Social Justice Research

, Volume 22, Issue 4, pp 369–383 | Cite as

Justifying Inequality: A Cross-Temporal Investigation of U.S. Income Disparities and Just-World Beliefs from 1973 to 2006

  • Lori W. Malahy
  • Michelle A. Rubinlicht
  • Cheryl R. Kaiser


This cross-temporal meta-analysis examined 6,120 American college students’ scores on the Belief in a Just World Scale (BJW; Rubin and Peplau, J Soc Issues 31(3):65–90, 1975) across the last three and a half decades. Drawing on models of belief threat, we examined whether the causal relationship between perceived injustice and increases in BJW could extend from the laboratory to society by using macro-economic injustice trends to predict changes in BJW across these decades. Specifically, we hypothesized that perceptions of inequality, operationalized as rising income disparities, would result in a greater need to justify this inequality and that this would be evidenced by increased commitment to just world beliefs over time. Consistent with this prediction, BJW scores increased significantly over time and this increase was positively related to increasing income disparities in society. Income inequality remained a significant predictor of BJW scores even after controlling for additional factors of general income and political ideology. Implications of increasing just world beliefs are discussed in terms of psychological and policy outcomes.


Justice Meta-analysis Worldview Fairness Meaning Income disparities Inequality Belief in a just world 



We thank Chris Crandall for sharing his insightful thoughts on this research topic, particularly as they relate to income disparities, and Jean Twenge for her statistical advice. We also thank Monica Biernat, Sapna Cheryan, Ben Drury, Kevin Ford, Tony Greenwald, Heather Rieck, Clara Wilkins, and the members of the Social Identity Lab for their feedback on this manuscript and project.


References marked with an asterisk indicate studies included in the meta-analysis.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lori W. Malahy
    • 1
  • Michelle A. Rubinlicht
    • 2
  • Cheryl R. Kaiser
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyBowling Green State UniversityBowling GreenUSA

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