Today I Learned a little bit about the psychology of victim-blaming. This is an issue that I’ve thought about quite deeply, especially given that as a social work major in my undergrad, I had the privilege of studying the topic holistically and on an academic level. In some ways this article was a review of the theoretical concepts that I was taught, but also a reminder that these concepts don’t just exist in theory. The culture of victim-blaming is deeply embedded in society and its institutions, and manifests itself throughout our personal and political discourse. While the realist in me doesn’t believe that we can completely expurgate the practice of victim-blaming from society, I do believe that it is an imperative for us to be conscious of it. To acknowledge one’s own implicit biases is the first step toward undoing them.
There were five main points that I believe were the strongest takeaways from this article:
- Victim-blaming takes many forms, both subtle and overt, and most people have participated in it to a certain degree without realizing.
“Any time someone defaults to questioning what a victim could have done differently to prevent a crime, he or she is participating, to some degree, in the culture of victim-blaming.
Not everyone who engages in victim-blaming explicitly accuses someone of failing to prevent what happened to them. In fact, in its more understated forms, people may not always realize they’re doing it. Something as simple as hearing about a crime and thinking you would have been more careful had you been in the victim’s shoes is a mild form of victim-blaming.”
- The practice of victim-blaming may have a lot to do with what’s known as the “just world hypothesis,” which is the idea that the world is an inherently just place, and that whatever happens to us is a consequence of our own doing. This hypothesis tends to be a more pervasive mindset among Americans, given that Americans are inculcated with the mythology of “American Dream” as a Utopian ideal that anyone can attain:
“In other cultures, where sometimes because of war or poverty or maybe sometimes even just because of a strong thread of fatalism in the culture, it’s a lot better recognized that sometimes bad things happen to good people,” she says. “But as a general rule, Americans have a hard time with the idea that bad things happen to good people.”
- According to research done by two psychology scholars, Laura Niemi and Liana Young, a person’s moral and ethical values may be indicative of the degree to which they engage in victim-blaming. The two sets of values they defined were “binding values,” which focus more on preservation of the collective, and “individualizing values,” which focus more on preventing harm to the individual:
Their research, which involved 994 participants and four separate studies, led to several significant findings. First, they noted that moral values play a large role in determining the likelihood that someone will engage in victim-blaming behaviors, such as rating the victim as “contaminated” rather than “injured,” and thus stigmatizing that person more for having been the victim of a crime. Niemi and Young identified two primary sets of moral values: binding values and individualizing values. While everyone has a mix of the two, people who exhibit stronger binding values tend to favor protecting a group or the interests of a team as a whole, whereas people who exhibit stronger individualizing values are more focused on fairness and preventing harm to an individual.
Unsurprisingly, participants who exhibited stronger binding values were more likely to assign responsibility for the crime to the victim or suggest actions the victim could have taken to change the outcome. People who exhibited stronger individualizing values tended to do the opposite.
- Their research also indicated that the likelihood of blaming the victim may increase if the victim is presented as the subject of the sentence. There is a vast difference between saying “Mike was abusive to Lisa” and “Lisa was abused by Mike.” In the former, the perpetrator is the actor targeting the victim, making it clear who is responsible, whereas in the latter, the victim is targeted upon, leaving it open to the question of why. To me, this may be the most practical lesson to take away from the article, as it may very well affect how our listeners perceive us when we share stories involving a perpetrator and a victim:
Niemi and Young manipulated the sentence structure in the vignettes, changing who was the subject of the majority of sentences, the victim or the perpetrator. Some groups were given vignettes with the victim in the subject position (e.g. “Lisa was approached by Dan”) and others were given vignettes with the perpetrator in the subject position (e.g. “Dan approached Lisa”).
When the perpetrator was the subject of the sentence, participants’ “ratings of victim blame and victim responsibility went down significantly,” Niemi says. “And when we asked them explicitly how could this outcome have been different and then we just gave them an empty text box and they could fill in whatever they wanted, their actual references to victim’s actions—things like, ‘Oh, she could have called a cab’—they decreased. So they actually had a harder time coming up with things that victims could have done and were focusing less on the victim’s behavior in general. That suggests that how we present these cases in text can change how people think about victims.”
- The misguided premise that perpetrators must be abnormal or uniquely eccentric individuals makes it difficult to recognize their normalcy, and that they are everyday people just like us. Good people, even people we love, can do wrong, and it is important to refocus our cognitive framework to accept this is a reality, because it will bring us closer to undoing our own biases about how we perceive perpetrators and victims:
Niemi explains that it can be hard, especially for the loved ones of perpetrators, to reconcile the fact that someone they know so well and see as such a good person could commit a crime that they see as monstrous. In some cases, this might lead to over-empathizing with perpetrators and focusing on their other achievements or attributes, as with coverage of the Stanford rape case, in which Brock Turner was sometimes described as star swimmer instead of as an accused rapist. This is another kind of defense mechanism, one that leads those close to perpetrators to either deny or diminish their crime in order to avoid dealing with the difficult cognitive process of accepting that they were capable of such a thing.
No matter what we want to believe, the world is not a just place. And it takes some difficult cognitive work to accept both that bad things sometimes happen to good people, and that seemingly normal people sometimes do bad things.