Why Do People Blame the Victim?

The tendency to blame the victim may be programmed in the mind at a deep level.

Posted Mar 02, 2018

Pixabay/public domain
Source: Pixabay/public domain

Virtually anyone who has survived sexual assault or experienced sexual harassment knows how painful victim-blaming can be. Survivors are often asked what they were wearing, what they did to “encourage” the perpetrator, or even why they didn’t fight back more.

Despite the recent rise of the #MeToo movement, victim-blaming remains a tenacious problem.

In fact, it may be more tenacious than any of us imagined. That's because the tendency to blame the victim may be programmed into the human mind at a very basic level. Ask yourself if you've even wondered whether the victims of a crime or accident had done something to set themselves up for their tragedy? Victim-blaming doesn’t have to involve accusing survivors of directly causing their own misfortune. It can involve the simple thought that you would have been more careful, implying that the tragedy was at least partially their fault. Recently, when my neighbor’s house was burglarized, I found myself tempted to blame him for it. Given that the crime occurred in broad daylight, I initially was convinced that he must have done something to invite it. Perhaps he had made enemies. Perhaps the burglary was intentionally targeted at him. Perhaps he simply hadn’t taken proper precautions to protect his home. This explanation gave me great comfort because it meant my house was safe.

Our tendency to blame the victim shouldn't be something we're proud of, of course. It marginalizes the survivor, minimizes the criminal act, and makes people less likely to come forward and report what has happened to them. For these reasons, it’s important to understand the psychological roots of victim-blaming, so we can help prevent it.

Although some instances of victim-blaming undoubtedly originate from ignorance, meanness, or a smug sense of superiority, there may be another, even more significant cause. Specifically, psychologists believe that our tendency to blame the victim may originate, paradoxically, in a deep need to believe that the world is a good and just place. To understand how this is possible, it’s important to consider how we human beings make sense of the world around us. On a daily basis, we’re bombarded with news of pretty scary events. A brief perusal of virtually any day's top news stories reveals a menagerie of shootings, terrorist attacks, and war, not to mention burglaries, accidents, and personal crimes. If we were truly rational creatures, we would feel utterly terrified. After all, these events could happen to us.

So, if you’re not terrified, ask yourself why.

If you're like most people, your answer is probably something like, “because it won’t happen to me.” But why wouldn’t it? Why wouldn't you be vulnerable to the same events that everyone else is?

According to University of Massachusetts psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, we’re able to so easily believe in our personal invulnerability because of what she calls our “positive assumptive worldview.” On some level, most of us believe that that the world is basically good, that good things happen to good people, and that we, fortunately, are good people. In other words, we believe the world is generally a just and fair place.

Most of us internalized these beliefs at an early age, at about the same time we learned to believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. But unlike our belief in these mythical Good Samaritans, we don’t entirely surrender our rosy worldview as we mature. We’re not stupid, of course. On a conscious level, we all know that bad things happen to good people. But, despite this superficial realization, Janoff-Bulman argues that, on some deeper level, most of us still grasp onto the belief that the world is basically fair. This is why we have sayings like, “What goes around comes around,” “Your chickens will come home to roost,” and “You reap what you sow.”

Despite the delusional nature of these beliefs, we should be happy we have them. Imagine how terrible life would seem if we truly thought the world was dangerous, unfair, and that we were not good people. Our positive beliefs help us to function and live happily in a world that can often be downright frightening.

So, the brain fights hard to maintain them.

According to pioneering research by psychologist Melvin Lerner, our need to maintain a belief in a just world may be at fault for our tendency to blame victims. When bad things happen to someone who seems a lot like us, this threatens our belief that the world is a just place. If that person could fall victim to rape, assault, robbery, or attack, perhaps we could, too. So, to comfort ourselves in the face of this troubling realization and maintain our rosy worldview, we psychologically separate ourselves from the victim. We wonder if he or she had done something to invite the tragedy. Maybe that survivor of sexual assault was wearing provocative clothing. Maybe that shooting victim was involved in gang activity. Maybe my neighbor had invited that burglary by associating with the wrong people. If this is the case, we tell ourselves, then it won’t happen to me. After all, the world is a just place.

This isn’t just speculation. In a classic experiment published in the Psychological Bulletin, Lerner and his colleague Carolyn Simmons provided evidence for this explanation of victim-blaming. In their study, a large sample of women were asked to watch through a video monitor as another person received a series of apparently painful electrical shocks. The women believed they were observing an experiment in human learning in which the person on the screen was receiving the shocks as punishment for her errors on a word-memorization task. Although they were led to believe that the victim was another participant like themselves, the person was actually an actor, so nobody was really harmed in the experiment. Not surprisingly, all of the participants were initially upset by the victim’s suffering. But this is where the experiment gets a bit more complicated: Some participants were offered the opportunity to compensate the victim by voting to stop punishing her errors with shocks, instead rewarding her with money when she got the answers right. That is, they were given the opportunity to restore justice, to make the world good again. A second group of participants were not given this opportunity; they were asked simply to sit and watch the victim get repeatedly shocked, with no way of remedying the situation.

Afterward, all participants were asked to give their opinions of the victim. The results revealed striking differences between the two groups: Those who were given a chance to restore justice said they saw the victim as a good person. But those who were forced simply to watch the unjust situation unfold, ended up derogating the victim, seeing her as deserving her fate. In other words, because they weren’t able to actually bring about justice, they protected their view that the world was a fair place by coming to believe that the victim must somehow not be a good person. If she deserved the shocks, they could tell themselves, then the world was still fair.

So, our tendency to blame the victim is ultimately self-protective. It allows us to maintain our rosy worldview and reassure ourselves that nothing bad will happen to us. The problem is that it sacrifices another person’s well-being for our own. It overlooks the reality that perpetrators are to blame for acts of crime and violence, not victims.

Luckily, victim blaming isn’t inevitable. According to research by David Aderman, Sharon Brehm, and Lawrence Katz, the antidote may be surprisingly simple: empathy. They repeated Lerner and Simmons experiment, but slightly changed the instructions given to participants. Instead of directing them to simply watch the victim be shocked, they asked participants to imagine how they would feel if they were subjected to the same experience. This simple change was enough to bring about an empathic response, eliminating participants’ tendencies to blame the victim. This isn’t the only research demonstrating the power of empathy. In a more recent study, college students completed a series of psychological tests measuring, among other things, their levels of empathy. The results showed that people with greater empathy tended to view survivors of rape through a more positive lens, whereas those with less empathy tended to view survivors more negatively.

So, if left unquestioned, our need to feel that we live in a safe and fair world can cause us to draw conclusions we aren’t proud of. None of us want to place blame where it isn't deserved. None of us want to re-traumatize innocent victims. And, none of us want to give perpetrators a pass.

Next time we're tempted to wonder whether a victim is to blame for his or her own tragedy, let's commit to asking ourselves: How would I feel in that person’s place? Only by reaching out with empathy rather than closing off in blame can we truly bring about a just world.

David B. Feldman is a Professor of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University. Listen to his podcast, “Psychology in 10 Minutes,” on SoundCloudiTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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