Aug. 31, 1999 COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A new study suggests that up to 44 percent of adults believe that, in some cases, people may get a serious illness because they deserve it for bad behavior.
These results provide evidence that, while adults may learn the principles of science in school, they don't always apply these principles in all situations, according to researchers at Ohio State University.
"Even adults abandon scientific reasoning under certain circumstances," said Lakshmi Raman, co-author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State.
Raman conducted the study with Gerald Winer, a professor of psychology at Ohio State. They presented their results Aug. 21 in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.
In the study, 239 college students were presented with a vignette about a person contracting a mysterious, serious and deadly illness. The ill person was described as having lied, cheated and done other bad things. In the vignette, the main character, talking about the person who got sick, said "I believe that serious illnesses happen at least slightly more often to people who deserve them." A minor character in the vignette then agreed or disagreed with this statement, depending on which experimental group they were in.
Participants in the study were then asked if they agreed that a person could become ill because he or she was bad. This theory that bad behavior could lead to illness is known as "immanent justice." Depending on how the vignette was presented, between 19 and 44 percent of participants agreed with the idea of immanent justice. "We found adults are often a lot less sophisticated in their reasoning than we would imagine," Winer said.
The study also revealed the power of language in influencing beliefs. Study participants were most likely to agree with immanent justice reasoning (44 percent) when a character in the vignette, talking about the sick person, repeated the metaphor "what goes around comes around." Raman said this finding shows "language has a powerful role in our cognitive processes."
Participants were least likely to agree with immanent justice thinking (19 percent) when the vignette contained no metaphor and when the minor character simply agreed or disagreed with the main character about immanent justice, without repeating a statement linking bad behavior and illness.
The study found participants were not swayed one way or the other by whether the minor character agreed or disagreed with the main character's belief in immanent justice.
The results don't mean that adults are always irrational, Raman said. "We're not saying that adults lack a biological understanding of the causes of illness," she said. "But they may fall back on unscientific reasoning when rational explanations aren't readily available. In this case, we described the illness as mysterious and deadly, so some participants may look for an unscientific explanation for the illness."
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