Blaming the Victim Definition
A victim is a person who is harmed by the actions of another person or as the result of circumstance. Blaming the victim occurs when people hold the victim responsible for his or her suffering. When people blame the victim, they attribute the cause of the victim’s suffering to the behaviors or characteristics of the victim, instead of attributing the cause to a perpetrator or situational factors.
Why People Blame Victims
Ironically, victim blame often stems from a desire to see the world as a just and fair place where people get what they deserve. This belief in a just world lets people confront the world as though it were stable and orderly. If people did not believe in a just world, it would be difficult to commit themselves to pursuing long range goals or even to getting out of bed in the morning! Because believing in a just world is so adaptive, people are very reluctant to give up this belief. The “problem” with victims, then, is that they violate people’s belief that the world is just and fair. One way to restore this threat to their belief system is for people to convince themselves that the victims actually deserved their fate. By derogating victims and blaming them for their negative outcomes, people can maintain the belief that the world is a fair place after all.
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One psychological benefit of blaming victims lies in the fact that it lets people convince themselves that they could never be subject to the same fate as the victim. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, leaving many residents of New Orleans trapped for days in miserable conditions inside the Superdome, many people responded by saying that the victims’ fate was their own fault for not evacuating. In actuality, many of the people trapped in the Superdome had no access to transportation out of the city and had no money to afford a place to go. Nevertheless, by blaming the hurricane victims for their own suffering, people are able to maintain their belief that the world is fair and just. Ultimately, blaming victims allows people to maintain their own sense of control. It lets them think, “That could never have happened to me, because I would have done things differently.”
Evidence for Blaming the Victim
In one enlightening study of victim blame, participants were given descriptions of a series of events that took place between a young woman and a man during a date. In some versions of the study, participants read that the date ended with the man raping the woman. In other versions, the date ended with the man taking the woman home (and not raping her). When participants rated the behaviors of the woman, they were much more likely to rate her behavior as foolhardy and irresponsible if the date ended in rape than if it did not. That is, the exact same behaviors were seen in a different light depending on the outcome of those behaviors. This shows how when people are faced with injustice, it can motivate people to find fault with the victim’s behavior even though they would not find fault with those same behaviors under other circumstances.
Characteristics of the victim can influence how much people blame victims. People are more likely to blame respectable victims than less respectable victims because the fate of the former seems more unjust and increases the need for people to restore their sense of justice through victim blame. For example, one study examined reactions to rape victims who were virgins, married, or divorced. Women who were virgins or married were more likely to be blamed for the rape than women who were divorcees. The knowledge that innocent, respectable females can be raped is threatening to people’s beliefs that the world is just, which leads people to reduce the threat by blaming the victims.
Numerous other factors can influence how much blame people assign to victims. First, people with right-wing, conservative political ideologies are more likely to blame victims, especially victims of poverty and racial discrimination, while people with more left-wing, liberal ideologies are more likely to blame situational and environmental factors. Second, people who are angry or upset by previous events unrelated to the victim’s fate are more likely to blame victims. Negative emotions can carry over into other domains, and people can misinterpret their anger and anxiety as being caused by the victims’ fate, which leads them to blame the victims more strongly. Finally, some individuals are more committed than others to the belief in a just world. People who strongly endorse the belief that the world is a fair place are more likely to be threatened when they witness the suffering of innocent victims, which in turn leads them to blame the victims.
Reducing Victim Blame
There are several ways to reduce victim blame. If people have immediate and easy solutions to alleviate the suffering of victims, they are less likely to blame those victims. Helping victims allows people to restore the threat to their belief in a just world, reducing the need to restore the threat via victim blame. However, sometimes there are no easy and immediate solutions to alleviating victim’s suffering. Once people have jumped to the conclusion that a victim is responsible, it is harder to convince them to aid the victims. It is also possible to reduce victim blame by encouraging people to empathize with victims. If people are able to take the perspective of the victims or can easily imagine being in the victim’s shoes, they are less likely to blame the victim. Finally, most people feel that it is not really fair to blame innocent people for their suffering. Many times people blame victims without being consciously aware of what they are doing. Giving people conscious reminders that victim blame is socially unacceptable can encourage them to withhold from blaming the victim.
- Lerner, M. J., & Goldberg, J. H. (1999). When do decent people blame victims? The differing effects of the explicit/rational and implicit/experiential cognitive systems. In S. Chaiken & Y. Trope (Eds.), Dual-process theories in social psychology (pp. 627-640). New York: Guilford Press.
- Ryan, W. (1971). Blaming the victim. New York: Random House.