The Psychology of Victim Blaming

When people want to believe that the world is just, and that bad things won’t happen to them, empathy can suffer.

Dandy PickPockets Diving: Scene Near St. James Palace
Dandy PickPockets Diving: Scene Near St. James Palace (Isaac Robert Cruikshank / Lewis Walpole Library / Wikimedia)

In August, the comedian and former Inside Amy Schumer writer Kurt Metzger reignited a national conversation about victim blaming when he posted a series of rants on social media criticizing the ways women report being the victim of a crime and the effects of those reports on the accused. After the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York banned a performer in the wake of several women accusing him of sexual assault and abuse, Metzger took to Facebook.

“I know because women said it and that’s all I need! Never you mind who they are. They are women! ALL women are as reliable as my bible! A book that, much like a women, is incapable of lying!” Metzger wrote in a now-deleted Facebook post. He went on to seemingly criticize women for not going to the police, adding “If we ask them to even merely also post a vague account of what happened before asking us to believe that would like re-raping their rape!”

Metzger’s former boss and outspoken feminist Amy Schumer, was inevitably drawn into the storm of commentary and discussion that followed. Schumer publicly denounced Metzger’s comments, tweeting, “I am so saddened and disappointed in Kurt Metzger. He is my friend and a great writer and I couldn’t be more against his recent actions.”

Victim blaming comes in many forms, and is oftentimes subtler and more unconscious than Metzger’s tirade. It can apply to cases of rape and sexual assault, but also to more mundane crimes, like a person who gets pickpocketed and is then chided for his decision to carry his wallet in his back pocket. Any time someone defaults to questioning what a victim could have done differently to prevent a crime, he or she is participating, to some degree, in the culture of victim blaming.

While victim blaming isn’t entirely universal (some individuals’ experiences, background, and culture make them significantly less likely to victim blame), in some ways, it is a natural psychological reaction to crime. Not everyone who engages in victim blaming explicitly accuses someone of failing to prevent what happened to them. In fact, in its more understated forms, people may not always realize that they’re doing it. Something as simple as hearing about a crime and thinking you would have been more careful had you been in the victim’s shoes is a mild form of victim blaming.

“I think the biggest factor that promotes victim blaming is something called the just-world hypothesis,” says Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at the University of the South and the founding editor of the APA’s Psychology of Violence journal. “It’s this idea that people deserve what happens to them. There’s just a really strong need to believe that we all deserve our outcomes and consequences.”

Hamby explains that this desire to see the world as just and fair may be even stronger among Americans, who are raised in a culture that promotes the American Dream and the idea that we all control our own destinies.

“In other cultures, where sometimes because of war or poverty or maybe sometimes even just because of a strong thread of fatalism in the culture, it’s a lot better recognized that sometimes bad things happen to good people,” she says. “But as a general rule, Americans have a hard time with the idea that bad things happen to good people.”

Holding victims responsible for their misfortune is partially a way to avoid admitting that something just as unthinkable could happen to you—even if you do everything “right.”

While victim blaming often brings to mind crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence, it occurs across the board, explains Barbara Gilin, a professor of social work at Widener University. Murders, burglaries, abductions—whatever the crime, many people tend to default to victim-blaming thoughts and behaviors as a defense mechanism in the face of bad news. Gilin notes that, while people tend to be able to accept natural disasters as unavoidable, many feel that they have a little more control over whether they become victims of crimes, that they can take precautions that will protect them. Therefore, some people have a harder time accepting that the victims of these crimes didn’t contribute to (and bear some responsibility for) 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,” Gilin explains. “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.”

Hamby adds that even the most well-intentioned people sometimes contribute to victim blaming, such as therapists who work in prevention programs where women are given recommendations about how to be careful and avoid becoming the victim of a crime.

“The absolute safest thing to do would be to never leave your house, because then you’d be much less likely to get victimized,” she says. “I don’t think people have done a very good job of thinking that through and trying to say what the limits of people’s responsibility are for avoiding crime.”

Laura Niemi, a postdoctoral associate in psychology at Harvard University, and Liane Young, a professor of psychology at Boston College, have been conducting research that they hope will address the phenomenon of victim blaming head-on. This summer, they published their findings in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Their research, which involved 994 participants and four separate studies, led to several significant findings. First, they noted that moral values play a large role in determining the likelihood that someone will engage in victim-blaming behaviors, such as rating the victim as “contaminated” rather than “injured,” and thus stigmatizing that person more for having been the victim of a crime. Niemi and Young identified two primary sets of moral values: binding values and individualizing values. While everyone has a mix of the two, people who exhibit stronger binding values tend to favor protecting a group or the interests of a team as a whole, whereas people who exhibit stronger individualizing values are more focused on fairness and preventing harm to an individual.

