The Psychology Behind Victim-Blaming
Sat, April 10, 2021

The Psychology Behind Victim-Blaming

Victim-blaming is one of the major reasons why victims tend to remain silent even if it means carrying the burden of the crime. It marginalizes them, making it harder for them to come forward and report the abuse / Photo by: dolgachov via 123RF

 

In 2017, Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman came forward and told her story of sexual abuse. Raisman stated that she was sexually abused by former US Gymnastics Larry Nassar. She brought her story to Twitter, emphasizing the need to “create change.” However, her gold-winning teammate Gabby Douglas blamed her instead. According to Douglas, women should dress modestly and be classy because wearing clothes in a provocative/sexual way would entice the wrong crowd.

This is just one of the stories showing how women are blamed every day for things they don’t want to happen such as sexual abuse or sexual harassment. Every day, society teaches women to dress, act, and behave in acceptable ways so they won’t provoke perpetrators. 

Victim-blaming comes in many forms, sometimes subtle. People tend to question the victims more than the suspects or perpetrators. While some don’t engage in victim-blaming explicitly, some question what a victim could have done differently to prevent a crime. 

Victim-blaming is one of the major reasons why victims tend to remain silent even if it means carrying the burden of the crime. It marginalizes them, making it harder for them to come forward and report the abuse. Most of the time, they don’t feel safe with coming forward because they are already anticipating the backlash. By blaming victims, perpetrators are only protected, leaving the victims abused. 

The Just-World Bias

The main explanation for victim-blaming is that people tend to think that victims deserve what happen to them. They believe that all victims deserve the outcomes and consequences, even if they never asked to be in that position. This is called the just-world bias. According to The Guardian, a daily British newspaper, the just-world bias happens because our brains crave predictability. Thus, we tend to blame victims of unfairness rather than reject the comforting worldview. This suggests that good will be rewarded and evil punished.

“There’s just this really powerful urge for people to want to think good things happen to good people and where the misperception comes in is that there’s this implied opposite: if something bad has happened to you, you must have done something bad to deserve that bad thing,” Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at Sewanee University, said. 

The just-world bias was first formulated by social psychologist Melvin Lerner in the early 1960s. He conducted a series of experiments to test this theory, documenting people’s eagerness to convince themselves that victims deserve their suffering and beneficiaries deserve their benefits. In his original experiments, he asked the participating women to observe a person receiving painful electric shocks. After that, observers were asked to describe how they felt about the victim. In one group, observers repeatedly derogated the victim. On the other hand, another group did not engage in victim-blaming but insisted that the victim was not seriously harmed. 

The main explanation for victim-blaming is that people tend to think that victims deserve what happen to them. They believe that all victims deserve the outcomes and consequences, even if they never asked to be in that position / Photo by: Aleksandr Davydov via 123RF

 

According to Lerner, the results of the experiment showed that the situation violated the observers’ sense of the world as just after seeing innocent people get hurt with no resolution. Thus, they tend to think that the victim was deserving of her fate to reduce the threat they are feeling. In the next experiments, they found that the more “innocent” the experimenters made the victim seem in an unresolved situation, the more they were devalued. 

Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, a psychologist from the University of Massachusetts, stated that humans rely so much on our “positive assumptive worldview” – that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad ones. It has come to a point that we justify wrongful deeds under the guise of righteousness. Humans continue to believe that we are good despite the severity of the deed or crime. 

Barbara Gilin, a professor of social work at Widener University, added that many people resort to victim-blaming as a defense mechanism in the face of bad news. They want to feel like they are still in control of their lives. According to The Atlantic, an American magazine and multi-platform publisher, these people believe that victims could have done something to prevent terrible things from happening to them. They find it hard to accept that the victims of crimes didn’t contribute to their own victimization.

“In my experience, having worked with a lot of victims and people around them, people blame victims so that they can continue to feel safe themselves. I think it helps them feel like bad things will never happen to them. They can continue to feel safe. Surely, there was some reason that the neighbor’s child was assaulted, and that will never happen to their child because that other parent must have been doing something wrong,” Gilin explained. 

The Danger of Victim-Blaming

The just-world bias makes us believe that the world is fair and victims deserve what happen to them. However, this not only impacts the victims and society but also themselves. According to VeryWell Mind, a trusted and compassionate online resource that provides guidance for mental health, this protects people’s illusion that such terrible things could never happen to them.

Also, victim-blaming creates a cycle where victims remain silent while perpetrators are free from accountability. It fuels thinking that crimes are acceptable and criminals won’t change their behavior. People must realize that victim-blaming will do more harm than good in the long run.