Editorial: An invitation to compassion

Author: Dr Janet E. Penny

Publish date: November 23, 2023
Reading Time: 5 minutes


I have been reflecting on Lerner’s just world theory (e.g., Lerner & Simmons, 1966; Lerner, 1980), which highlights the human tendency to believe in a just world in which people get what they deserve; good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Accordingly, people have a personal contract with the world whereby they work hard and delay short-term satisfaction on the basis that they will eventually be justly rewarded (Lerner, 1977; Sutton, Stoeber & Kamble, 2017). From early in life, a child learns that the world is a just place in which investments (e.g., in ‘good’ behaviour) entitle them to obtain what they desire later. As well as powerfully shaping behaviour, this belief in a just world can seemingly protect people from the inherent unpredictability of life and provides humans with a sense of safety and control, albeit illusory (Wenzel, Schindler & Reinhard, 2017).

It appears that this belief is very much prized, and people will do almost anything to maintain it. According to Lerner (1980), there are nine ‘rational’ and ‘non-rational’ strategies that are employed to preserve this sense of justice. These include preventing injustice (rational), and reinterpreting causality (e.g., blaming the victim; non-rational). Perceiving the social world as multiple whereby injustice only occurs in the worlds of others, and not one’s own, is another protective strategy outlined by Lerner. From this perspective, clearly, humans are invested in the notion of a just world. This social belief seems to have schematic characteristics. That is, it is a deeply held cognitive structure that shapes the way one engages with the world (e.g., Beck et al., 1979). And it also maintains itself by guiding perception in a confirmatory manner (Padesky, 1994); believing the world to be just, victims can be reappraised as to blame and deserving of injustices, thus corroborating the schema in a cyclical fashion.

Decades of research in social psychology has since explored and developed Lerner’s work (Hafer & Bègue, 2005). Given the attention, there is, perhaps, something fundamental in the theory that it  speaks to. As well as highlighting humans’ motivation to feel predictable and safe (e.g., Maslow, 1943), it touches on how suffering and injustice might be navigated. Lerner posited that to preserve the just world belief, people can distance themselves from victims, either physically or psychologically. Indeed, Pancer’s research (1988) supports this hypothesis. In experimental conditions, Pancer found that participants physically distanced themselves from images of needy victims compared to less needy victims. Interestingly, in a more recent and ecologically valid study, Mariss, Reinhardt and Schindler (2022) similarly found that social distancing in the COVID pandemic correlated with levels of belief in a just world with higher levels of belief associated with more social distancing. In this study, distancing could be perceived as a prosocial behaviour, based on empathy for others and concern to lower risk to self/others, as Marris et al. point out, whereas Pancer’s research seems to point to less altruistic strategies of avoidance and denial-withdrawal (Hafer & Bègue, 2005).

The findings in Pancer’s research are evocative of the fourth servant song in Isaiah: ‘no beauty or majesty to attract… a man of suffering… like one from whom people hide their faces’ (Isaiah 53:2–3, NIV). One response to the suffering of others is to withdraw, as staying close to those who are suffering can be a challenge (VanderWeele, 2019) – not least because undeserved suffering threatens our belief in a just world. From a Christian perspective, there is reason to believe in ultimate justice, but the Scriptures and Christian theology wrestle with the question of suffering, leaving no guarantee that the world is, in fact, just. Instead, God, through Christ, profoundly engages with our suffering. This compassion or ‘with-suffering’ – being with, witnessing and feeling of another’s suffering (Goetz, Keltner & Simon-Thomas, 2010) – contrasts with humanity’s tendency to pull away.

The articles in this issue explore several evocative and discomforting topics related to suffering. There is little doubt that readers could find themselves impacted by the articles, particularly if there is personal resonance for the reader. Indeed, my own contribution in the form of an interview on race with Ellen Yun challenged me to stay with the uneasiness I felt in the process of dialoguing about race. Liz Doré’s article on working with race-based trauma in counselling goes further and offers a useful survey of the literature as well as some theological reflections and implications for counselling practice.

Angela Thomson and Elizabeth Neve both address bereavement, reflecting from a Christian perspective. Although it is important to not competitively pitch losses against each other in terms of severity, undoubtedly, the losses of a child and through suicide are particularly profound and complex; the traditional stages of grief and approaches to loss here feel inadequate in the light of these life-changing experiences. Both writers tackle these losses with bravery and compassion, providing the reader with some helpful scaffolding. Shannon Hood and Michael George’s article on moral injury adopts a pragmatic approach for those working with people whose moral boundaries have been threatened. Rather than pathologising the morally injured, their approach offers support and empowerment, including spirituality where relevant. All of these writers have resisted the understandable impulse to pull away from suffering. In each of their own ways, there is an invitation to compassion for sufferers and those working with sufferers.



Beck, A. T., Rush, A. J., Shaw, B. F. & Emery, G. (1979) Cognitive Therapy for Depression, New York: The Guilford Press.

Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D. & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010) Compassion: an evolutionary analysis and empirical review, Psychological Bulletin, 136 (3), pp. 351–74.

Hafer, C. & Bègue, L. (2005) Experimental research on just-world theory: Problems, developments, and future challenges, Psychological Bulletin, 131, pp. 128–167.

Holy Bible: New International Version, (2012). London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Lerner, M. J. (1977) The justice motive: Some hypotheses as to its origins and forms, Journal of Personality, 45, pp. 1-52.

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

Lerner, M. J., & Simmons, C. H. (1966) The observer’s reaction to the ‘innocent victim’: Compassion or rejection?, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, pp. 203–210.

Mariss, A., Reinhardt, N. & Schindler, S. (2022) The role of just world beliefs in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Social Justice Research, 35, 188-205.

Maslow, A. H. (1943) A theory of human motivation, Psychological Review, 50 (4), pp. 430-437.

Padesky, C. A. (1994) Schema change processes in cognitive therapy, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 1 (5), pp. 267-278.

Pancer, S. M. (1988) Salience of appeal and avoidance of helping situations, Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 20, pp. 133-139.

Sutton, R. M., Stoeber, J. & Kamble, S. K. (2017) Belief in a just world for oneself versus others, social goals, and subjective well-being, Personality and Individual Differences, 113 (15), pp. 115-119.

VanderWeele, T. J. (2019) Suffering and response: Directions in empirical research, Social Science and Medicine, 224, pp. 58-66.

Wenzel, K., Schindler, S. & Reinhard, M. (2017) General belief in a just world is positively associated with dishonest behavior, Frontiers in Psychology, 8, pp. 1,770.


Copyright 2023 Dr Janet E. Penny

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