When Tragedy Strikes, Do You See Justice in the Suffering?

  • Share
  • Read Later

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 23: The Superman costume as worn by Christopher Reeve in Superman III is displayed at the Auction House of Bonhams and Goodman on May 23, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia. The Costume will be auctioned tomorrow and is expected to make between AUD$15,000-20,000. (Photo by Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)

In the fall of 2002, I visited Christopher Reeve in his New York home. The star best known for the Superman movies had broken his neck in a riding accident seven years earlier and had barely moved a muscle below his neck since. He had, as it turned out, just two more years to live.

I was there on business — interviewing him for a story about the foundation he’d created to promote research into paralysis and the improvements he’d noticed in his own condition, thanks to his rigorous therapy. Those improvement were tiny — some faint return of sensation, a bit of motion in his legs, a never fully explained ability to move the index finger of his left hand. These were nothing compared to the vigorous man he had been, and a Warholesque, Superman-era portrait of him in his living room that seemed to vibrate with kinetic energy illustrated just how far he’d traveled from those days to this one. (More on Time.com: How Do You Wreck the Mind of a Child? One Word: War)

I left Reeve’s company feeling ineffably sad, but on the drive home I began to think that some good came of his accident too, since only someone with his high profile could have become as powerful an advocate for paralysis research as he became. There were surely some other folks out there — a few — who’d see things the other way, who’d look at a Reeve and think, “Hey, you spend your free time jumping horses, that’s the risk you take.”

Uncharitable as such an emotional shrug would be, it was a lot closer to the reaction I was experiencing than I would have imagined at the time. Indeed, according to a new study from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, the two extremes — blaming the victim and finding meaning in tragedy — are just opposite sides of the same coin. And in both cases they’re designed to make observers feel better about what they’ve just seen. (More on Time.com: Explaining the Healing Power of Prayer)

What people fear most about tragedy is its randomness — a taxi cab jumps the curb and hits a pedestrian, a gun misfires and kills a bystander. Better to have some rational cause and effect between incident and injury. And if cause and effect aren’t possible, better that there at least be some reward for all the suffering. That existential ledger-balancing is what psychologists call the just-world phenomenon, and it’s that idea the Waterloo scientists wanted to learn more about.

In the first part of a two-part study, psychologist Joanna Anderson and her colleagues recruited 98 volunteers and assigned them one of two invented but authentic-seeming articles to read. One reported on the supposed finding that top Canadian CEOs were paid an average of $6.25 million annually, but that most of them got their jobs through personal connections. The other article was about the sudden popularity of croquet. (More on Time.com: The Bright Side of Anger — It Motivates Others)

The entire sample group then read two short fictional accounts of a high school student who was a gifted soccer player. In one version, the player sustained a disabling injury during a game from which he did not fully recover for a decade; in the other, he had no such accident. In both cases the imaginary subject was now a healthy 30-year-old. Finally, all of the subjects were asked to write a paragraph about what the boy’s life was like today, answering such questions as, “To what extent do you think James experiences his life now as fulfilling?”

As the researchers expected, there was a curious but consistent difference in the paragraphs the subjects wrote. Those who’d first read the story of the undeservingly enriched CEOs were likelier to rate the adult life of the injured boy as more fulfilling than that of the uninjured one. Those who’d read the story about croquet were likelier to rank things the other way. It was, the researchers concluded, as if the sense of justice of half the subjects had been outraged by the CEO story and they took the first opportunity possible to set things right — if only symbolically. (More on Time.com: Why That Rich Guy is Being So Nice to You)

“In the face of unjust events,” wrote the researchers, “one route to restoring a sense of justice is to engage in perceptual processes that offset negatives with positives.”

The second part of the study sought to determine how this dynamic operates in people whose justice needle is always calibrated high. In this portion of the research, 81 subjects were administered a questionnaire called the Belief in Ultimate Justice scale (BUJ), which asks them to agree or disagree with such statements as “I believe that bad people are punished in life, though not always immediately.” Their scores on the survey were tallied and they all then read similar stories about injured and uninjured soccer players. Those with the highest BUJ scores generally gave the injured soccer player the happier adult life, even without the CEO story teeing up their feelings first.

In none of the cases did the volunteers exhibit the blame-the-victim reaction — and the researchers didn’t expect them to. That response, they believe, is reserved for victims who meaningfully contributed to their own misfortune — the soccer player who was injured in an on-field brawl, say. It may also be used as a form of justice-balancing of last resort, when a victim’s suffering goes on and on and it is impossible to see any good in it at all. (More Time.com: Who’s Stressed in America? The Answer May Surprise You)

In the case of Christopher Reeve, the suffering indeed stayed with him until his death, but his family and his dogged commitment to his work did too. Those were apparently enough to spare him any undeserved blame — and to earn him richly deserved admiration.