Victim blaming is the act of attributing fault, in whole or in part, to a person or group damaged by a social or physical context or situation. It can include those hurt in an accident; victims of crime, mental illness, poverty, or nonfunctional education; and those with “undesirable” physical or cognitive characteristics. Victim blaming can be an inherent side effect of societal and professional remediation, treatment, or both. The act of blaming the victim rests on the belief that individuals are at least partially responsible for safeguarding themselves against foreseeable threats and dangers; therefore, from this perspective, individuals who fail to protect themselves are at least partly responsible for their status.
This premise operates as the basis for many social attitudes, practices, and policies regarding culpability in several spheres. For instance, home buyers are expected to inspect prospective properties for structural damages and weaknesses before finalizing purchases. If a home buyer fails to do so, such an individual must bear some responsibility for any problems with the house predating its purchase. Another example, in the case of natural disaster, is victims who failed to avoid a foreseeable catastrophe. This is also exemplified in cases of critique targeting refugees who are displaced by war and civil unrest yet had refused to abandon their homes in earlier periods of convenience or peace. More generally, it is the act of attributing culpability to individuals who suffer in a variety of contexts. Further, this process may be exacerbated by ameliorative or rehabilitative interventions. This act of attributing fault to victims because of perceived negligence or lack of vigilance against preventable damages is derogatorily referred to as “blaming the victim,” especially when organizations are attempting to “help.”
William Ryan coined the phrase “blaming the victim” in a 1971 book with that title in a criticism of The Negro Family: The Case for National Action by Daniel Moynihan. The so-called Moynihan Report attributed the social conditions and problems of black Americans to poor family structure and the overdependence of blacks on formal social systems, the latter of which Moynihan traced back to slavery. Ryan explained that in the context of the Moynihan Report, which was written by a liberal ideologue, blaming the victim is an ideological process that excuses or even justifies injustices and inequities by focusing on the imperfection of the victim. Blaming the victim then ultimately serves the group interests of those who practice it by displacing culpability for social problems from themselves and allowing the practitioner to enjoy the privileges resulting from sustaining the status quo.
Victim blaming has also received considerable attention from the social psychology field. In the 1972 work Causal Schemata and the Attribution Process, H. H. Kelley supposed that individuals can make one of two causal attributions for a person’s behavior or circumstance. Individuals can identify personal characteristics as causes for negative outcomes, or they can attribute their conditions to environmental or situational factors. People tend to make external attributions when referring to their own failures or misfortunes yet make internal attributions when referring to their accomplishments or good fortunes. The tendency is the opposite when referring to the successes or failures of others. Victim blaming is therefore a fundamental attribution error, meaning individuals overemphasize personal characteristics and de-emphasize environmental factors in making judgments of others.
Theoreticians later proposed that the tendency to make this error is greater for individuals who strongly believe in a “just world.” In a classic just-world experiment, a woman was supposedly subjected to electric shocks while working on a memory problem while participants observed her performance. Observers rated the woman’s character more negatively than did observers who had not witnessed the experiment. Such individuals are thus inclined to believe good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people; therefore, when others find themselves in a bad predicament, more than likely it is through some fault of their own. Another explanation for attribution errors like victim blaming is that observers only have the victim as a point of reference and not the external forces that affect that victim. Therefore, they focus on the factors that they are aware of, such as character flaws, and not factors they are not privy to, for example, external systems and behaviors.
Researchers in the 1970s and 1980s studied the extent to which specific groups of people were believed to be responsible for social problems endemic to their group. Researchers found that most participants believed personal characteristics of impoverished individuals were greater factors in poverty than were societal attributes. Researchers later conducted a factor analysis of proposed internal and external attributes, deriving individualistic and structuralist scales that respectively blamed poverty on individual or societal characteristics. Similar findings were reported in 1989, suggesting that people were still more likely to choose individualistic attributes in explaining poverty. In a 1985 study of causal attributions regarding racial inequalities, researchers found results that were akin to the studies on perceived causes of poverty. Participants cited differences in levels of personal effort and values required for advancement in society as the root cause of economic and social disadvantages for minorities. In 1992, social scientists conducted a victim-blaming study regarding AIDS victims. Participants were more likely to attribute blame for the disease to individuals than to external factors. Victim blaming in cases of domestic violence and rape has also been extensively studied, with many researchers reporting that individuals with a “just-world” orientation believe victims provoke or somehow deserve an assault.
Victim blaming is contextual and moderated by several factors. Some theoreticians suggest that persons from individualistic cultures—that is, cultures that focus on individuals rather than groups—are more likely to blame the victim. Researchers have also found that moderating victim blaming is the level of tolerance for victim characteristics, social support, age, degree of one’s identification with the victim, and severity of harm to the victim. One may identify acts of victim blaming as society blaming, which is also an attribution error, in that individuals overemphasize external factors as the cause of their circumstances. Moreover, one may identify efforts to prevent social problems on behalf of individuals as victim focused rather than change focused on the part of society.
- Kelley, H. H. 1972. Causal Schemata and the Attribution Process. New York: General Learning Press.
- Ryan, William. 1976. Blaming the Victim. New York: Vintage Books.