- A new study suggests a subset of people seemingly derive enjoyment from victim-blaming: “everyday sadism.”
- Victim blaming may occur because people are motivated to see the world as a just place.
- Lack of empathy for victims is another factor that can increase blame.
Victims of crime and other negative events can sometimes become targets of hostility and blame, where others assume they must have deserved or brought on the misfortune.
For example, they might criticize an assault victim for the way they were dressed or the time of night they were out, rather than focusing their condemnation on the actions of the perpetrator.
Why would people respond in such a seemingly callous way? Research suggests there can be multiple factors involved—here are five of them.
1. They want to feel less personally vulnerable.
Seeing someone else be unfairly victimized can threaten our sense of safety: If something terrible can happen to them, it could happen to us too. To avoid this unsettling thought, we might tell ourselves that the victim must have done something wrong and that as long as we don’t do that thing, we will be protected.
2. They want to morally distance themselves from the victim.
It may also be that the mere association of a victim with a crime or misdeed can lead to stigma and blame. People may be motivated to distance themselves from the disturbing event as a whole, including from those who were not responsible for it.
Researchers have found that this distancing may be especially likely to occur among people who place greater importance on values of loyalty, obedience, and purity: One series of studies found that participants with these values were more likely to believe that victims were “contaminated” by crimes of robbery or sexual assault.
3. They empathize more with the perpetrator.
Putting ourselves in a victim’s shoes and trying to see their perspective can reduce blame—for example, we might be better able to understand why they didn’t fight back or immediately report an incident. However empathizing with the victim is not always people’s default position, especially if they have more in common with the perpetrator or can relate to them in some way.
In one study, participants who shared the same gender as the perpetrator in a hypothetical scenario tended to feel slightly greater empathy and compassion for them, which in turn led to greater attribution of responsibility to the victim. A similar finding occurred for cultural background. Researchers believe this happens because people are motivated to see their “in group”—and by extension, themselves—in a positive light.
4. They dehumanize the victim.
Victims are sometimes portrayed in objectified ways, with images and descriptions focusing on their appearance and clothing as if physical attributes might explain or justify an attack. Research has found that dehumanizing portrayals like these can lead victims to be seen as less capable of suffering and less deserving of concern, which can make them more likely to be the target of blame.
For example, in a study where all participants read the same description of a sexual assault, those who first saw an objectifying image of a female victim in a swimsuit were more likely to say that she behaved carelessly and led the perpetrator on, compared to those who saw a less objectifying image of the same woman.
5. They possess dark personality traits.
A new study suggests that a subset of people may not only be more likely to engage in victim-blaming, but also to seemingly derive enjoyment from it. Participants who scored higher on a measure of “everyday sadism” were more likely to report feeling positive emotions like joy, excitement, and amusement in response to a range of both hypothetical and real-life hardships, such as illness and injury, being targeted by an online mob, sexual assault, and discrimination. They were also less motivated to help and were more likely to blame victims for their misfortune.
Other research has found that even people not necessarily high in sadism may at times take pleasure in another person’s suffering (“Schadenfreude”), especially if the other person is envied or seen as a rival.
Whether driven by fear, lack of empathy, or other factors, victim-blaming can compound victims’ suffering by shaming and stigmatizing them, and it can reduce the accountability of those responsible for causing harm, making harmful acts more likely to continue. Though victim-blaming is pervasive and difficult to combat, noticing and challenging it in all of its forms can help to reduce its power.
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