The psychology of victim blaming

Whenever there's an incident of sexual assault in the news, there's a set of people, who assign the blame to the victim - "Oh! She should have been careful", "She should not have worn such dresses". A rational argument is that "no matter what dress she wears, it doesn't give the other person the right to sexually assault." It keeps repeating. Hence, its worth to explore the roots of victim-blaming behaviour.

Public policy problems are of various kinds. Some issues are due to lack of "appropriate law", some are due to "ineffective implementation despite the law". Some other problems have to "mental models" of people. It is important to carefully identify the nature of the problem in order to address it. The issue of victim blaming is to do with the mental models of people, the way they perceive, understand and judge the world. Hence, its roots have to be in psychology.

From a public policy perspective, problems that involve changing the mental models of people are the hardest to solve because sometimes people believe in something despite it being clearly illogical. Consider the case of victim blaming - The logic says that if X does a mistake, X is to be blamed and X is to be punished. However, curiously a significant section of people believe to the opposite in some cases.

Moving on, issues involving mental models of people are further of two types.

The first type of problems are those where a narrative is carefully built to justify a certain practice. For instance, take the case of slavery. For a long time, there were a variety of narratives employed to justify it, some theological, some economic justifications. Some theological justifications were on the lines of that "slavery is natural, some people are born to be slaves, it's their old life's karma". Economic justifications were on the lines of "slavery is a productive economic institution. Slaves are better off with their masters rather than being independent".

The second type of problems are those where the narrative isn't deliberately constructed. It has to do with the individuals' cognitive constructs. These constructs may also be a result of social conditioning, which isn't a deliberate narrative, unlike the first case.

One can debate on the category of the victim blaming behaviour in cases of sexual assault but there's a common element to both these categories. The narratives and justifications sound convincing and internally convincing. They appeal to the superficial reasoning.

For instance, consider the victim blaming in sexual assault cases. The analogies of dogs and thieves are regularly employed. "If there's a mad dog on a road and if you take the road despite knowing the presence of dogs, whose fault is it if the dog bites? Why did you take that route even after knowing about mad dogs?". A similar analogy is "If you travel by a forest with money and gold, despite knowing that there are thieves in that forest, it's obviously your fault".

These analogies sound appealing and convincing - obviously, why did you go that way despite knowing about the dog? How can this reasoning this ever be wrong?

The other analogy involving parents advice is the hardest to counter. It goes as follows "If parents advise their daughters to not go out late in the night, are parents resorting to victim blaming by putting the onus on daughters? How can you term an advice in good spirit as victim blaming?" Continuing this, it's compared to politicians' statements blaming the victim, in order to justify their statements - "Why is it ok if parents ask their children to be careful but it's NOT ok if politicians say the same? Isn't it double standards?"

The way out of such seemingly logical reasoning is to carefully disentangle the train of logic behind these arguments and persistently counter them. One day we can hope to change it, the way the narrative on slavery has been changed and we are considering it as unacceptable today.

Psychology helps us understand the roots of the mental models that make people blame the victim. As with many problems, such issues have several explanations. The Atlantic has a good summary of psychology literature on this topic.

The first insight from psychology is the "just world hypothesis". It says that we all want to believe that the world is just and that bad things won't happen to bad or non-careful people. When someone is resorting to victim blaming by saying "she should have taken precaution", they are essentially trying to convince themselves that the incident is not a deviation to their "just world belief". They are using the narrative of "she should have been careful" to justify the "just world hypothesis". They do so in order to feel safe.

In other words, if the person was careful (good/just) and if still unfortunate (bad/unjust) incidents happen to that person, it makes people feel unsafe. People wouldn't want to believe that. So, they try to get over this by attributing the blame to the victim, convincing themselves that the incident occurred because of some "mistake".

The second insight from psychology is that the moral beliefs of people predict their likelihood of resorting to blaming the victim. People who place more emphasis on binding values, values like obedience, loyalty etc. are more likely to resort to blaming the victim. On the other hand, people who have more individualistic values, are less likely to do so.

