Why do victims sometimes receive sympathy for their suffering and at other times scorn and blame?

In a series of studies recently covered in an op-ed in The New York Times, Dr. Liane Young and I show a powerful role for moral values in attitudes toward victims. We measured moral values associated with unconditionally prohibiting harm and treating people as equals (“individualizing values”) versus moral values associated with prohibiting behavior that destabilizes groups and relationships (“binding values”: loyalty, obedience to authority, and concern about purity). We used a reliable survey based on moral foundations theory.

Increased endorsement of binding values predicted increased ratings of victims as "contaminated" and "tainted" (Studies 1-4); increased blame and responsibility attributed to victims, increased perceptions of victims’ (versus perpetrators’) behaviors as contributing to the outcome, and increased focus on victims during moral judgment (Studies 2-3). 

Put plainly, the results suggest that knowing that a person values loyalty, obedience, and purity to an unusually high degree may afford a prediction that the person is also more likely to view victims as responsible and blameworthy. It's likely striking many readers that these values seem more consistent with a conservative rather than liberal political orientation. Indeed, the more strongly people endorse binding values the more politically conservative they tend to be.

Crucially, however, the associations between moral values and attitudes about victims and perpetrators held regardless of people's political orientation (as well as gender and religiosity). 

Why do binding values predict blame of victims? 

Binding values, moral values focused on the ties that bind people into close personal relationships, are in tension with individualizing values, moral values that promote universal caring and fairness.

Binding values prohibit actions that don't have clear victims (e.g., premarital sex, flag-burning), and even sometimes require harm. For example, to be loyal to the ingroup, one might be required to snub a member of the outgroup. Or, to be obedient to authority, one might be required to obey orders to attack others. In some groups, preservation of purity might motivate quarantining outcasts, or even honor killing. That higher endorsement of binding values reliably predicts greater attribution of responsibility to victims might come about as a result of moral worldview that requires slightly reduced sensitivity to victim suffering. 

Should we try to reduce binding values if they are linked to victim blaming?

Binding values of loyalty, respect for authority and preservation of purity are proposed to keep societies functioning, relationships intact, and maybe even counterbalance individualizing values to ensure that people get the support they need from friends and neighbors for survival and reproduction. If binding values support healthy groups and relationships, then it might be unreasonable to suggest targeting them. But if such values motivate callous disregard for human rights, then it's important to determine when and why this occurs and think about interventions. 

How can we reduce victim blaming?

Perhaps counterintuitively, our research suggests that language that focuses less on victims might lead to greater sympathy for victims. 

We experimentally manipulated language focus by placing the perpetrator or the victim in the subject position in the majority of the sentences in vignettes in one experiment. So for example: (victim-focus) “Lisa was approached by Bob” versus (perpetrator-focus) “Bob approached Lisa”.

We found that when participants focused attention on the perpetrator, participants’ ratings of victim blame, victim responsibility, and references to victims’ actions when asked, "How could the outcome of this situation have been different?" all significantly decreased.

This effect was observed in addition to the effect of moral values on judgments of victims. This suggests that paying attention to the language with which crimes are described might help ameliorate victim blaming.   

Language and values work together

Taken together, the results across these studies highlight a powerful role for personal values and a subtle role linguistic focus in attitudes toward victims and perpetrators. Moral values constitute a core framework that organizes different psychological processes — including perceptions of contamination and injury and attributions of responsibility — into predictable patterns across the victim-perpetrator dyad. Still, language matters.

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