The Victim Is To Blame

Why do some blame the victim?

Posted May 08, 2017

Blaming the Victim

When a paying passenger was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight because the company needed the seat but he wouldn’t give it up, social media was all over the story. After two statements that excused the airline’s behavior, first calling the passenger disruptive and belligerent,  the UA CEO offered a contrite apology.

Not everyone was outraged by the incident. One Facebook post, for example, said, “The idiot should have just complied.”

Ascribing blame always arises when someone is aggrieved. For instance, some will place the blame on a woman who is raped because, they say, she was provocative. Or a person is hit by a drunk driver and some blame the pedestrian because, they say, he shouldn’t have been out walking at night wearing dark clothing.

Some instances are so clear-cut that reasonable people all agree on who is to blame. But in those situations where some fault can be found on both sides,  are there people who are prone to excuse the perpetrator and blame the victim?

Yes, say researchers Laura Niemi, from Harvard University, and Boston College’s Liane Young, referring to their recent study published in Personality and Social Psychology. (nytimes.com/who-blames-the-victim)

A look at a person’s value-system helps predict whether someone blames the victim or not. Those who highly value loyalty, obedience and purity are more likely to blame the victim than those whose value system revolves around caring and fairness.

A victim tends to be scorned by people who value cohesion of their social group as binding. Valuing group loyalty is also linked to political preferences. Unsurprisingly, loyalty and political conservatism go hand-in-hand. Another correlation exists between social cohesion and a sense of purity.

Victims are sometimes blamed by those who value cohesion because the victim is viewed as having violated the social code. The victim is viewed as having “contaminated” the social order. This seems to be true whatever the nature of the offense.

The researchers conclude, “The more participants endorsed binding values, the more blame they assigned to victims.”

Those whose value system higher ranks care and fairness are more likely to place blame on the perpetrators of the offense.

Niemi and Young conclude, “For those seeking to increase sympathy for victims, a practical first step may be to change how we talk: Focusing less on victims and more on perpetrators—‘Why did he think he had license to rape?’ rather than ‘Imagine what she must be going through—may be a more effective way of serving justice.”

This suggestion will appeal to those who already favor caring and justice and will do little to move those who favor binding values. The conflict between the two value systems is a deep one. As to which approach holds the higher ethical ground is best left to another blog. It is enough to say that these two ways of valuing the world are center stage in domestic and international politics.