In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is victim blaming.
Victim blaming involves placing the responsibility for a violent or otherwise harmful act either entirely or partially on the victim of that act. It arises from distorted beliefs regarding victims, perpetrators, and the harmful acts themselves. Victim blaming acts as a major deterrent to reporting of both crimes and other problem behaviours like bullying.
The just world fallacy is a type of cognitive bias that makes us think that the world is a fair place, and good things happen to people who do good things while bad things happen to people who do bad things. That’s not the way the world works at all; however, people can use that belief to convince themselves that they’re safe from things that happen to “bad people.” To admit that a “good person” could be a victim goes against the just world fallacy; in turn, this would suggest that harm could come to any “good person,” which isn’t fun to accept. If, however, the victim is supposedly doing something “wrong,” then the just world fallacy bubble remains intact.
Homophobia can feed into victim-blaming when the victim of an assault is homosexual. Similarly, racism can lead to increased victim-blaming.
According to the defensive attribution hypothesis, victim-blaming is less likely the more similar the observer is to the victim. In this situation, the observer is more likely to identify with the victim.
Other types of attribution errors can also come into play. While often a mix of personal and situational/environmental factors might contribute to a situation, the factors to which we attribute the outcome depend on who’s involved and what the outcome is. When something bad happens to someone else, we tend to overestimate the role of personal factors/failings and underestimate the role of environmental factors. When something good happens to someone else, we tend to make the opposite attribution. That’s all flipped upside down when we evaluate good and bad things happening to ourselves.
Attribution errors can come from a couple of different angles. People may attribute blame to stable factors like gender or personality, or to changeable factors like behaviour. Blaming of male victims of sexual assault often relates to whether or not they fought back during the assault, as physical resistance fits with gender stereotypes. Observer-related factors matter too; overall, men are more likely than women to engage in victim blaming.
Blame may show up in the form of questioning rather than an outright statement of fault. People often ask victims of domestic abuse why they would remain in that situation. However, that ignores complex power dynamics and suggests that the victim chose to be abused. A victim’s sexual history also gets trotted out sometimes, as if somehow that somehow forces the perpetrator to assault them.
Victim blaming and “asking for it”
To some people, it may seem logical that a woman who’s drunk or wearing a short skirt is somehow “asking for it”; in reality, though, it’s absurd. To use an utterly ridiculous example, let’s say that my sexual kink is whacking men’s bums with a rubber chicken. Let’s also say that men wearing sunglasses are my biggest turn-on. Furthermore, let’s say I was to accost a man wearing sunglasses and get busy with my rubber chicken. Is there any chance that anyone would say that the rubber chickening is the man’s fault for wearing sunglasses, or that wearing sunglasses constituted implied consent? Is there anything at all that he could possibly do to make people conclude the rubber chickening was his fault? I highly doubt it.
If we don’t blame the victim in this albeit ridiculous scenario, why do people blame a woman for being sexually assaulted because she’s wearing a miniskirt? Even though one scenario is ridiculous and the other happens far too often, they are fundamentally the same. They’re both situations where responsibility for the perpetrator’s actions falls 100% on the perpetrator.
The cognitive biases that tend to underlie victim-blaming may be easy to fall into, but that’s no excuse for anyone not to check in with themselves and reflect on who it is that’s actually done something wrong.
- Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime (2009): Victim Blaming
- van der Bruggen, M. and Grubb, A.R. (2014) A review of the literature relating to rape victim blaming: An analysis of the impact of observer and victim characteristics on attribution of blame in rape cases. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 19(5): 523-531.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.