By Alicia DeVault, B.S., and Martha-Elin Blomquist, Ph.D.
Media coverage of recent events such as campus sexual assaults and officer-involved shootings brings to light a topic that is not often discussed: victim blaming. Victim blaming can be defined as holding the victim partially, or wholly, responsible for the crimes that have been committed against them. This is not restricted solely to acquaintances or close friends, and family, of the victim. Indeed, victim blaming can come from medical professionals, law enforcement, media, and society at large.
Victim blaming is a serious issue that can lead people to discredit victims of traumatic experiences. It is not unusual in rape cases to hear people express opinions that place blame primarily upon the victim due to clothing, inebriation, or other factors. With regard to officer-involved shootings, it is also not uncommon to hear sentiments detailing the past criminal history of the victim as a reason why the shooting occurred.
Victim Blaming and Just World Belief
Victim blaming has serious consequences and implications for how victims of traumatic events come forward to report their experiences. It has further implications for how the justice system handles such victims. If victim blaming is to end and victims of traumatic experiences are to feel comfortable coming forward with their stories, lay persons as well as professionals involved in the legal system first need to be aware of the ways in which social psychological factors are involved in victim blaming.
One such social psychological factor that can impact victim blaming is belief in a just world.
The basic premise of this belief is that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. In other words, people “get what they deserve.”
This belief offers many protective benefits. For instance, belief in a just world allows people to feel as if the world has order. It gives people confidence they will be treated fairly by others and not be the victim of disaster. In essence, belief in a just world indicates an obligation to behave fairly. By being a good person and behaving in a fair manner, only positive things will occur; being a bad person and behaving in an unfair manner ensures that negative things will occur.
Belief in a just world helps people interpret events of personal life in a meaningful way. If something negative happens, a person can say that it was because of a fault of their own (e.g., because of a moral failing) or it was deserved. In this vein, belief in a just world serves as a reference to judge and explain both the fate of others and our own. It further gives psychological comfort to people. Indeed, it provides a way of coping with an uncertain world and the ever present possibility that violence will occur.
People who have levels of belief in a just world have been found to admire fortunate people and derogate victims. People who are victimized are seen as morally lacking, whereas people who are successful are seen as virtuous. Derogating victims leads people to focus on the victim – rather than the perpetrators of crime and violence – and to find fault with his or her behavior. In rape cases, this could involve focusing on the way the person dressed or how much alcohol the person imbibed. In shooting cases, it could involve attention to the past criminal history or the appearance of the person (e.g., excessive tattoos). In both of these cases, concern with the victim’s so-called “faults” leads to conclusions that the individual is “moral lacking” and therefore does not deserve system responses that are supportive or impartial.
Problems with Belief in a Just World and Victim Blaming
Even though belief in a just world has positive benefits to those who hold the belief, it can be problematic in that it leads people to have biases that are factually and morally unsupportable. These biases prevent people from actually living according to other standards and values they hold (e.g., fairness, equal protection under the law, charity, justice and empathy). These biases may lead people, who are otherwise good-hearted, well-meaning and caring, to blame, rather than sympathize, with victims.
Blaming victims for what has happened to them can lead to victims feeling vilified and to perpetrators not being prosecuted for their crimes. Indeed, victim blaming can often prevent victims from seeking psychological help and reporting traumatic crimes to police. This, in turn, undermines the credibility and capacity of the court system both to achieve accurate fact-finding and render justice.
So What Do We Do?
We all have implicit biases. Recognizing them is the first step in combating them. When an individual recognizes that he or she has the thoughts or views described above in response to an incident of rape or police shooting, stop and reflect. Ask yourself the following questions: am I blaming the victim? Why do I think this way? What factual information do I have about the victim or perpetrator? What facts and actions are needed to promote justice, public safety, and fairness? What other beliefs and values could counteract biases about the victim?
In understanding that belief in a just world can result in victim blaming, the hope is that people can become more aware of their biases and cognitive processes. Encouraging the open and objective pursuit of justice regarding the victim and the accused perpetrator will help to fight against victim blaming and achieve a safer and fairer society.
The post was published in conjunction with the National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges.