Cerebral Hacks


Why We Blame The Victim

October 24, 2012 by Libby Laubscher in Psychology with 0 Comments

Blaming the victim, if asked, is something that no reasonably politically correct individual would ever admit to.

But, both in experimental studies and in real life scenarios, it is a behavior, albeit a human transgression, that we repeat over and over. Whether it is the homeless man on the street, the employee who gets laid off, or the victim of abuse, if we are not the victim, what may start as pity, or even empathy, may soon dissolve into a rationalization that ends up as blaming the victim.

How can it be that those who get victimized first in a situational context end up becoming victimized thereafter by those within the environment?

There are several psychological concepts at work. While they may seemingly be detestable, (after all, no one would want to vocally blame the horrible consequences of human trafficking on women and children sold into the inhumane treatment), these thought-twisting paradigms serve a psychologically protective function that keeps us in the safe zone of ‘it could never happen to me.’

Belief In a Just World

The underlying cognitive principles of victim-blaming have been studied by cognitive and social psychologists in an attempt to uncover the mystery behind the thought transformation. Two of the constructs that describe the phenomenon are that of cognitive dissonance and ‘belief in a just world.’

Cognitive dissonance theorists study the nature of human thought when confronted with incongruous information.

At its most basic, cognitive dissonance theory states that when we are met with competing ideas, beliefs, desires, and needs, a motivational drive state propels us to seek resolution by either changing our cognitions, our behavior, or both. A reduction in tension is sought, and when we are not able to reduce that tension, we may go so far as to seek the reduction through escapism such as addictive behaviors.

“Belief in a just world” is the conceptualization of Melvin Lerner to explain his electroshock experiments conducted in the 1960s. In the experiments, subjects observing shocks given to an experimental research confederate were initially horrified for the recipient, but after being unable to intervene on the confederate’s behalf, soon began to criticize the confederate for being stupid and deserving of the mistreatment.

Lerner explained that when the conflicting stressors of mistreatment or injustice and the need to believe that the world is fair collide, the psyche, whether behaviorally or cognitively, will undergo a radical change in order to preserve the belief.

Consider, for example, “Lord of the Flies,” the socially charged fictional novel by Nobel-prize winning author William Golding, as a fantastic illustration of ‘belief in a just world.’ The societal order of boys abandoned on an island falls into disarray as leaders emerge with varying opinions of appropriate behavior.

When one boy is brutally attacked and slaughtered during a ritual dance, Piggy, the pragmatic advocate for rule and order states that it is the boy’s own fault for emerging from the woods during the dance. Piggy justified the unjustifiable behavior of the group he would need to continue to live with, rather than face the nonsensical brutality of the horrifying act.

Consider Stockholm syndrome, an example of cognitive dissonance. The term was coined by Nils Bejirot based on the behaviors of hostages held for five days during a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm Sweden. During the five days, hostages became sympathetic toward their attackers.

While living in such close quarters, they were helpless to change the situation in a safe way. In order to remain psychologically of sound mind, the hostages became unified with the attackers’ group. Rather than being unified with the police force outside the bank working on their behalf, they were swayed by the captors with whom they had to interact and coexist for the five day stretch.

The Mechanisms of Victim Blaming

So, when we consider these powerful psychological forces that unbeknownst to us, work in a survivalist manner to preserve our sanity and justify our behaviors, why would we have a need to blame the victim? Blaming the victim acts as a survival mechanism in more than one way.

In order to counteract these powerful emotional states, we use blaming the victim as a way to sooth our self-loathing and carry on.

First, we remove ourselves from the responsibility of having to intervene in the name of self-preservation, even though not intervening creates an anxious state. When we fail to act on the behalf of others due to fear or understanding of imminent danger, or when our intervention results in an undesirable outcome, guilt, and self-chastising result.

In order to counteract these powerful emotional states, we use blaming the victim as a way to sooth our self-loathing and carry on.

Second, we are a species of order and predictability. By blaming the victim, we are able to preserve the false sense of safety that we use as a cushion for the unpredictable nature of life. By saying, “If that woman was not on the road at two o’clock Saturday morning, she would not have been struck by the drunken driver and killed. After all, it’s only drunks who are on the road at that time on Saturdays.”

By blaming the victim, we divert the attention from the anxiety provoking issue of being on the road with people who are not in control of their vehicles to the idea that we are in control of making the decision to get in the car at 2 a.m.

We can immediately lessen the anxiety by choosing not to engage in the victim’s behavior, since we obviously can’t control whether other people are driving under the influence.

As we consider the reasons we blame the victim, perhaps we should also clearly define what a victim is. When a person suffers a tragic incident that is unforeseeable, particularly at the hands of another, it constitutes victimization.

When a person has no control, knowledge to suggest avoidance, or resources, it constitutes victimization. But when a person knowingly engages in behaviors that end in terrible consequences, victimization is not indicated. When a person makes a choice and disregards information and resources that would indicate a different path can be taken, it does not constitute victimization.

When a spouse is abused the first time, he or she is a victim. Any person sold into slavery or human trafficking is a victim. Those suffering from poverty in underdeveloped nations, lack of clean water, diseases with inadequate health care, or the ravages of war, are victims.

And do we blame them? Think about it. We do not.

But when a person makes a choice to remain within an environment where abuse has occurred, in a society that provides resources to help victims, we blame them. We may choose to say they are in the throes of a disease process, or battered woman’s syndrome, but it can be argued that they should no longer be classified as purely a victim.

When a young woman chooses to get so drunk she passes out at a fraternity house on a college campus and gets raped, yes, she is a victim. But the event, while inexcusable, is foreseeable and preventable. If a person develops lung cancer after forty years of smoking, are they a victim?

So before becoming disillusioned with humanity over the idea that our need to believe in the unwavering justice of the world trumps our sympathetic and empathetic humanistic qualities, maybe we should reconsider when we blame the victim.

If we take a closer look at Melvin Lerner’s electroshock therapy, maybe the “victim” really should be blamed for being stupid. After all, how long would you sit there getting shocked for answering questions wrong during an experiment before you decided the whole thing is absurd and you should get up and leave?

About Libby Laubscher

Libby Laubscher is an avid learner with interests in psychology, neurology, and individual evolution. She enjoys writing and finds her musings often to be filled with paradox. She loves puzzles and considers the mind to be the greatest puzzle of all.

View all posts by Libby Laubscher →

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