Why Do People Blame the Victim?

Blaming the victim
Alberto Ruggieri \ Illustration Works \ Getty Images

In 2003, a 14-year-old girl named Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah at knifepoint. She spent the next nine months held captive by her abductors, Brian Mitchell and Wanda Barzee. After her rescue and details of her time in captivity become public, many people wondered why she hadn't tried to escape or reveal her identity.

These types of questions, sadly, are not uncommon after people hear about a terrible event.

Why, after such a horrible crime, do so many people seem to "blame the victim" for their circumstances?

When news reports surfaced of a woman being raped, many questions center on what the victims was wearing or doing that might have "provoked" the attack. When people are mugged, others frequently wonder what victims were doing out so late at night or why they did not take extra measures to protect themselves from the crime.

So what is behind this tendency to blame the victim?

Our Attributions Contribute to Our Tendency to Victim-Blame

One psychological phenomenon that contributes to this tendency to lay the blame on the victim is known as the fundamental attribution error.

This bias involves attributing other people’s behaviors to internal, personal characteristics while ignoring external forces and variables that also might have played a role.

When a classmate flunks a test, for example, you probably attribute their behavior to a variety of internal characteristics.

You might believe that the other student didn’t study hard enough, isn’t smart enough, or is just plain lazy.

If you were to fail a test, however, what would you blame your poor performance on? In many cases, people blame their failings on external sources. You might protest that the room was too hot and you couldn’t concentrate, or that the teacher didn’t grade the test fairly or included too many trick questions.

Hindsight Is 20/20

Another issue that contributes to our tendency to blame the victim is known as the hindsight bias.

  • When we look at an event that happened in the past, we have a tendency to believe that we should have been able to see the signs and predict the outcome.
  • This hindsight makes it seem like the victims of a crime, accident, or another form of misfortune should have been able to predict and prevent whatever problem might have befallen them.

And this isn’t just something that happens when we are looking at things such as rape or assault. When someone becomes ill, people often seek to blame past behaviors for the person’s current state of health.

Cancer? “They should have stopped smoking.” Heart disease? “Well, I guess they should have exercised more.” Food poisoning? “Shouldn’t have eaten at that new restaurant.”

Life Isn’t Fair, But We Like to Believe It Is

Our tendency to blame the victim also stems in part from our need to believe that the world is a fair and just place. When something bad happens to another person, we often believe that they must have done something to deserve such a fate.

Social psychologists refer to this tendency as the just-world phenomenon.

Why do we feel this need to believe that the world is just and that people get what they deserve?

Because if we think that the world is not fair, then it becomes more apparent that anyone can fall victim to tragedy. Yes, even you, your friends, your family, and your other loved ones. No matter how cautious and conscientious you might be, bad things can and do happen to good people.

But by believing that the world is fair, by believing that people deserve what they get, and by blaming the victim, people are able to protect their illusion that such terrible things could never happen to them.

But bad things can and probably will happen to you at some point in your life. So the next time you find yourself wondering what someone else did to bring on their misfortune, take a moment to consider the psychological attributions and biases that affect your judgment. Rather than blame the victim, try putting yourself in that person’s shoes and perhaps try a little empathy instead.

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