Why Do People Participate in Victim Blaming?

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Ann-Marie Duncan

The recent #MeToo movement brought a lot of hidden victims of sexual abuse or sexual harassment to the forefront. Regardless of your gender, you may have had a discussion with someone about whether they’ve been a victim of sexual or physical abuse or harassment. You may have also been surprised to learn how many people are actually victims of abuse at some point in their lives. Besides the fact that such a horrible situation even occurred, many victims of abuse find that someone, somewhere along the line, blamed them in some fashion for causing the abuse to happen or at least contributing to it.

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If you’ve ever been a victim of any kind, you most likely felt a pang of hurt when people blame the victim by asking questions like:

  • 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?

Not to minimize the importance of doing what you can to remain safe, it’s important to realize that being made a victim is never your fault. Blaming the victim can be an incredibly hurtful thing. It doesn’t serve anyone well.

The #MeToo movement shines a spotlight on the rampant issue of victim-blaming.

Why Do People Blame Victims?

Let’s make a comparison to a different common type of tragedy. If you’re driving your car and someone hits your car, it’s an accident. We tend to view such a situation at face value. It’s fairly rare for someone to blame the victim of a car accident. It would be uncommon for someone to engage in victim-blaming by asking them why they were driving down that road, or why they were going so fast, or why they didn’t just get out of the way.

If you think about it, you may have unintentionally engaged in victim-blaming without realizing it. Let’s say that your spouse left their wallet on the front seat of the car and went into a retail store. They came out to find that the wallet had been stolen. Were you tempted to say, “Why in the world would you leave your wallet on the front seat in full view of a thief?” Maybe you weren’t so nice about it, and said something like, “What the heck were you thinking?” That type of situation can happen to anyone with a lot on their mind. When someone uses those types of phrases, they’re blaming the victim.

In the gravity of events, common situations like car accidents and minor theft aren’t comparable at all to the trauma that a victim of abuse goes through where there is emotional distress for the long-term.

It’s fair to say that many people just talk without thinking. If they hold the view that a certain person always causes their own problems, it doesn’t feel like a victim blaming them, so they feel like it doesn’t count. The reality is that it always hurts when you blame the victim.

When someone is victim blaming, it makes the victim feel inept because it minimizes a criminal act. Because it makes them feel inferior, they may be less likely to come forward and report the incident to the police. If we can better understand the reasons that people participate in victim-blaming in the first place, we’ve taken the first steps to start preventing it.

A Positive Assumptive Worldview and Victim Blaming

Often, when people engage in victim-blaming, it stems from a sense of feeling mean or superior. Sometimes it also comes from ignorance which just means that they don’t know any better.

Some researchers believe in a theory called the “positive assumptive world view” which basically means 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.

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If you spend any time watching or listening to the news reports, you’re bound to hear about a lot of crime—murders, burglaries, rapes, stalking incidents and things like that. Without a positive worldview, most people would be afraid to leave the house because any of those things, or worse, could happen to us. Some researchers believe that it’s this positive worldview that causes us to blame the victim. Essentially, they’re claiming that victim-blaming helps us believe that things aren’t so bad.

Much of the work of psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, from the University of Massachusetts, has done studies on victims of trauma, is based on the 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 part of us believes that when something bad happens, a good person must have in some way caused it, which is victim-blaming. You may have heard the expressions “karma” or “What goes around, comes around.”

If we believed that every time we leave our home, we’re going to be robbed at gunpoint, it would be difficult to function or be happy. Our brains try to compensate for this by helping us maintain the belief that bad things happen to people that deserve them. This view helps us to justify victim-blaming in our minds.

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 ensued, all participants empathized with the victim 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 victim with shocks instead of rewarding them with money when they got answers correct. The second group of participants wasn’t given the same opportunity. They just had to watch the victims get shocked.

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When the experiment was over, the participants gave their opinions of the victim. Participants that could vote to stop the shocks didn’t blame the victim but saw them as good people. Participants that were helpless to stop the shocks engaged in victim-blaming. They felt the victim got what they deserved and were quick to blame the victim. If they could blame the victim by determining that he or she deserved the shocks, it meant the world was still fair.

The results of this experiment provided evidence for why we tend to blame the victim. Our mental decision to blame the victim is automatic and it’s designed to help us protect ourselves. Victim blaming allows us to see the world as good and just and it reassures us that we’re safe. This is somewhat of a flawed reality in that when we blame the victim, it sacrifices their well-being for ours. 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 victim.

In another study by college students, where they measured levels of empathy for survivors of rape, the results demonstrated that those who had higher levels of empathy were more likely to view rape victims through a positive lens. Those who had less empathy viewed survivors more negatively.

It’s only by challenging our own motives and mindsets that we’ll be able to see past the positive assumptive world view and to stop placing blame in the wrong places. Most of us don’t want to re-traumatize someone that’s been through unfortunate circumstances any more than we want to be blamed ourselves for circumstances beyond our control. We certainly don’t want perpetrators to not be held responsible, even solely through our own mental exercises. Something that we can all do is to work on having a world view that focuses more heavily on empathy. We need to remember that things can look so much different when the shoe is on the other foot.

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If you’ve been a victim of a tragedy and you feel like everyone around you is blaming you for the incident, you may need some professional help in dealing with it. It’s also possible that your friends and family are actually being supportive, and it only feels like they’re not being supportive to you. Either way, you might find that some online therapy sessions, like those available at BetterHelp, can help you gain the proper perspective and make sense of it all. You have nothing to lose and you’ll benefit by feeling better.


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