Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

Do Crime Victims Deserve Some Blame?

Guilt, Anger, and Understanding

Recently I wrote about a study which found that men with psychopathic tendencies are better than average at picking out vulnerable targets: people with the non-verbal cues that signal social submissiveness. Based on these findings, I wrote that "We are not all equally likely to fall prey. Just as the psychopaths are a special breed, so too are their victims."

This suggestion drew a heated response from readers. Some accused me of "blaming the victim." One of the most pointed critiques came from blogger Donna Anderson, who directed me to her own website on the topic of psychopathy, Lovefraud.com. There Anderson points out that, for one thing, I was mistaken in writing that a psychopaths prefer to prey on the weak. In a post entitled "Blame the victim fallacies" she writes that, on the contrary, many psychopaths who prey on women pick out victims who are outgoing, assertive, and confident:

Personally, I don't think anyone who watched me walk down the street would tag me as timid or vulnerable. I'm an athlete, and my stride is confident. But I was victimized by a psychopath, who took $227,000 from me, and cheated on me incessantly. And the guy started setting his hooks via e-mail, before he ever saw me walk. Maybe projecting dominance would work to avoid muggers. But it's not going to stop victimization by a card-carrying psychopath intent on finding a resourceful new supply.

I am entirely willing to cede this point -- the study that I was referring to focused on muggings, not the sort of predatory romantic relationship that Anderson primarily writes about. But what about the more damning suggestion: was I implying that a psychopath's victims bear some blame for being targeted?

What a horrible suggestion! But rather than just stutter "Certainly not!" and hurry off the stage, I'd like to probe the question a bit. Because the phrase "blaming the victim" is one of the most loaded in the English language, and its reflexive use covers up some very interesting questions.

Whenever something goes wrong in the world -- an accident, a crime, a disaster -- we are naturally compelled to try to understand it, to come up with an understanding of why it happened. And in creating a narrative of this event, we tend to see it in one of two ways.

The more intuitive way of looking at events is what I'll call the judicial perspective. When something bad happens, we want to find out who's responsible, and we want them to be punished. Only when guilt has been assigned and punishment extracted can we feel that justice has been done, and the case closed. Evolution has provided us with powerful, automatic brain circuitry for this purpose. When we see someone do wrong, we feel anger and outrage. This prompts us to extract punishment, which hopefully will prevent the evildoer from repeating his or her mistake in the future. The end result is that the social order is maintained.

The counterpart of anger is guilt. When we do something wrong -- especially something that has made other people angry at us in the past, or is making them angry at us right now -- we feel an emotion that serves as an internal deterrent to carrying out the same behavior again. We don't need to think about what happened and intellectually arrive at a conclusion for what we ought to do. On the contrary, often, it's hard to stop ourselves from doing what we ought to. Husband forgets his anniversary; wife yells at him; husband remembers next anniversary. (This is not a hypothetical.)

The alternative to the judicial perspective is what I'll call the analytical point of view. In this mode, the goal is simply to identify causes. When an airplane crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board sends a team to investigate the accident site and determine what happened. When they issue their final report, the NTSB identifies all the factors that helped contribute to the accident. The NTSB does not lay blame, nor extract punishment. The purpose of the NTSB is not to achieve justice, but to understand what happened so that rational steps can be taken so that they do not occur again.

When we look at the world from an analytical point of view, we tend to find multiple causes. An airplane crash, for instance, might have been partially caused by a line attendant who might have put the wrong kind of fuel into the airplane's tanks -- but a contributing factor might have been that the pilot failed to check the fuel. In future, we might prevent future accidents by, say, making fuel nozzles that only fit into the right kind of tank and putting a sign inside every cockpit that says, "have you checked your fuel tanks?" Multiple causes, multiple avenues to increase safety.

When we see things from the judicial perspective, on the other hand, we tend to see things in far simpler terms. Emotionally, we feel that one party is the perpetrator, the other the victim. One party is guilty, the other party is angry. This duality is implicit in the phrase "blaming the victim." The very word "victim" pre-identifies the party who is the recipient of the malfeasance. From the judicial perspective, to blame them for something does not compute.

All of this is a fairly roundabout way of saying that, in response to the accusations that I "blamed the victims" of psychopaths, a) I wasn't blaming them, but rather pointing out some surprising risk factors in psychopathic predation that in no way a victim should feel guilty for, and b) it was my intention to operate in the analytical mode, not the judicial perspective implied by the phrase "blaming the victim."

I'm not suggesting that the judicial viewpoint in inherently wrong. Personally, I've been feeling quite frustrated by the seeming lack of justice in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown, in which the bankers most responsible for creating the crisis were handed billions of dollars to prevent it from worsening. Such steps were necessary, experts assured us, to prevent a worse financial tailspin. Maybe so, but I would gladly have traded some additional economic hardship in return for a sense that those who caused the problem had been punished, and removed from a position where they could do it again. (Even monkeys are willing to pay a price to see justice enacted.)

But I question the use of the phrase "blaming the victim." I feel that it is emotionally inciting and tends to obscure rather than shed light on important issues. It's a rallying cry -- a call to action, not to thought.

 

Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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