When and why we see victims as responsible

Why do victims sometimes receive sympathy for their suffering and at other times scorn and blame? In a series of studies, we show a powerful role for moral values in attitudes toward victims. We measured moral values associated with unconditionally prohibiting harm (“individualizing values”) versus moral values associated with prohibiting behavior that destabilizes groups and relationships (“binding values”: loyalty, obedience to authority, and concern about purity).

Increased endorsement of binding values predicted increased ratings of victims as contaminated and tainted (Studies 1-4); increased blame and responsibility attributed to victims, increased perceptions of victims’ (versus perpetrators’) behaviors as contributing to the outcome, and increased focus on victims (Studies 2-3). Patterns persisted controlling for politics, just world beliefs, and right-wing authoritarianism.

Moreover, putting the perpetrator rather the victim into the sentence subject position in the majority of sentences in vignettes describing structurally identical sexual assault incidents (our experimental manipulation of linguistic focus) reduced people’s ratings of blame to victims. This smaller effect was observed in addition to the effect of moral value on judgments of victims.

Taken together, the results across four studies highlight the powerful role of personal ideology, and a subtler role for our linguistic manipulation of focus, in predicting attitudes toward victims and perpetrators. Put plainly, the results suggest that knowing a person’s stances on disloyalty, disobedience, and impurity may afford a prediction of that person’s perception of victims as responsible and blameworthy. Moral values constitute a core framework that organizes different psychological processes — including perceptions of contamination and injury and attributions of responsibility — into fairly predictable patterns of condemnation across the victim–perpetrator dyad.

Why do binding values predict blame of victims? Binding values, moral values associated with prohibiting behavior that destabilizes groups and relationships (loyalty, obedience to authority, and concern about purity), contrast with more widely endorsed moral values promoting universal caring (i.e. “individualizing values”). Importantly, binding values actually sometimes require people to harm victims. For example, to be loyal to the ingroup, one might be required to snub a member of the outgroup. To be obedient to authority, one might be required to obey orders to attack others. In some groups, preservation of purity might motivate quarantining outcasts or even honor killings. That higher endorsement of binding values reliably predicts greater attribution of responsibility to victims might come about as a result of moral worldview that requires being less sensitive to victim suffering.