Wisdom//

Does Karma Exist, or Do We Believe In It to Feel Better About Ourselves?

Is karma a bogus concept?

Courtesy of frankie's/Shutterstock
Courtesy of frankie's/Shutterstock

Do people get what they deserve?

Because that’s exactly what happens to Gilderoy Lockhart, a character in Harry Potter.

Born in 1964 to a Muggle father and a witch mother, Lockhart attended school at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he joined the house of Ravenclaw. While there, Lockhart proved to be a good student, though he constantly sought attention.

In 1982, Lockhart mastered the spell of Memory Charms, enabling him to erase people’s memories. After graduation, he travelled to all sorts of exotic places. Using his newfound skill, he learned the greatest deeds that witches and wizards performed before promptly erasing their memories and claiming their deeds as his own.

From these experiences, his successful career as an author was born. Lockhart wrote books that detailed his supposed accomplishments and acts of heroism. After releasing a few bestsellers, he started accumulating awards and propelled himself into the spotlight.

A decade after leaving Hogwart’s as a student, Lockhart returned as the Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts. As per his usual manner, he centered the class lessons and homework assignments on himself and his supposed achievements.

Lockhart attempted to use a Memory Charm on Harry Potter and Ron Weasley to erase their memories, as he had done to so many witches and wizards in the past. Only this time, the broken wand backfired and hit Lockhart instead, causing him to lose all his memories.

Gilderoy Lockhart became permanently incapacitated.

The Global Concept of Karma

We want the world to be a fair place. In fact, we expect it. Whenever we hear or see something happen to someone who we felt deserved it, we use phrases such as “he had it coming” or “what goes around comes around.”

The idea of getting what you deserve is prevalent in many religions. One of the most famous concepts in Hinduism and Buddhism is karma, the principle that one’s actions influence a person’s future. Good deeds lead to good karma and happiness, while bad deeds lead to bad karma and misfortune.

Christianity teaches that one “reaps what one sows” (Galatians 6:7). In other words, your actions dictate the rewards or punishment that you receive. It might not happen right away, but you eventually receive what you deserve.

In Greek mythology, there is a story about a character named Tantalus. Tantalus was originally favored by the gods and welcomed to Olympus. While there, he stole ambrosia from the gods to bring back to his people.

Later, Tantalus invited the gods to his home for dinner. He murdered his son and offered parts of his son up as a meal. For these terrible acts, the gods gave Tantalus an eternal punishment.

He was made to stand in a pool of water underneath a fruit tree with low branches. Whenever Tantalus reached up to eat, the branches moved the fruit out of his grasp. Whenever he reached down to drink, the water evaded his touch.

But while there is punishment for the wicked, there are also rewards for the do-gooders. In The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, Bilbo spares Gollum’s life. Although Frodo is frustrated and puzzled by Bilbo’s decision, Gandalf explains the significance:

“What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.”

Sméagol murders his friend to obtain the Ring, resulting in his gradual descent into a deformed, twisted, and lonely creature. Bilbo, on the other hand, chooses to spare Gollum when he takes the ring. Bilbo later lives a long, happy life surrounded with the people that he loves.

It seems universal to believe that good things come to those who do good, and vice versa.

Why We Believe in the Just-World Hypothesis

This cognitive bias, where a person’s actions bring consequences befitting that individual, is known as the just-world hypothesis.

We tend to believe that the universe naturally restores moral order, dishing out the appropriate rewards and punishments to people according to their past actions. Unfortunately, the just-world hypothesis leads us to rationalize unfortunate incidents as events that people bring upon themselves.

Melvin Lerner, a social psychologist who conducted research on this topic, observed how health care practitioners treated mentally ill patients. Though the practitioners were well-educated and kind people, they would blame the patients for the suffering that patients endured.

Lerner was surprised at how even his own psychology students fell victim to the just-world hypothesis. His students belittled the poor, believing them to be lazy individuals looking for handouts or individuals of low intelligence, and therefore unable to rise out of poverty on their own. Meanwhile, they ignored all the systemic factors in place that keep people in a cycle of poverty.

So, why are people subject to the just-world hypothesis? What makes us want to believe so strongly in a world where actions have predictable consequences?

Here are three key reasons:

1. We want to be in control.

We like to believe that we have influence over events in our lives. We want to know that our good deeds will be rewarded with good outcomes, and that the universe will acknowledge our actions.

Following this logic, it becomes easier for us to make plans for the future. When we believe results are within our control, we set goals. We feel comfortable knowing that there is a high chance of achieving certain results, provided we are disciplined and consistent.

2. We ascribe patterns to (random) information.

Have you ever stared at the clouds and thought you saw one that looked like a face or an object? If so, you were experiencing pareidolia, which involves perceiving images or sounds in random data.

Humans naturally try to ascribe meaning to things, whether that means stringing together unrelated pieces of information, or mistaking chance events as recognizable patterns. In doing so, our brains create mental shortcuts to navigate around our environment and make informed decisions.

Likewise, the just-world hypothesis comes into play when we try to make sense of why certain situations occur.

3. We want to feel at peace.

If there’s anything our brains hate, it’s the feeling of incongruity. We feel discomfort when we witness bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.

In order to provide ourselves with a sense of well-being, we use a coping strategy where we justify the results to our satisfaction. For instance, you might think, “She must have done something wrong to have that happen to her. She deserved what she got.”

Whether or not our conclusions are correct, our logical fallacy is good for our mental health. And so, we keep ourselves sane in an unpredictable, irrational world.

The Just-World Hypothesis Isn’t Always Bad, If Used For Good

We often think of anything less than the absolute truth as “bad”. We like to think that we just want the cold, hard facts. But there are times when wrongful perceptions can actually benefit our well-being.

Through rationalization, we cope with difficult situations beyond our control. We aspire towards improvement, even if our goals aren’t feasible. We perform acts of kindness, believing that the universe will send good things back to us.

But we also shouldn’t let our perceptions about justice cloud our judgment. Sometimes people deserve what they get — and sometimes, they don’t. When we acknowledge this, we can start understanding all the external forces at play in people’s lives.

Originally published on Medium.

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