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The psychology of victim-blaming:Why people want to believe that bad things won’t happen to good people

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The culture of victim-blaming is widely spread and it can be observed when someone defaults to questioning what a victim could have done differently to prevent a crime.

Victim-blaming comes in many forms, and is oftentimes more subtle. This can apply to cases of rape and sexual assault, but also to a person who gets pick pocketed and is then chided for his decision to carry the wallet in his back pocket.

In some ways, victim-blaming is a natural psychological reaction to crime, as not everyone who engages in victim-blaming explicitly accuses someone of failing to prevent what happened to them. In fact, people may not always realize 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, The Atlantic reports.

“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,” says Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at the University of the South and founding editor of the APA’s Psychology of Violence journal.

According to Hamby, 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 idea that everyone controls his own destiny.

“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.”

“People blame victims so that they can continue to feel safe themselves”

Barbara Gilin, a professor of social work at Widener University, says that, whatever the crime, many people tend to default to victim-blaming thoughts and behaviors as a defense mechanism in the face of bad news. Thus, 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.

Therefore, some 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.”

In addition, Hamby says 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.

People are more likely to be sympathetic to victims they know

Still, Gilin says that, while reading about crimes reported in the media can sometimes increase a tendency for victim-blaming, people are more likely to be sympathetic to victims that they know well. But, Laura Niemi, a postdoctoral associate in psychology at Harvard University, and Liane Young, a professor of psychology at Boston College, have been conducting research which shows that if the coverage focuses on the victim’s experience and story—even in a sympathetic way— it might increase the likelihood of victim-blaming, while stories that focus on the perpetrator of the crime could be less likely to provoke that reaction.

“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.

On the other hand, Niemi says that 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.”

According to Niemi, although it can be hard, especially for the loved ones of perpetrators, to accept the fact that someone they know so well could commit a crime that they see as monstrous, sometimes this might lead to over-empathizing with perpetrators and focusing on their other achievements or attributes.

This is also a defense mechanism, one that leads those close to perpetrators to either deny or diminish their crime in order to avoid accepting that they were capable of such a thing.

John Michaelle