Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Psychology of Scapegoating

Is the time ripe for a new wave of scapegoating?

[Article revised on 5 May 2020.]


The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt.

Source: Wikicommons

The ego defense of displacement plays an important role in scapegoating, in which uncomfortable feelings such as anger, frustration, envy, guilt, shame, and insecurity are displaced or redirected onto another, often more vulnerable, person or group. The scapegoats—outsiders, immigrants, minorities, 'deviants'—are then persecuted, enabling the scapegoaters to discharge and distract from their negative feelings, which are replaced or overtaken by a crude but consoling sense of affirmation and self-righteous indignation.

The creation of a villain necessarily implies that of a hero, even if both are purely fictional.

Sometimes it is the villain, or villains, who are in need of an even greater villain. Especially in a time of crisis, unscrupulous leaders and politicians can cynically exploit the ancient and deep-rooted impulse to scapegoat to deflect and distract from their own inadequacies and evade, or seek to evade, their legitimate burden of blame and responsibility.

A good example of a historical scapegoat is Marie Antoinette, Queen of Louis XVI of France, whom the French people called l’Autre-chienne—a pun playing on Autrichienne [Austrian woman] and autre chienne [other bitch]—and accused of being profligate and promiscuous. When Marie Antoinette arrived in France to marry the then heir to the throne, the country had already been near bankrupted by the reckless spending of Louis XV, and the young and naïve foreign princess quickly became the unwitting target of the people’s mounting ire.

A scapegoat usually implies a person or group, but the mechanism of scapegoating can also apply to non-human entities, whether objects, animals, or demons. Conversely, human scapegoats are to varying degrees dehumanized and objectified; some, such as witches in mediæval Europe, are quite literally demonized. The dehumanization of the scapegoat makes the scapegoating both more potent and more palatable, and can even lend it a sense of pre-ordained, cosmic inevitability.

According to the philosopher René Girard, owing to human nature, envy gradually builds up in a society until it reaches a tipping point, at which order and reason cede to mob rule, chaos, and violence. To quell this ‘madness of the crowds’ which poses an existential threat to the society, an exposed or vulnerable person or group is singled out as a sink for all the bad feeling, and the bad feeling bred from the bad feeling.

After the defeat of the Thirty Tyrants in Ancient Athens, Socrates, with his close links to prominent oligarchs such as Critias, who had been the first and worst among the Thirty, no longer seemed like the harmless eccentric of old, but like a dangerous and corrupting influence, a breeder of tyrants and the enemy of the common man. In the febrile atmosphere that had taken hold over the city, any accusation made against him, however false or fanciful, could be seized upon as a pretext to punish him and scapegoat him for all the sufferings of the tyranny. Once dispatched, a scapegoat may be totemized—and all the more so if he is also a martyr, that is, one who opposes or resists a belief that is being imposed upon him. Today, Socrates is chiefly remembered by his death, with Seneca going so far as to opine that "it was the hemlock that made Socrates great" [cicuta magnum Socratem fecit].

The term ‘scapegoat’ actually has its origin in the Old Testament, more specifically, in Chapter 16 of the Book of Leviticus, according to which God instructed Moses and Aaron to sacrifice two goats every year. The first goat was to be killed and its blood sprinkled upon the Ark of the Covenant. The High Priest was then to lay his hands upon the head of the second goat and confess the sins of the people. Unlike the first goat, this lucky second goat was not to be killed but released into the wilderness together with its burden of sin, which is why it came to be known as a, or the, scapegoat.

The altar that stands in the sanctuary of every church is a symbolic remnant and reminder of this sacrificial practice, with the ultimate object of sacrifice being, of course, Jesus himself. Upon seeing Jesus for the first time, John the Baptist is said to have exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

And in Christian imagery, Jesus is often depicted as the victorious Lamb of God of the Book of Revelation, with one leg hooked around a banner with a red cross—whence the name of one of Oxford’s most celebrated public houses, the Lamb and Flag, in which Thomas Hardy wrote much of his novel, Jude the Obscure.

The sacrifice prescribed in the Book of Leviticus prefigures that of Jesus, who played the role of the first goat in his human crucifixion, and the role of the second goat, the scapegoat, in his divine resurrection.

Neel Burton is author of Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception and other books.

More from Neel Burton M.D.
More from Psychology Today