Niemi explains that a higher endorsement of binding values reliably predicted stigmatizing attitudes about victims—in the context of both sexual and nonsexual crimes. People who favored binding values were more likely to see victims as blameworthy, while people who favored individualizing values were more likely to be sympathetic to victims.

In another study, Niemi and Young presented participants with vignettes that described hypothetical crimes, such as: “Lisa was approached by Dan at a party. Dan gave Lisa a drink spiked with Rohypnol. Later that night, Lisa was assaulted by Dan.” Participants were then asked what could have changed about the events to achieve a different outcome.

Unsurprisingly, participants who exhibited stronger binding values were more likely to assign responsibility for the crime to the victim or suggest actions the victim could have taken to change the outcome. People who exhibited stronger individualizing values tended to do the opposite. But when the researchers manipulated the language of the vignettes, they found something interesting.

Niemi and Young manipulated the sentence structure in the vignettes, changing who was the subject of the majority of sentences, the victim or the perpetrator. Some groups were given vignettes with the victim in the subject position (e.g., “Lisa was approached by Dan”) and others were given vignettes with the perpetrator in the subject position (e.g., “Dan approached Lisa”).

When the perpetrator was the subject of the sentence, participants’ “ratings of victim blame and victim responsibility went down significantly,” Niemi says. “And when we asked them explicitly how could this outcome have been different and then we just gave them an empty text box and they could fill in whatever they wanted, their actual references to victim’s actions—things like, ‘Oh, she could have called a cab’—they decreased. So they actually had a harder time coming up with things that victims could have done and were focusing less on the victim’s behavior in general. That suggests that how we present these cases in text can change how people think about victims.”

While Gilin notes that people are more likely to be sympathetic to victims that they know well, reading about crimes reported in the media can sometimes increase a tendency for victim blaming. The victims people read about in the media are usually strangers to them, and those stories can trigger that cognitive dissonance between the ingrained belief in a just world and clear evidence that life is not always fair. What’s more, if the coverage focuses on the victim’s experience and story—even in a sympathetic way—Niemi and Young’s research suggests it might increase the likelihood of victim blaming. Stories that focus on the perpetrator of the crime, however, could be less likely to provoke that reaction.

“It’s an interesting finding because it does suggest that we want to be sympathetic and focus on victims and outpour our sympathy, but perhaps that might actually lead us to focus so much on victims and what they could have done that we actually neglect to focus on the agency of perpetrators [and what they] potentially could have done differently,” Niemi says.

At its core, victim blaming could stem from a combination of failure to empathize with victims and a fear reaction triggered by the human drive for self-preservation. That fear reaction, in particular, can be a difficult one for some people to control. Retraining this instinct is possible—it just isn’t easy. Hamby and Gilin both emphasize the importance of empathy training and openness to seeing (or at least trying to see) the world from perspectives other than one’s own, which helps people avoid falling into the trap of speculating about what a victim could have done differently to avoid the crime.

“Just because, in hindsight, you can go back and say, ‘Well, you know, that person was clearly the person you should have avoided,’ that’s not the same as being able to say that any reasonable person should have been able to foresee that at the time,” Hamby says.

Niemi suggests that getting to the root of the problem might involve reframing the way we think about perpetrators as well as victims, particularly in cases of rape.

“One thing that might be problematic is the mythologizing of rape and how it’s made to be so that no normal person could be perceived as being a rapist,” she explains. “When it occurs, it’s so horrifying that people can’t conceive that their own brother or person that they know could be a rapist.”

Niemi explains that it can be hard, especially for the loved ones of perpetrators, to reconcile the fact that someone they know so well and see as such a good person could commit a crime that they see as monstrous. In some cases, this might lead to over-empathizing with perpetrators and focusing on their other achievements or attributes, as with coverage of the Stanford rape case in which Brock Turner was sometimes described as star swimmer instead of as an accused rapist. This is another kind of defense mechanism, one that leads those close to perpetrators to either deny or diminish their crime in order to avoid dealing with the difficult cognitive process of accepting that they were capable of such a thing.

No matter what we want to believe, the world is not a just place. And it takes some difficult cognitive work to accept both that bad things sometimes happen to good people, and that seemingly normal people sometimes do bad things.