What Is… Victim Blaming

Victim blaming and cognitive biases: fundamental attribution error and just world fallacy

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.

Cognitive biases

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.

Attribution errors

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.


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

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 headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

32 thoughts on “What Is… Victim Blaming”

  1. Getting busy with the rubber chicken…….that was a delightfully funny example but hit the point home perfectly, love this post

  2. I wonder how much victim-blaming is due to prejudice and how much to ignorance? For example, when people say of an abused woman, “If she was abused so badly, why didn’t she leave him?” are they thinking that women generally lie about domestic violence, so this woman must be lying (prejudice) or do they genuinely not know the mind games and manipulation abusers use to stop their victim leaving them (ignorance)?

    1. I wonder. I’m sure there’s some people leaning in either direction, but I’m not sure which is predominant. My guess would be that more people are ignorant, to at least choosing to be ignorant.

  3. Secretum Hortus

    You know Ashley I read stuff like this, and because of the psychological abuse over the years, it is often hard to grasp and get my head around stuff like this.
    Some days I have no idea whether I’ve been or am a victim or not. That is how screwed I am.

    Because my perception of it all has been damaged, and I will often take the blame for stuff, even when the evidence has shown it’s not my fault. I believe I’m absolute poo anyway, so therefore I’m kinda already half way there. This means people can take advantage of that and have.

    There is often an associated term that comes from being a “victim” and that it denotes some kind of weakness. But being a victim is quite the opposite. Its takes more strength than anyone realises.

    Also as you say, people often put a victim nowadays with “playing the victim” also because they often are or can be the person out of control, and seem at least from an outsiders perspective to have lost it. And people can make quick judgements, without knowing all the facts. I have done so myself.

    Often a victim will go as far as to make excuses for the perpetrator’s actions because of such low self-esteem. And because they want to believe that the perpetrator didnt mean it or there is some good in them.
    They victim may well think they deserve to be treated like this because of their own self perception. For a perpetrator there is loads to take advantage of. This is why often (not always) victims will stay victims too .

    Lots of people over the years have said: “it’s not my fault” and reminded me of this and I have no idea what I’m even doing or behaving like for them to say that.

    Victim blaming is what people do when they cannot accept responsibility or the consequences of their own actions. If you can blame someone else, then that somehow makes it not the perpetrator’s fault at least in the perpetrator’s mind. And this type believe their own delusions and lies often.

    These people are often Narcissists/Sociopaths because they do not feel any remorse, guilt or blame. They will blame-shift and deflect.

    Their own narcissism protects them from accepting any kind of fault, because that would wound their ego, and cause shame which is a feeling that is absolutely anathema to them. It’s the equivalent of pouring lemon juice onto their core wound, and so they protect themselves from this with the above victim blaming.

    I’m not making excuses for them, because it is very wrong.

    I actually think I know more about the perpetrator’s thinking and ways than I do about myself lol!

    1. I think self-blaming by people who’ve been victimized is even more complex than when other people blame a victim. Part of the repertoire of people who perpetrate these kind of acts is making the victim feel like they’re responsible.
      I hate the idea of victim mentality that gets so commonly tossed around. If people choose not to take responsibility for their own choices that’s one thing, but people who have been victimized/targeted by others shouldn’t be invalidated for that.

      1. Secretum Hortus

        Agreed Ashley.

        Unfortunately the more clever or scheming the individual (perpetrator) is, the more they can manipulate a situation to their own advantage and even make it seem like it was and is all the victim’s fault.

        Sometimes because of the charm and more control the perpetrator may have, family, friends, acquaintances etc will believe and take sides with the perpetrator, not realising they have done so (like in my case for years), and the victim is left with nobody to turn to, because anyone they speak to now has a tarred picture that the perpetrator has now painted of them.

        Nobody knows what is going on behind closed doors and therefore the victim learns that their feelings do not matter, and do not even exist.
        They will not speak to anyone because of fear they will not be believed or victimized even further. (Again, this is what happened to me for years).

        Then when you finally get out of the control and manipulation of someone like that, you are so screwed up, and unstable, you are left not knowing what is bad and what is good, and all sorts. You literally have to start again!

        It is complex, disturbing and incredibly damaging.

        (Sorry not trying to make this about me, or apologise if it may come across like this, just explaining how it is with using my example if that makes sense).

      2. Secretum Hortus

        Hi Ashley, I don’t know if I got anything wrong or took anything out of context but if I have then I’m sorry.

        I keep noticing that I am over sharing and it feels at least to me that I’m making it about me, when it’s not. It’s totally not. And it doesn’t matter about what has happened to me, as it’s the past and should just stay there.

        To stop any attention at all coming onto me though through this over sharing I tend to do, I will cease from commenting on anybody’s blog from now on.

        But I truly want to thank you for being such a lovely, kind person.
        Take care and all the best with your blog xx

        1. Love you lots, and you’re always welcome to share in any way you feel comfortable on your blog. And you didn’t get anything wrong or take anything out of context that I’m aware of.

  4. Thanks for the mention Ashley 🙂 and thank you so much for highlighting the ‘victim-blaming’, what it is, what it does and who by. A very much needed, insightful and thought-provoking post.

  5. Wonderful post ❤️

    I like the examples too (humorous or not) that analogize a man “asking for a robbery” when he goes to report that a thief stole his wallet.

  6. Thank you for writing this. I have had so much victim blaming thrown my way these past two years. Even my dr asked me how I found myself in that situation? Looking back now I’m strong enough to say well actually, I wasn’t doing anything I hadn’t done a million times before. So instead of asking me how I found myself there how about asking why the perpetrator found himself in a position to touch me? It’s a massive problem and so often stops people speaking out. Xx

      1. I think also as I wrote in a post a few months back now, it’s easier for society to blame the victim, because it’s an easier concept to swallow than admitting that people out there can just switch and are actually capable of such awful things x

  7. “We don’t need to teach girls (boys) how to defend themselves, rather we should teach boys (girls) not to rape (attack).
    Victims are so much braver and stronger than the attacker but are not widely praised for it, not supported. They can be looked at from a negative perspective. I’ve noticed that in children (when victims of abuse) too. (other matter but same principle).
    Where I live, I believe, that victim blaming is real, surely now our society is less open and not that tolerant anymore.
    For real, rape, even when convicted, is max 6 months in jail; there is no place in jail for that ‘short’ sentences. The math isn’t difficult on that one.
    I truly enrages me.

  8. Victim blaming gives the blamers a feeling of control rather than the inadequacy and pain. They can focus on blame…
    Love, light and glitter

  9. Thank u so so much for this. I was always blamed for my rape and I took so long to report it. I was sleeping and my cousin came in and rape me. How the hell was that my fault!?

  10. Pingback: Resistance: The Therapist’s Responsibility | Creative Living Alliance

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