lot like a floor effect to me.

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