Why Scapegoating Is Harmful

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Scapegoating is a tactic that may be used in various forms within relationships, family dynamics, and even political conflicts, whether intentionally or unintentionally. It's an act of redirecting the responsibility or blame for something to a person or group that isn't actually at fault, typically to deflect it from the actual person or party responsible. The negative effects of scapegoating can be significant, from damaging a person's self-esteem to harming relationships and causing prejudice within society or community.

Here, we’ll explore what scapegoating is and how it can be harmful.

Learn to identify and avoid scapegoating tactics

What is scapegoating?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), scapegoating can be defined as “the process of directing one’s anger, frustration, and aggression onto others and targeting them as the source of one’s problems and misfortunes”. It’s an often unconscious defense mechanism used to avoid blame or responsibility for one's actions or shortcomings and put them onto someone else. 

For instance, let's say parents picked up their children from school, drove home, and went inside without locking the car. Someone then steals their wallet out of the console because the car doors were unlocked. It would be scapegoating for the parents to blame the children for the theft, claiming that they distracted them and caused them to forget to lock the car.

History of scapegoating

In exploring the history and cultural interest surrounding scapegoating, one may come across the origins of the term, which is rooted in the ancient ritual of placing the sins of a community onto the head of a goat, known as the "goat's head," and sending it out into the wilderness. This practice involved two goats, one being sacrificed and the other being released. It's crucial to understand that scapegoating can take many forms and affect various groups, including white people and other racial or ethnic communities. Recognizing and addressing these behaviors is essential for promoting a more inclusive and empathetic society.

The concept of scapegoating was first named by French sociologist Émile Durkheim in 1897. Durkheim believed that scapegoating was a way for communities to cope with difficult or stressful situations, serving the social order by providing an outlet for tension. He believed that when people felt overwhelmed or helpless, they would blame someone on the outside to relieve their feelings.

Scapegoat theory

Gordon Allport expanded upon this idea in 1954, introducing the "scapegoat theory". According to this theory, scapegoating serves to avoid responsibility and accountability when faced with difficulty. 

In Allport's ABCs of Scapegoating, he describes the nature of scapegoating as a form of bullying that occurs in groups and society at large. Allport suggested that scapegoating could manifest in various forms, such as blaming a particular country, ethnic group, or participant of a specific community for problems that are actually caused by broader societal issues.

Narcissism and scapegoating

Scapegoating is a practice commonly employed by people who display traits of narcissism, often taking the form of bullying. In cases like these, the person may be even more aggressive about the behavior in an attempt to make the other person feel small or powerless. This reaction is typical because the narcissist’s self-esteem or self-image has been threatened by the consequences of their behavior, which can be triggering since research shows that low self-worth is common among people with narcissistic tendencies. As a result, the individual may lash out against another, seeking a scapegoat to bear the sins of their wrong actions.

Potential consequences of scapegoating

Scapegoating is a destructive behavior that can have long-term psychological effects on both parties involved. In the target of this behavior, feelings of worthlessness, guilt, isolation, and even conditions like depression and/or anxiety can arise. They may also begin to doubt themselves since the other person is typically denying their experiences, or making them feel as though they are not worth listening to.

The perpetrator of the scapegoating may also experience psychological distress due to their behavior. They may feel guilty or ashamed of their actions, which can lead to depression and/or anxiety. These feelings can also trigger a cycle of negative behaviors, further perpetuating the scapegoating.

A World Psychiatry study found that narcissistic traits significantly correlate with the denial of autonomy in romantic partners, which is typically not a healthy dynamic for any type of relationship.

Scapegoating is also common in families, where participants engage in conflict and assign blame to a chosen "goat." Over time, this repeated behavior can lead to trauma from emotional isolation and dangerous behaviors like self-harm. Later in life, it can manifest as a tendency to normalize dysfunction and having difficulty setting boundaries with others.

Tips for standing up to scapegoating

If you find yourself in a situation where someone is attempting to use scapegoating tactics, it’s usually most important to prioritize your mental health. If addressing the topic and stating your needs calmly doesn’t work, it may be worth considering whether the relationship is healthy for you to be in. If the person responds with anger or aggression, keep yourself safe.

Otherwise, there are some steps you can take to save yourself in the face of this type of behavior:

  • Speak up calmly and assertively: Effective communication can help you make your needs known constructively and respectfully. Since scapegoating is often a subconscious defense mechanism, the individual may not realize what happened. However, be aware that bringing it to their attention may be met with defensiveness instead of acceptance at first.
  • Practice self-compassion: Scapegoating behaviors can affect the way you view yourself and your worth. Research correlates the practice of self-compassion with emotional resilience. Practicing self-kindness can help you remind yourself that you’re valuable and worthy of love even when you’ve been the recipient of harmful and unfair behaviors.
  • Cultivate strong social support: Research has shown that having friends and loved ones you can lean on is associated with better-reported physical health and lower risks of certain mental and physical health problems. A trusted friend, for instance, may be able to offer the support you need to take action against this behavior and heal.

Learn to identify and avoid scapegoating tactics

Considering therapy to heal from scapegoating behaviors

As mentioned previously, scapegoating can negatively impact all parties. Whether you’re realizing you’ve engaged in this behavior or you’ve been on the receiving end of it, you may be feeling guilt, shame, experiencing low self-esteem, or having trouble making sense of the situation. If so, it may be helpful to seek the support of a therapist. They can offer you a safe space where you can evaluate your feelings about the situation and begin to heal.

Research suggests that various types of therapy can be effectively administered in person or online in many cases. If you'd feel more comfortable meeting with a mental health professional virtually than in an office, there are online therapy options available. 

A platform like BetterHelp, for instance, can match you with a licensed provider who suits your needs and preferences, and you can speak with them via phone, video call, and/or online chat. Regardless of the format you may choose, therapy is one option to consider if you’re looking to heal from the wilderness of scapegoating behaviors.

Takeaway

Scapegoating can be harmful behavior for everyone involved. If you’re having trouble dealing with instances of scapegoating, whether past or present, reaching out to a therapist for support may be helpful.
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