Scapegoat Theory Definition
Scapegoat theory refers to the tendency to blame someone else for one’s own problems, a process that often results in feelings of prejudice toward the person or group that one is blaming. Scapegoating serves as an opportunity to explain failure or misdeeds, while maintaining one’s positive self-image. If a person who is poor or doesn’t get a job that he or she applies for can blame an unfair system or the people who did get the job that he or she wanted, the person may be using the others as a scapegoat and may end up hating them as a result. However, if the system really is unfair and keeps the person from succeeding financially, or the other people got the job because of nepotism or illegitimate preferential treatment, then blaming those factors would not be scapegoating. Essentially, scapegoating generally employs a stand-in for one’s own failures so that one doesn’t have to face one’s own weaknesses.
Origins of Scapegoat Theory
The term itself comes from the Bible’s reference to a goat upon which Aaron cast all the sins of Israel and then banished to the wilderness. Hence, the goat, though presumably blameless, was essentially punished for the sins of the people of Israel. Psychologists have expanded the concept to include not only someone else to pay the price for one’s own immorality but also a target of blame and explanation when outcomes are not what one hoped for.
Historical and Research Applications of Scapegoat Theory
History contains a number of examples of political leaders using scapegoats to rally their people at the expense of a despised group. In perhaps the most blatant and tragic example, Adolf Hitler notoriously scapegoated Jews for the fact that other Germans were suffering after World War I. By depicting Jews as more commercially successful than the average German citizen—and unfairly so, by favoring other Jews—he rallied his citizens to extreme levels of nationalism at the expense of Jews and other groups. He thus conjured resentment and hatred toward the group, simultaneously unifying other Germans to a singular cause: the perceived improvement of Germany.
The concept of scapegoating is also somewhat consistent with Sigmund Freud’s notions of displacement or projection as defense mechanisms. According to Freud, people displace hostility that they hold toward unacceptable targets (e.g., parents, the boss) onto less powerful ones. Similarly, projection refers to one’s tendency to attribute one’s own unacceptable feelings or anxieties onto others, thus denying them within oneself. Both mechanisms protect people from their illicit desires or fears by helping them reject the notion that they are the holders of such feelings. As such, the target of their displacement or projection may serve as a scapegoat.
More recently, social psychologists have explained the tendency to scapegoat in similar terms, but with some qualifications and clarifications. For example, the notion of displaced aggression has received a good deal of attention in the field. If a woman has a fight with her boyfriend, she may come home and kick her dog for a minor misbehavior. The dog, then, is her scapegoat and is paying the price for the fight with the boyfriend. The aggression that the fight produced is not being directed toward its true cause, but instead is directed at the dog, which is a more acceptable target because it cannot retaliate or argue back, as the boyfriend is likely to do. In addition, the theory of relative deprivation is relevant as an explanation for people’s tendency to scapegoat. This theory suggests that people experience negative emotions when they feel as though they are treated relatively poorly for illegitimate reasons. For example, a person may be satisfied with his or her salary until the person learns that a colleague whose work is not great but who is friends with the boss gets a raise. Now the person is relatively deprived and may resent the colleague for the person’s lower salary.
Other researchers have specified some conditions in which scapegoating against a particular group is most likely to occur. For example, the scapegoated group tends to be one of relatively low power. Otherwise, the group would be able to stamp out the opposition brought from the masses. The scapegoated group also tends to be a group that is somehow recognizable as distinct from the ingroup (the group to which one belongs), so that group members can be easily identified and associated with the undesired situation. Finally, the scapegoat tends to pose a real threat to the ingroup, intentionally or unintentionally. For example, lynchings against Blacks rose dramatically when the economic prospects for Whites began to drop off. African Americans were perceived as a greater threat to the increasingly scarce jobs and opportunities and so were punished in brutally tragic ways. In a land of plenty or when a group is kept completely under wraps, that group poses no threat and therefore does not present the opportunity to serve as a scapegoat.
- Glick, P. (2002). Sacrificial lambs dressed in wolves’ clothing: Envious prejudice, ideology, and the scapegoating of Jews. In L. S. Newman & R. Erber (Eds.), Understanding genocide: The social psychology of the Holocaust (pp. 113-142). New York: Oxford University Press.