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Why Do We All Blame the Victim?

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Generally, most outcomes are a combination of personal decision and outside forces. For example, Wanda chooses to build her house on the coast + a hurricane comes through = Wanda loses her home. Since natural disasters are endemic in most areas, it’s hard to avoid this outcome, but where someone builds their home is still a choice.  However, we often importance of personal responsibility and outside factors depending on whose tragedy it is.

In a previous post I described why all trauma symptoms are the result of the mind’s self-protection. So is the typical gut reaction to an acute tragedy like Jonestown, or even chronic problems like substance abuse or homelessness. When we hear about people in other undesirable circumstances: rape victims, miscarriage, child with autism, etc, it’s self-protective to blame the victim. Think about ways that we have historically blamed survivors (usually women) of the problems I listed above. Why? Because we need to believe that if we choose right action, we will be safe.  And if we accept that sometimes bad things just happen to good people, then we have to accept that these things can happen to us.

Our own misfortune

The book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) is about how people avoid cognitive distortion when things go wrong. For example, a bad outcome could disprove that we’re as smart, savvy, honest, calm, whatever, as we think we are. This disconnect between reality and our self-perception is called cognitive distortion and it’s really uncomfortable. Generally our perception of ourselves is stronger than our perception of an event. So, when a bad thing happens to us, we often minimize our responsibility and exaggerate the importance of outside forces, like this:

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Other people’s misfortune

Then, when something bad happens to other people, we need to feel safe from experiencing it ourselves. It helps if we can believe that with the right decisions, values and actions, we can avoid a similar fate. We diminish the importance of outside forces and relationships, so we perceive the cause of the outcome like this:

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I have previously written how individualistic cultures in general overestimate the importance of personal attributes and underestimate outside forces. We are culturally conditioned to attribute things to personal responsibility and this is never more evident when we confront the misfortune of someone else. So the next time that you hear about someone else’s tragedy and find yourself drifting toward victim-blaming (if she hadn’t been there; if he had better morals) catch yourself. Can you find a more balanced view of why bad things happen?

Why Do We All Blame the Victim?

Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

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APA Reference
Staggs, S. (2014). Why Do We All Blame the Victim?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 Nov 2014
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