Listener Melissa writes from San Francisco, “I struggle with letting go of any kind of injustice. Whether it’s on the national level such as the unfair treatment of minorities, or something as small as another customer skipping me in line at the store, I really tend to dwell on this wrongdoing.” She points out that even though human brains often wander to thoughts of revenge, she doesn’t think she would derive much satisfaction from it. She asked me to riff on injustice and revenge, with a goal of understanding herself (and her fellow humans) a little better.

What Is Justice Sensitivity?

As it turns out, Melissa is not alone in her struggle to let go of injustice, inequity, or unfairness. In fact, it’s a personality trait called justice sensitivity, defined as our awareness of and reactivity to injustice. In other words, it’s how finely tuned our antennae are to corruption, inequality, unfairness, and generally getting screwed.

The 4 Kinds of Justice Sensitivity

In fact, there are four different types of justice sensitivity.

  1. The first is called victim justice sensitivity, which is constantly staying on the lookout to make sure we don’t get screwed. This vigilance often goes along with anger and a tendency towards revenge.
  2. Next is observer justice sensitivity, which is outrage when observing unfair treatment of others without being directly involved. A recent example of this was the outpouring of protest at the American government on behalf of immigrant families who were being separated at the border. 
  3. Third is perpetrator justice sensitivity, which is an inclination to punish oneself for unjust behaviors in order to assuage guilt or make things right. For example, a Utah man named Reggie Shaw, who was responsible for two deaths in a texting-while-driving accident, has traveled the country ever since speaking out against distracted driving.
  4. Last is beneficiary justice sensitivity, where we experience situations in which we benefit from injustice as aversive. For example, Benedict Cumberbatch made headlines when he announced he would only join projects where his female co-stars received equal pay. 

The important difference among all these types of justice sensitivity is that the first, victim sensitivity, is focused on the self, whereas the other types are focused on others. We’ll circle back to this, so hold tight.

Now, while injustice resonates a little deeper or a little shallower with each of us, all of us have a sense of it. It’s inborn.

The Innate Sense of Justice in Humans

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