Why Do People Participate in Victim Blaming?

Updated January 9, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual assault & violence which could potentially be triggering. If you or someone you know is or may be experiencing abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, available 24/7, at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. Live chat is also available on the National Domestic Violence Hotline website.

If you’ve ever experienced a traumatic event or know someone who has, you may have received hurtful comments or implications from others than suggest that you are to blame for your own pain. This phenomenon, known as victim blaming, is an unfortunately common response that often pops up in discussions of sexual assault, violence, and abuse. But where exactly does victim blaming come from, and what can you do to manage it?

Have You Experienced Victim Blaming?

What Does Victim Blaming Look Like?

Victim blaming typically involves placing the responsibility for a traumatic event on the individual who experienced it rather than the individual who perpetrated it. It bypasses holding the responsible party accountable by suggesting that their behavior was, at least to some extent, justifiable. Examples of statements that might fall under the umbrella of victim blaming include:

  • Why were you even in that area of town?

  • Why didn’t you scream?

  • Why didn’t you fight back harder?

  • Why did you dress so provocatively?

  • Why did you have so much to drink?

  • Were you being flirtatious?

  • Why didn’t you just walk away?

Many times, these sorts of statements or behaviors come from the misconception that people can do specific things to avoid being harmed by others. The desire to believe that other people aren’t capable of spontaneous harm or abuse can drive victim blaming. In reality, experiencing a traumatic event is never your fault. 

Victim blaming can be so harmful because it can invalidate the experiences of someone who has been hurt, excuse the inappropriate actions of others, and leave someone who has experienced trauma feeling alone and unsupported. 

Why Do People Blame Victims?

While victim blaming is a problematic behavior, understanding where it comes from may help feel more comfortable responding to it or help you avoid doing it yourself. 

In a lot of cases, it’s difficult to accept that someone we know or admire could be capable of harming others, especially in more severe situations like abuse or assault. Hearing information that seems to contradict our view of someone can make us feel defensive or even scared. As a result, finding another reason that a traumatic event has occurred–such as the person who has experienced it doing something to instigate it–can feel safer, easier, and less stressful.

But because victim blaming often is rooted in a person’s own sense of self and view of the world, it can be helpful to understand that it doesn’t reflect on your experiences or how “believable” you are. Victim blaming happens not because your story is not worth believing, but because it can be far easier for others to ignore something that shakes their world than to confront it head-on.

A Positive Assumptive Worldview And Victim Blaming

The psychology behind victim blaming isn’t always a conscious decision made by others. Some researchers believe in a theory called the “positive assumptive world view,” which posits that most people, or least most people that hold this worldview, tend to view the world as a positive place where bad things don’t just happen on their own.

The result of this perspective is, in many cases, equating tragedy with poor decisions and success with good ones. This sort of mindset assumes that personal responsibility is the ultimate decider of what happens to us, which can make us feel less empathetic toward others. It can serve as the foundation for an individual’s worldview, coloring many of their opinions and reactions without them even realizing it. 

How The Media Impacts Us

If you spend any time watching or listening to the news reports, you’re bound to hear about that can cause stress or fear. As a result, some researchers believe that many people develop a positive worldview almost as a defense mechanism. The chaos of the world may seem a little less overwhelming if we believe that only those who have invited chaos experience it. These beliefs can make us feel better in the moment and help us get through tough times, but they can also lead us to doubt the experiences of others who we aren’t close with or who we don’t view as trustworthy

Much of the work of psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, from the University of Massachusetts, is based on this positive assumptive worldview. Most of us were raised to believe that the world is a nice place. As we get older, we eventually figure out that bad things sometimes happen to nice people. That’s why some of us may believe that when something bad happens, a good person must have in some way caused it. 

How Our Brains Trick Us Into Victim Blaming

Psychologist and researcher Melvin Lerner did an experiment that sheds much light on the issue of victim-blaming.

In his experiment, Lerner and his colleague Carolyn Simmons asked a large sample of women to watch through a video monitor as another person received a series of electrical shocks. The women believed that the experiment had to do with human learning where the person on the screen received an electrical shock as a type of punishment for failing to remember words on a word-memorization exercise. The “victims” were actually actors that weren’t shocked at all. As the experiment began, all participants empathized with the person being shocked and didn’t engage in victim-blaming.

Then, the researchers changed it up a bit. They allowed some participants an opportunity to place a vote to stop punishing the subject with shocks instead of rewarding them with money when they got answers correct. The second group of participants wasn’t given the same opportunity.

Have You Experienced Victim Blaming?

When the experiment was over, the participants gave their opinions of the subject being shocked. Participants that could vote to stop the shocks didn’t blame the subject but saw them as good people. Participants that were helpless to stop the shocks engaged in victim-blaming. They felt the subject got what they deserved and were quick to blame hold them responsible for their situation. 

The results of this experiment provided evidence for why we may tend to blame the victim. Victim blaming, overall, allows us to see the world as good and just even when it isn’t. The truth is, though, that when we blame the victim, it usually sacrifices their well-being for our own. It shields us from viewing the perpetrators as the true criminals.

The Role Of Empathy And Victim Blaming

A couple of other studies have demonstrated how creating a sense of empathy can reduce someone’s desire to blame the victim. In research by research by David Aderman, Sharon Brehm, and Lawrence Katz, they repeated Lerner’s experiment, but they instructed the participants to imagine how they’d feel if they were about to be shocked. This slight change caused them to be more empathetic and they were less likely to blame the subject being shocked. 

It’s likely only by challenging our own motives and mindsets that we can more easily see past the positive assumptive worldview many of us hold and stop placing blame in the wrong places. Empathy and connection with others tend to be the best tools we have for overcoming barriers that separate us. Listening to the experiences of others and putting ourselves in their shoes can go a long way both in terms of validating experiences and minimizing victim blaming.

How To Manage Victim Blaming

If you’re on the receiving end of victim blaming, you may feel alone, frustrated, or even begin to question whether you are responsible for your experiences. Remember that victim blaming does not mean that you are responsible for a traumatic event; it’s not your fault that you’ve had the experience you’ve had. Understanding why victim blaming happens may help you internalize it less, but that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to handle. 

Working with a mental health professional can be a great way to get support, validation, and find a safe space to discuss what you’ve experienced without judgment. 

Online therapy can be just as effective as in-person therapy when it comes to managing mental health symptoms and the challenges that can accompany mental illness. One study found that online therapy may even be more effective than traditional options when it comes to treating symptoms of depression. No matter what you need help with, a licensed therapist can be an amazing resource, especially if it feels like the rest of the world isn’t on your side. 


Victim blaming is usually the result of a worldview that attempts to reckon with and rationalize things that are, simply put, not justifiable. The contradiction between what we want to be true and what is actually true can lead some people to feel defensive, leading to accusations, doubt, and placing responsibility on someone who has experienced trauma. Empathy and connection are likely our best tools against these tendencies, and a mental health professional can provide the support you may need to work past them yourself.

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