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Psychology of Victim blaming

May. 27, 2020   •   Madhav Gawri

The term “blaming the victim” was coined by William Ryan in his book 'Blaming the Victim,' 1971. He described victim-blaming as a way to preserve the interest of the privileged group in power.[2]

Victim blaming is an act in which the victim of the crime is held responsible whole or in parts for what's happened to them. It is a damaging action which removes the responsibility from the offender.

Victim blaming phenomenon is generally observed in the cases of rape and sexual harassment. In common parlance, it is also observed in mundane crimes, like a person who has been a victim of pickpocketing is usually chided for his/her decision to carry his/her wallet in the back pocket. Like no other type of crime, sexual violence spark public debates, but society regularly gives more support to some victims over others, victims of theft, for example, are rarely treated with such disparity.

Victim blaming a reason why most women hide their experiences and refrain oneself from reporting such heinous crimes. Cases related to sexual offences are often built upon the actions of victims leading up to the incidents to include what they were wearing, how much they'd have to drink, and the state of their mind at the time of that incident. But it is important for the society to understand that no matter how provocatively a woman is dressed, how much she has had to drink or whether she had a prior consensual relationship with the perpetrator, she should never be blamed because if the victim believes that society is going to blame them for the sexual violence, then they will never feel comfortable coming forward and reporting it.

It is not the victim’s fault that they have experienced sexual violence it is the perpetrator's action that caused it to take place and by engaging in victim attitude even unconsciously through the use of our language. Society allows the perpetrator to commit sexual violence and avoid accountability for their actions. If we don't challenge victim-blaming when we see it occurring, we're helping to perpetuate the problem.

Methods of victim-blaming

Victim-blaming comes in many forms, whenever a person defaults to questioning what a victim could have done differently in a particular situation to prevent a crime, he/she is participating, to some degree, in the culture of victim-blaming. People may not always realize that they are participating in victim-blaming. Sometimes as hearing about crime and thinking that one would have been more careful and vigilant in the given situation had one been in the victim’s shoes is a mild form of victim-blaming.

One of the biggest sources of victim-blaming is how we talk about it, and the language surrounding sexual assault can quickly put our attention on the victim, not the perpetrator.

For example: -

“Megan met Dom at a party. Dom gave Megan a spiked drink. Later on, Megan was assaulted by Dom.” - This is written in a passive voice, so that Megan, the victim comes first, and it suggests that it is her fault that she is assaulted and look what happens though when we change it in an active voice-

“Dom met Megan at a party. Dom gave Megan a spiked drink. Later on, Dom assaulted Megan." -Now the statement becomes about the perpetrator and what he has done; there is no suggestion that Megan is at fault.

This victim-blaming attitude marginalizes victims and makes it harder for them to come forward and report sexual violence.

The reason behind victim-blaming

Perpetrator blames their victims in order to justify their actions and to avoid punishments and maintain the freedom to abuse in the future. A perpetrator’s justification for their actions and continued abuse appears to stem from a sense of entitlement and their desire to have power over others.[3]

Another reason people blame a victim is to distance themselves from an abhor occurrence because it gives a false sense that 'this couldn't happen to me'.

One psychological phenomenon that contributes to this tendency to lay the blame on the victim is known as the fundamental attribution error. This bias involves attributing other people’s behaviours to internal, personal characteristics while ignoring external forces and variables that also might have played a role[4]. It is a natural psychological reaction to crime. The degree of victim-blaming may depend upon the individual's experiences, background, culture, job, area of habitation, etc.

Although some instances of victim-blaming undoubtedly originate from ignorance, meanness, or a smug sense of superiority, there may be another, even more, significant cause. Specifically, psychologists believed that our tendency to blame the victim might originate paradoxical in a deep need to believe that the world is a good and just place.[5]

At its core, victim-blaming comes from a combination of failure to empathize with the victims and a fear reaction triggered by the human drive for self-preservation.

According to Melvin Lerner, one’s need to maintain a belief in a just world may be at fault for our tendency to blame victims. When bad things happen to someone who seems a lot like us, this threatens our belief that the world is a just place. If that person could fall victim to rape, assault, robbery, or attack, perhaps we could, too. So, to comfort ourselves in the face of this troubling realisation and maintain our rosy worldview, we psychologically separate ourselves from the victim. This is known as the just-world hypothesis. We wonder if he or she had done something to invite the tragedy. Maybe that survivor of sexual assault was wearing provocative clothing. Maybe that shooting victim was involved in gang activity. Maybe my neighbour had invited that burglary by associating with the wrong people. If this is the case, we tell ourselves, then it won’t happen to me. After all, the world is a just place.[6] Whether it’s because we’re empathising with the perpetrator or because we’ve wrongly convinced ourselves that we live in a just world, victim-blaming is not okay.

Another issue that contributes to our tendency to blame the victim is the hindsight bias.[7] After an event that has taken place, people have a tendency to believe that one should have been able to see the signs and predict the outcome.[8]This hindsight makes it seem like the victims of a crime, accident, or another form of misfortune should have been able to predict and prevent whatever problem might have befallen them, while in truth there was no way to predict the outcome.

Unfortunately, because of this trend of victim-blaming, the people who are abused are obscured and in turn, the vicious cycle of crime and oppression keeps ongoing. The perpetrators of crimes are always at fault, and while it may be impossible to rid the world of crime, increased awareness of these biases that lead us to blame victims is the first step toward decreasing them. Only by reaching out with empathy rather than closing off in blame can we truly bring about a just world.

[ Abhyudey Kabra, second-year Law student at Maharaja Agrasen Institute of Management Studies, IP University.]


[1] Manisha G Kumari, "The sexual harassment, victim-blaming, and rape culture—I remember it all", ,(24may 2020).

[2] Zur, Ofer. "Psychology of Victimhood, Don't Blame the Victim." Zur Institute. The Haworth Press, Inc. Web. (20 Dec. 2011).

[3] Schoellkopf, Julia Churchill, "Victim-Blaming: A New Term for an Old Trend" (2012). Lesbian Gay Bisexual

Transgender Queer Center. Paper 33.

[4] in Artino AR, Durning SJ, Waechter DM, Leary KL, Gilliland WR. Broadening our understanding of clinical quality:

from attribution error to situated cognition. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 2012;91(2):167-9. doi:10.1038/clpt.2011.229.

[5] David B. Feldman, professor of Counselling Psychology, Santa Clara University, "why do people blame the victim."

available at

[6] Lerner M.J. (1980) The Belief in a Just World. In: The Belief in a Just World. Perspectives in Social Psychology.

Springer, Boston, MA.

[7] The term hindsight bias refers to the tendency people have to view events as more predictable than they really are.

Before an event takes place, while you might be able to offer a guess as to the outcome, there is really no way to

actually, know what's going to happen.

[8]Roese NJ, Vohs KD. Hindsight Bias. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2012;7(5):411-26. doi:10.1177/1745691612454303

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