Victim Blaming Explained

Victim blaming is common, and it can be harmful to both victims and society. Victims who are blamed for their experiences may be silenced and less likely to seek help and support in their recovery. Blaming also makes it harder to hold perpetrators accountable and encourages unhelpful feelings like shame for the victim.

One of the most common forms of victim blaming is asking what a victim could have done to prevent their attack or to stop the assault from happening in the first place. This can be seen in the way that people respond to news of a sexual assault or in how they talk to someone who tells them about their experience.

Those who are guilty of victim-blaming often do so without even realizing that they’re doing it. It is thought to be a natural human reaction to a situation that violates one’s sense of fairness, but it can lead to the wrong conclusions. A study published in 2016 found that people who have stronger “binding values,” which are a set of moral principles that help groups cohere, are more likely to see victims as being partially responsible for their own fates.

Another way that victim blaming manifests is by questioning whether a victim is actually a victim. This can come from friends and family members as well as strangers on social media. People who feel they have the right to judge others’ actions or beliefs are more likely to victim-blame, as are those who have a lower level of empathy for their fellow humans.

People who have a tendency to victim-blame often do so out of fear of having their own worldview unraveled by an event that doesn’t fit their expectations, explains Laura Niemi. She and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments to try to better understand this phenomenon, which they published in 2016. They found that people with higher levels of binding values tend to attribute greater blame to victims when the circumstances don’t align with their beliefs.

In their experiment, the researchers asked participants to watch a video of a woman being repeatedly shocked for a period of time. Some of the participants voted to compensate the victim by reversing the punishment and making her whole again, while others voted to continue punishing her. The result was that those who were more biased toward binding values rated the victim as being more responsible for the situation than those with less bias.

Another variable was whether the participant had experienced a similar situation directly or indirectly, and those who did experience it directly attributed more victim blaming than those who did not. The research also analyzed whether gender or cultural background played a role in the attribution of blame. Interestingly, women tended to blame the perpetrator more than men did, but they were no more likely to do so than those from the same gender as the perpetrator. However, when the researchers split the group in half and asked each person to choose which perpetrator they felt was more responsible for the situation, both men and women attributed the same amount of blame to the attacker who had physical contact with the victim, confirming the hypothesis that this is a significant factor.