“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, like 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 non-sexual 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.