You’re having a conversation with an acquaintance who starts to launch into a description of how she’s managed to take advantage of the financial relief offered to her by her employer due to COVID19’s impact on the business. Out of a limited fund for the workers at this small company, she’s managed to capture an undue amount which, as it turns out, she doesn’t even need. She actually started a small online business herself and, while working from home, is starting to turn a small profit. She’s actually quite proud of herself, but you feel uncomfortable hearing this story.

Now you start to wonder who else, maybe you, she’s manipulated into getting something she didn’t deserve. What about that time last year when you fed her cat for a week while she was, maybe supposedly, in the hospital?

Considering all the ways that people can be harmed by unfair or even mistreatment, there is reason to believe that when people describe themselves as having suffered as a result, they’re telling the truth. However, what about people who aren’t? What are the qualities that lead them to skate the unethical thin ice of taking advantage of a bad situation?

According to new research by the University of British Columbia’s Ekin Ok and colleagues (2020), there are indeed fake “virtuous victims” who take advantage of the “resource extraction” strategies used by actual victims who deserve those resources. These self-proclaimed victims realize that they can make unreasonable demands of others, and not have to answer for their inexcusable behavior. This process of signaling their status allows them, in the words of the authors, to “convince nonvictims to willingly provision the alleged victim with resources."

As an example, the UBC researchers cite the astounding statistics reported by an insurance fraud organization’s data showing that billions of dollars are lost each year from fraudulent claims not only to insurance companies but also to government aid agencies and even charitable organizations. Like your acquaintance, these people find ways to exploit the resources needed by actual victims, whose chances for fair settlements could be lowered when the available funds are usurped by the dishonest.

As you might imagine, the people who take advantage of false victimhood status are hardly reputable individuals. Ok et al. propose that their underlying personalities reflect the so-called ”Dark Triad” traits of psychopathy (lack of empathy and morals), Machiavellianism (tendency to exploit others), and narcissism (grandiosity and self-promotion). These individuals “guilelessly deploy a range of manipulative strategies for personal gain” through what the authors refer to as “victim signaling."

What’s important to understand about the theoretical background behind the idea of false victims is that these are not actual victims of anything. To convince other people of what they "deserve," they need to portray themselves as honest, trustworthy, and highly moral because otherwise, you would see right through them (hence the term “virtuous victim”). Those high in the Dark Triad traits combine the signals that they’re victims with signals that they’re virtuous and do so in a callous and manipulative manner.

You can get an idea of some of the types of victim signaling that these Dark Triad individuals might use from the items on the measure used by the UBC research team. Here is a sample of five of them:

  1. Explained how I don’t feel accepted in society because of my identity.
  2. Discussed how I don’t feel financially secure.
  3. Shared how I don’t feel comfortable with my body.
  4. Disclosed that I don’t feel like I am in control of my future.
  5. Pointed out how I am not able to pursue my goals and dreams because of external factors.

Actual victims might very well agree with these statements, and to take this into account, the research team controlled in their analyses for demographic factors that might be related to a history of discrimination or other forms of victimization. Such controls should be effective, the authors reasoned, in suppressing the statistical role of true victimization in evaluating personality’s impact on false victim portrayals.

The other piece of the virtuous victim equation involves what the authors call “virtue signaling,” or sending the message to others that you are a moral individual. To measure this quality, Ok et al. used an established measure of “moral identity symbolization,” in which participants read a set of nine positive morality-related traits (e.g. honesty) and imagined how a person who had these qualities would think, feel, and behave. People high in virtue signaling, then, would agree with statements such as “I often buy products that communicate the fact that I have these characteristics.”

The key here, particularly with regard to narcissism, is that the products "communicate" the individual's high moral character rather than simply supporting a good cause. You may know someone who fits this description of the virtuous signaler. Perhaps this individual wears tee shirts boldly emblazoned with slogans such as those that proclaim “I support fair trade.” It’s possible to support such causes and keep this virtue to yourself or to wear clothing that states the value of fair trade products without broadcasting the fact that “I” support this cause. It’s a subtle distinction, but to the study’s authors, one worth considering in relation to the Dark Triad traits.

Using a variety of samples from undergraduates to online adult participants, the authors first established that people high in the Dark Triad traits were indeed more likely to have high virtuous victim scores, even after controlling for demographic factors that could reflect true victimhood.

Following this step, the authors went on to more behaviorally-oriented studies in which they gave participants the choice of endorsing ethical or unethical behaviors such as buying counterfeit items that clearly violated a company’s copyright. It was, as predicted, the virtuous victim signalers who were more likely to go with the unethical choice. Also, fitting into the study's predictions, these individuals were also more likely to cheat and lie in a virtual coin flip game.

Next, the authors put Dark Triad traits into the equation, further strengthening the interpretation that personality drives the virtuous victim signaling process. As indeed the authors predicted, participants high in these traits were more likely to endorse virtuous victim items. Together, personality plus virtuous victim signaling predicted behavior in a simulated job situation in which participants had the choice of engaging in the exploitative strategy of lying about a competitor’s behavior so that they could get the position. 

There was a form of narcissism that proved to stand out on its own in the prediction of the instrumental use of virtuous victim signaling. The authors measured what's called “communal narcissism,” or people's tendency to claim that they are more caring than anyone else they know. In the words of the authors, these people seek to "display their alleged high moral character and behaviors, with the secondary aim of asserting their moral superiority over others" (p. 20). The communal narcissists, as it turned out, were particularly likely to take on the guise of virtuous victims. In turn, they then went on to engage in securing unfair advantages for themselves. 

In other words, pulling narcissism out of the Dark Triad formula in this particular way suggests that you need to be on the lookout for someone whose grandiosity extends to claims of moral superiority. You might be skeptical about someone who seems to show a touch of psychopathy or exploitativeness, but may be more easily fooled by this type of narcissist.

Again, it’s important to remember that this abuse of “victimhood” comes not from actual discrimination or mistreatment but from a desire for self-advancement and the pursuit of one’s own goals. As the authors caution, “we do not refute the claim that there are individuals who emit the virtuous victim signal because they experience legitimate harm and also conduct themselves in decent and laudable ways." It’s those with high levels of exploitative personalities who deploy these signals “as a duplicitous tactic to acquire personal benefits they would otherwise not receive."

To sum up, the object lesson in all of this is that it is advisable to err on the side of caution when you learn of another person’s mistreatment and believe that the person is honest, a conclusion that the authors endorse. Setting this question aside, the study’s findings suggest how you can protect yourself from being victimized by someone trying to take advantage of you, allowing you to save your kindness and generosity for the truly deserving.

Facebook image: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock

References

Ok, E., Qian, Y., Strejcek, B., & Aquino, K. (2020). Signaling virtuous victimhood as indicators of Dark Triad personalities. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology doi: 10.1037/pspp0000329