Why Some People Blame the Victims of Crime

How do people's moral outlook affect the way they treat crime victims?

Posted Sep 30, 2016

In many situations, victims of crime end up shouldering some amount of the blame for what happened to them. Rape victims are told that they should not have dressed provocatively, had too much to drink, or been at a particular party. Victims of robbery are chastised for where they walked or how they were carrying their possessions.

There are many aspects of a particular situation that might make someone blame the victim more. For example, people who engage in their normal routine and then are the victim of a crime get blamed less than people who deviate from their routine in some way. The deviation provides a reason for the crime to have happened.

Are there characteristics of particular people that make them more or less likely to blame the victim? This question was explored in a paper in the September, 2016 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Laura Niemi and Liane Young. 

They suggest that when people think about their moral relationship to society, they often adopt one of two independent orientations. Some people are particularly strong in their belief about the importance of individuals. They place a lot of value on fairness and caring about other people. Other people are particularly strong in their beliefs about how strongly individuals should be connected to their society. Individuals with this binding orientation place emphasis on loyalty, authority, and purity.

Niemi and Young argue that the more strongly people believe in this binding orientation (and focus on purity, loyalty, and authority), the more that they should have concerns about people who stand out from the group. Victims stand out from the group, and thus the stronger this binding orientation, the more that people ought to blame the victim for the crime.

They tested this proposal in several studies.

In one study, for example, participants read vignettes about people who were the victim of the crime. Some vignettes were about sex crimes (like rape) and others were about other crimes (like robbery). The type of crime did not affect the overall pattern of results.

Participants filled out several inventories that assessed aspects of their outlook on life and society including their politics and relgiosity (which did not have  consistent effects on the results). They also took a moral foundations test that explore their focus on individuals (through the values of caring and fairness) and their binding orientation (through their focus on loyalty, authority, and purity).

The strength of people’s binding orientation affected their judgments of how responsible the victim was for the crime as well as how much the victim was to blame for the crime. 

Indeed, the effect of this binding orientation is stronger than other manipulations known to affect the degree to which people blame the victims. Previous studies show that when a crime description focuses on the actions of the victim before the crime people blame the victim more than when the descriptions focus on the actions of the perpetrator.  One study in this series measured these moral foundations and manipulated the description of the crime. 

As in previous studies, the victim was seen as more to blame for the crime when the description focused on the victim’s actions than on the perpetrator’s actions. The stronger someone’s binding orientation the more strongly they blamed the victim as well. This influence of orientation was actually stronger than the influence of the way the crime was described.

The studies in this paper suggest that people’s beliefs about the relationship between individuals and society affects the way they treat the victims of crime. When people believe that society should take care of individuals, then they focus on the needs of victims following a crime. When people believe that individuals should be loyal to society, then they blame victims for engaging in actions that cause violations of social norms.