The Victim Personality

Researchers find evidence for a stable tendency to see oneself as a victim.

Posted Dec 10, 2020

via Pixabay
Source: via Pixabay

We all know that person. Every bad thing that happens to them. They seem self-absorbed, but in a strangely negative way. The world is out to get them. It’s not paranoia, but it can seem delusional with the way they constantly interpret things as being intentional to harm and punish them. Nothing is ever really their fault, because of all the bad things that happen to them. And they aren’t responsible for the bad things they do, because they’ve been through so much, and they are just getting some of theirs back. In 2014, I wrote about the rise of the culture of victimhood, which incentivizes and reinforces the perception of oneself as a perpetual victim. 

Now, researchers have published research that suggests that seeing oneself as a victim may actually be a distinct and stable aspect of personality. Israeli researchers Gabay, Hameirio, Rubel-Lifschitz, and Nadler conducted a set of eight separate studies to identify, test, and measure a personality construct they term “Tendency for Interpersonal Victimhood,” or TIV.

They define TIV as an “enduring feeling that the self is a victim across different kinds of interpersonal relationships.”  The researchers identify several core components of TIV, including:

  • Need for recognition – whereby individuals have a high level of need for their victimization to be seen and recognized by others
  • Moral elitism – seeing oneself as morally pure or “immaculate,” and seeing those who oppose, criticize or “victimize” oneself as completely and totally immoral and unjust
  • Lack of empathy – having little empathy or concern for the suffering of others, because your own victimhood is so much greater than the suffering of others. Also includes an entitlement to act selfishly or harmfully towards others, without recognizing their pain or experience
  • Rumination – a strong tendency to brood and remain extremely fixated on times, ways, and relationships where they experienced victimization and being taken advantage of

The researchers found that the construct of TIV was replicated across different populations and samples, and remained stable across time. Further, they found that people high in TIV attended to negative aspects of interpersonal relationships far more than others. They were much more likely to attribute negative intentions or maliciousness to the actions of others, and were much more likely to recall or remember the negative things, compared to positives. They tended to attribute negatives to other people, and rarely to themselves.

In a laboratory model that explores interpersonal relationships using game theory, participants played “The Dictator Game” on the computer, where they thought they were playing against another person, but were actually playing against the computer. In one of the test conditions, participants were told that their “opponent” had been selfish, keeping almost all the money in the game for themselves and depriving the participant. When individuals were high in TIV, they engaged in higher levels of revenge-seeking responses to their opponent, taking money away from their opponent even when they knew that they themselves would not “get” the money in the game. The stronger the negative emotions the participants felt, the more likely they were to engage in revenge-seeking behaviors.

via Pixabay
Source: via Pixabay

Individuals who were high in the tendency to see themselves as victims felt feelings of hurt more intensely, felt that hurt for longer, and were more likely to recall that hurt at later times. They responded more strongly to negative stimuli. People who saw themselves as enduring victims were more likely to hold grudges, to seek revenge, and to feel entitled to engage in immoral behaviors in order to punish others. They seem to see people who “victimize” them as “all bad,” which justifies the vengeance that is meted out.

People high in TIV tended to have attachment styles that were more anxious, but were less likely to be avoidant in relationships. So, they may worry they will be harmed or exploited in relationships, but not avoid relationships or interpersonal connections. The relationship between seeing oneself as a victim and a history of actual trauma was unclear in this research.

Applying this research clinically may be valuable, potentially helping to unpack and challenge the core assumptions and overfocus on the negative that underlie and feed the self-identity as a victim. Positive psychology, motivational interviewing, and acceptance and commitment therapy strategies all offer interventions to help people explore behaviors and values, and to reinforce the positives. Perhaps, by helping people who feel that they are victims to focus on, or even acknowledge, potential positive interpretations, and to empathize with others, the negative effects of victimhood personality may be mediated.  

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