Understanding Victim Blaming
Whether it’s a three-year-old whining that their sibling got a better toy or an older adult criticizing someone for being the victim of a crime, human beings have a tendency to blame victims when a negative outcome occurs. This is known as victim blaming, and it’s an important part of our evolutionary history as social creatures.
People use victim blaming as a way to maintain their sense of the world being a just place. As Lerner and Simmons’ experiment demonstrates, when people see an innocent person get hurt — or even die — without resolution, it threatens their perception that the world is fair. In order to combat this threat, they may reframe the situation so that the victim deserves their fate.
For example, if a person loses their job, they may assume it’s their own fault because they should have applied for more jobs or worked harder. Or, if they are the victim of a sexual assault, they might be criticized for wearing provocative clothing or getting too drunk. This is called “the fundamental attribution error,” and it’s a natural psychological reaction to crimes that focuses on internal, personal traits instead of external factors like location, time of day or cultural norms.
Research has shown that it’s possible to minimize victim blaming by empathizing with victims and focusing on the actions of perpetrators. In one study, researchers asked people to read stories about a robbery or a rape and then rate how much they blamed the victim. When the story focused on the perpetrator, people tended to blame them less (Niedermeier & Young, 2017). This finding is also consistent with the theory that binding values play a role in victim blaming — i.e., what you believe about the world and how it works shapes your empathy towards others.
Victim blaming has been tied to feelings of shame and stigma experienced by survivors. This makes it harder for them to seek help and support after a traumatic event and can increase their risk of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. It can also make it harder for them to report an attack or crime.
In addition, victim blaming can contribute to what is often described as a rape culture where perpetrators are celebrated and defended. This is largely due to the pervasiveness of victim blaming, which can lead to a lack of faith in law enforcement and other authorities who have the power to hold offenders accountable. This can also discourage survivors from coming forward for fear of being abused again or dismissed by their community or employer. This is why it’s so crucial to support victims and speak up against victim blaming.