Why Do People Blame the Victim?

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Blaming the victim is a phenomenon in which victims of crimes or tragedies are held accountable for what happened to them. Victim blaming allows people to believe that such events could never happen to them. Blaming the victim is known to occur in rape and sexual assault cases, where the victim of the crime is often accused of inviting the attack due to her clothing or behavior.

A Well-Known Example of Blaming the Victim

In 2003, a 14-year-old girl named Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah at knifepoint. She spent the next nine months held captive by her abductors, Brian Mitchell and Wanda Barzee. After her rescue and details of her time in captivity become public, many people wondered why she hadn't tried to escape or reveal her identity.

These types of questions, sadly, are not uncommon after people hear about a terrible event. Why, after such a horrible crime, do so many people seem to "blame the victim" for their circumstances?

When news reports surfaced of a woman being raped, many questions center on what the victims were wearing or doing that might have "provoked" the attack. When people are mugged, others frequently wonder what victims were doing out so late at night or why they did not take extra measures to protect themselves from the crime.

Why Humans Have a Tendency to Victim-Blame

So what is behind this tendency to blame the victim?

Our Attributions Contribute

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 behaviors to internal, personal characteristics while ignoring external forces and variables that also might have played a role.

When a classmate flunks a test, for example, you probably attribute their behavior to a variety of internal characteristics. You might believe that the other student didn’t study hard enough, isn’t smart enough, or is just plain lazy.

If you were to fail a test, however, what would you blame your poor performance on? In many cases, people blame their failings on external sources. You might protest that the room was too hot and you couldn’t concentrate, or that the teacher didn’t grade the test fairly or included too many trick questions.

Hindsight Is 20/20

Another issue that contributes to our tendency to blame the victim is known as the hindsight bias.

  • When we look at an event that happened in the past, we have a tendency to believe that we should have been able to see the signs and predict the outcome.
  • 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.

And this isn’t just something that happens when we are looking at things such as rape or assault. When someone becomes ill, people often seek to blame past behaviors for a person’s current state of health.

Cancer? They should have stopped smoking. Heart disease? Well, I guess they should have exercised more. Food poisoning? Should have known better than to have eaten at that new restaurant.

Such cases of blame seem to suggest that people should have simply known or expected such things to happen given their behavior, while in truth there was no way to predict the outcome.

We Like to Believe Life Is Fair When It Isn't

Our tendency to blame the victim also stems in part from our need to believe that the world is a fair and just place. When something bad happens to another person, we often believe that they must have done something to deserve such a fate. Social psychologists refer to this tendency as the just-world phenomenon.

Why do we feel this need to believe that the world is just and that people get what they deserve?

Because if we think that the world is not fair, then it becomes more apparent that anyone can fall victim to tragedy. Yes, even you, your friends, your family, and your other loved ones. No matter how cautious and conscientious you might be, bad things can and do happen to good people.

But by believing that the world is fair, by believing that people deserve what they get, and by blaming the victim, people are able to protect their illusion that such terrible things could never happen to them.

A Word From Verywell

But bad things can and probably will happen to you at some point in your life. So the next time you find yourself wondering what someone else did to bring on their misfortune, take a moment to consider the psychological attributions and biases that affect your judgment. Rather than blame the victim, try putting yourself in that person’s shoes and perhaps try a little empathy instead.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. 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):167-169. doi:10.1038/clpt.2011.229

  2. Roese NJ, Vohs KD. Hindsight Bias. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2012;7(5):411-426. doi:10.1177/1745691612454303

  3. Van der Bruggen M. A review of the literature relating to rape victim blaming: An analysis of the impact of observer and victim characteristics on attribution of blame in rape cases. Aggress Violent Behav. 2014;19(5):523-531. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2014.07.008

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."