Research Article: Getting “Just Deserts” or Seeing the “Silver Lining”: The Relation between Judgments of Immanent and Ultimate Justice

Date Published: July 18, 2014

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Annelie J. Harvey, Mitchell J. Callan, Cheryl McCormick.


People can perceive misfortunes as caused by previous bad deeds (immanent justice reasoning) or resulting in ultimate compensation (ultimate justice reasoning). Across two studies, we investigated the relation between these types of justice reasoning and identified the processes (perceptions of deservingness) that underlie them for both others (Study 1) and the self (Study 2). Study 1 demonstrated that observers engaged in more ultimate (vs. immanent) justice reasoning for a “good” victim and greater immanent (vs. ultimate) justice reasoning for a “bad” victim. In Study 2, participants’ construals of their bad breaks varied as a function of their self-worth, with greater ultimate (immanent) justice reasoning for participants with higher (lower) self-esteem. Across both studies, perceived deservingness of bad breaks or perceived deservingness of ultimate compensation mediated immanent and ultimate justice reasoning respectively.

Partial Text

A long history of research into the psychology of justice and deservingness has demonstrated that people are motivated to make sense of and find meaning in their own and others’ experiences of suffering and misfortune [1], [2], [3], and they do so in a variety of ways [4], [5], [6]. For example, on the one hand, people may attempt to perceive a “silver lining” in someone’s undeserved suffering by adopting the belief that although a victim is currently suffering, she will ultimately be compensated for her misfortune [3]. In other words, through ultimate justice reasoning, people are able to extend the temporal framework of an injustice, such that any negative outcome previously endured will be ultimately compensated with a positive outcome. Research has confirmed that perceiving benefits in the later lives of victims of misfortunes is one way observers cognitively manage the threat imposed when observing undeserved suffering [7], [8], [9], [10]. For example, Anderson and colleagues found that participants, whose belief in a just world had been previously threatened, displayed a tendency to see a teenager’s later life as more enjoyable and meaningful if he had been badly injured than if he suffered only a mild injury [7].

In Study 1 we manipulated the value of a victim of misfortune before assessing participants’ perceptions of the degree to which he deserved his misfortune and deserved ultimate compensation along with immanent and ultimate justice reasoning. We predicted that a “good” victim would encourage participants to engage in more ultimate than immanent justice reasoning, largely due to the victim being deserving of ultimate compensation following their ill fate. When faced with a “bad” victim, however, we predicted that participants would interpret the victim’s fate as deserved and therefore engage in more immanent rather than ultimate justice reasoning.

In Study 2, we sought to conceptually replicate our Study 1 findings in the context of participants’ considerations of their own misfortunes. Study 1 found that participants perceived greater immanent justice for a victim with negative (vs. positive) worth and greater ultimate justice reasoning for a victim of positive (vs. negative) worth. In Study 2, we predicted that people’s perceived self-worth should similarly influence the extent of justice reasoning for their own outcomes. Specifically, we assessed whether people are more likely to engage in immanent or ultimate justice reasoning for the self after considering their own misfortunes as a function of their perceptions of personal deservingness. To test this notion, we measured participants’ self-esteem before asking them to respond to deservingness, immanent, and ultimate justice items in relation to their own recent bad breaks. Paralleling our Study 1 effects, we predicted that self-esteem would correlate negatively with immanent justice reasoning and positively with ultimate justice reasoning. Crucially, we predicted that perceived deservingness would underlie the relations between self-esteem and justice reasoning for the self. Per our Study 1 findings, we predicted that perceiving a bad break as deserved would better predict immanent justice reasoning for the self and perceiving oneself as deserving of later life fulfillment should be a better predictor of ultimate justice judgments for the self.

Over two studies we sought to determine (1) the relation between immanent justice and ultimate justice reasoning, (2) the underlying mechanism responsible for this relation, and (3) if the relation between immanent and ultimate justice reasoning not only applies to the misfortunes of others, but also to one’s own misfortunes. Study 1 showed that participants engaged in immanent justice reasoning to a greater extent when they learned that a victim was a “bad” (vs. “good”) person, whereas they perceived more ultimate justice reasoning when the victim was a “good” (vs. “bad”) person. When people are given to making immanent justice attributions (i.e., when a victim is of low worth), ultimate justice judgments are lower. However, when individuals are prone to ultimate justice reasoning (i.e., when a victim is of high worth), immanent justice reasoning is reduced.