December 8th, 2014
We all want to believe that we live in a just world, where everything happens for a reason. Because, to believe otherwise, it would mean that no matter how we behave, something terrible could happen to us and that idea makes us anxious.
However, unfortunately the reality is full of injustice, and we are constantly confronted with the misfortune of others. To maintain our believe that life is fair we may form truly unfair negative thoughts towards those who suffer.
This psychological phenomenon is called “blaming the victim,” and concerns the tendency to distort our explanations of others’s sorrow to make it seem that people deserve what happens to them. That’s not me you may think, but actually numerous studies have found evidence that we are sensitive to this way of thinking.
For example, in one experiment, college students evaluated another student’s character less positively if they believed she was going to suffer painful electric shocks as part of the experiment than if they believed she wasn’t going to suffer.
Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that victims of rape, robbery, terrorism, accidents, illnesses, poverty and social injustice often suffer twice. Once from the tragedy itself and again from the blame they receive from others. People may believe the victims must have done something to bring the misery on or that they failed to do something to prevent it from happening.
Due to the “blaming the victim” effect, some people still believe that if millions of Jews have been killed in the Holocaust they must, for some reason, have deserved it. Or they assume that if gay people suffer from discrimination and AIDS, homosexuality must be evil. But let’s face reality: people often suffer for no reason. Be aware of this bias, and how it can influence your perception of fairness.
Lerner MJ, & Simmons CH (1966). Observer’s reaction to the “innocent victim”: compassion or rejection? Journal of personality and social psychology, 4 (2), 203-10 PMID: 5969146
Lerner, M., & Miller, D. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin, 85 (5), 1030-1051 DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.85.5.1030