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Victim-Blaming Biases

1 February, 2016 - 16:52

We saw earlier how the fundamental attribution error, by causing us to place too much weight on the person and not enough on the situation, can lead to us to make attributions of blame toward others, even victims, for their behaviors. Another bias that increases the likelihood of victim-blaming is termed the just world hypothesis, which is a tendency to make attributions based on the belief that the world is fundamentally just. In other words, that the outcomes people experience are fair.

Lerner (1965), in a classic experimental study of these beliefs, instructed participants to watch two people working together on an anagrams task. They were informed that one of the workers was selected by chance to be paid a large amount of money, whereas the other was to get nothing. Participants also learned that both workers, though ignorant of their fate, had agreed to do their best. In addition, the attractiveness of the two workers was set up so that participants would perceive one as more attractive. Consistent with the idea of the just world hypothesis, once the outcome was known to the observers, they persuaded themselves that the person who had been awarded the money by chance had really earned it after all. Also, when the less attractive worker was selected for payment, the performance of the entire group was devalued.

As with many of the attributional biases that have been identified, there are some positive aspects to these beliefs when they are applied to ourselves. Fox, Elder, Gater, & Johnson (2010), for instance, found that stronger endorsement of just world beliefs in relation to the self was related to higher self-esteem. Intuitively this makes sense: if we believe that the world is fair, and will give us back what we put in, this can be uplifting. On the other hand, though, as in the Lerner (1965) study above, there can be a downside, too. If we believe that the world is fair, this can also lead to a belief that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. In other words, people get what they deserve. When people are in difficult positions, the just world hypothesis can cause others to make internal attributions about the causes of these difficulties and to end up blaming them for their problems (Rubin & Peplau, 1973). Consistent with this, Fox and colleagues found that greater agreement with just world beliefs about others was linked to harsher social attitudes and greater victim derogation.

The just world hypothesis is often at work when people react to news of a particular crime by blaming the victim, or when they apportion responsibility to members of marginalized groups, for instance, to those who are homeless, for the predicaments they face. Degree of endorsement of just world attributions also relates to more stigmatizing attitudes toward people who have mental illnesses (Rüsch, Todd, Bodenhausen, & Corrigan, 2010). These views, in turn, can act as a barrier to empathy and to an understanding of the social conditions that can create these challenges. Belief in a just world has also been shown to correlate with meritocratic attitudes, which assert that people achieve their social positions on the basis of merit alone. For example, people who endorse just world statements are also more likely to rate high-status individuals as more competent than low-status individuals. Such beliefs are in turn used by some individuals to justify and sustain inequality and oppression (Oldmeadow & Fiske, 2007). Here, then, we see important links between attributional biases held by individuals and the wider social inequities in their communities that these biases help to sustain.

Attributions that blame victims don’t only have the potential to help to reinforce people’s general sense that the world is a fair place, they also help them to feel more safe from being victimized themselves. If, according to the logic of the just world hypothesis, victims are bad people who get what they deserve, then those who see themselves as good people do not have to confront the threatening possibility that they, too, could be the victims of similar misfortunes. Accordingly, defensive attribution (e.g., Shaver, 1970) occurs when we make attributions which defend ourselves from the notion that we could be the victim of an unfortunate outcome, and often also that we could be held responsible as the victim. Put another way, people’s attributions about the victims are motivated by both harm avoidance (this is unlikely to happen to me) and blame avoidance (if it did happen to me, I would not be to blame). If we see ourselves as more similar to the victim, therefore, we are less likely to attribute the blame to them. If, on the other hand, we identify more with the perpetrator, then our attributions of responsibility to the victim will increase (Burger, 1981).

This pattern of attribution clearly has significant repercussions in legal contexts. For example, attributions about the victims of rape are related to the amount that people identify with the victim versus the perpetrator, which could have some interesting implications for jury selection procedures (Grubb & Harrower, 2009). Furthermore, men are less likely to make defensive attributions about the victims of sexual harassment than women, regardless of the gender of the victim and perpetrator (e.g., Smirles, 2004). Defensive attributions can also shape industrial disputes, for example, damages claims for work-related injuries. The victims of serious occupational accidents tend to attribute the accidents to external factors. In contrast, their coworkers and supervisors are more likely to attribute the accidents to internal factors in the victim (Salminen, 1992). Again, the role of responsibility attributions are clear here. It is in the victims’ interests to not be held accountable, just as it may well be for the colleagues or managers who might instead be in the firing line.

Key Takeaways

  • Our attributional skills are often “good enough” but not perfect. We often show biases and make errors in our attributions, although in general these biases are less evident in people from collectivistic versus individualistic cultures.
  • Sometimes, we put too much weight on internal factors, and not enough on situational factors, in explaining the behavior of others.
  • When we are the attributing causes to our own behaviors, we are more likely to use external attributions than when we are when explaining others’ behaviors, particularly if the behavior is undesirable.
  • We tend to make self-serving attributions that help to protect our self-esteem; for example, by making internal attributions when we succeed and external ones when we fail.
  • We also often show group-serving biases where we make more favorable attributions about our ingroups than our outgroups.
  • We sometimes show victim-blaming biases due to beliefs in a just world and a tendency to make defensive attributions.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Describe a situation where you or someone you know engaged in the fundamental attribution error. What internal causes did you attribute the other person’s behavior to? In hindsight, what external, situation causes were probably at work here?
  2. Outline a time that someone made the fundamental attribution error about one of your behaviors. How did you feel when they put your actions down to your personality, as opposed to the situation, and why?
  3. Think of an example when you attributed your own behavior to external factors, whereas you explained the same behavior in someone else as being due to their internal qualities? What were the reasons for you showing the actor-observer bias here?
  4. Identify some examples of self-serving and group-serving attributions that you have seen in the media recently. What sorts of behaviors were involved and why do you think the individuals involved made those attributions?
  5. Which groups in the communities that you live in do you think most often have victim-blaming attributions made about their behaviors and outcomes? What consequences do you think that these attributions have for those groups? How do you think the individual group members feel when others blame them for the challenges they are facing?


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