The third insight is counter intuitive. Our empathy for the victim can result in blaming the victim! It says that most stories of sexual assault are reported with the victim at the center of the narrative. When the story is narrated in that manner, our empathy for the victim makes us make statements like "She should have been careful", "She should have opened the door" etc, shifting the focus from perpetrator to the victim. Essentially, while reading the story, we imagine ourselves in the scenario, that triggers our self-preservation or survival instincts, that makes up come up with statements suggesting precautionary measures (that have to be taken by the women) as remedies to the problem, ignoring the larger aspect of the responsibility of the perpetrator. Probably, this explains the reason behind parents sounding precautionary measures to their children.

A fourth insight that may be still unproven (because it's by me!) is that people resort to victim blaming when they perceive circumstances as unavoidable. Consider the analogies used in victim blaming - mad dog on the street, thieves on the road and parents not allowing children to go out of home late in the night. In all these cases, people assume these external circumstances as given and unavoidable and act accordingly. In the dog's example, the existence of dog is taken as given, meaning that you can't do anything about it. Given that it's unavoidable, the onus falls on the people traveling on that road. Same is the case with parents. They take the insecurity outside as given and one that isn't going to change anytime soon. So, given that scenario, they suggest precautionary measures, putting the onus on the children.

The other way to think about it is - consider an example where a person traveling in a train died of a train accident. Do the same people who resort to victim blaming in the case of sexual assault or those who use the analogy of dog, argue in the case of the train accident that it's the mistake of the person to travel by train and hence s/he alone is responsible for the death? I presume that they don't argue so. So, we have a case where a person is putting the blame on the victim in one case and not putting the blame on the victim in another case. The difference in two cases is that the external circumstances in former are avoidable and the latter is a misfortune.

In such cases where the external situation is unavoidable, people who place more emphasis on binding values (obedience, loyalty) can expect people to be cognizant of the situation and act accordingly. In cases of sexual assault, it turns into statements like, if you knew that it's safe, why did you go?

The implication is that when the society continues in the state of insecurity for a long period of time, it changes people's psyche. The avoidable circumstances turn unavoidable in the minds of people.They take the insecure environment as given and something that can't be changed. They judge then everything from this vantage point. If one judges people's behavior, considering the insecure environment as given, the narrative and onus shifts to victims and not the perpetrators. This also explains the reason behind parents' cautionary advice. Parents do so because they take the insecure environment as given and then act accordingly.

Framing strategies to address this issue is going to be challenging because sometimes people don't even realize that their arguments are incorrect. As Daniel Kahneman argues in his book "Thinking Fast, Thinking slow", some of these responses might be due to their subconscious reasoning and that people haven't taken out time to careful reason them. One needs to persistently work to dislodge these beliefs pushing people out of their comfort zones of thinking and make reasoning speak. 

However, the above understanding of the reasoning mechanisms behind faulty justifications leads us to some plausible strategies to counter the victim blaming narrative.

One, change the framing of the story matters from being victim-centered perpetrator centered. As the Atlantic article suggests, people respond differently to the text. For instance, a story could be "Eve met Adam. She took a drink in which sedative was mixed. She was sexually assaulted later." Such framing leads to instinctive responses that put the blame on the victim. On the other hand, the alternate framing could be "Adam met Eve. He mixed sedative and sexually assaulted her."

The former text suggests that it's something brought upon by Eve (Eve went, Eve met). In contrast, the latter puts emphasis on the perpetrator (Adam mixed, Adam assaulted). It changes the way one imagines the scenario and it's more likely that people attribute responsibility on

Two, reiterate the seemingly obvious logic. As many on social media rightly seem to do, the question of "what right does he have to assault her, even if she wears short clothes?" needs to be constantly reiterated. It puts emphasis on the perpetrator and pushes people from subconscious reasoning mode to conscious reasoning mode.

Three, the most obvious is the improve the state of security. As discussed above, prolonged state of insecurity shifts the blame to victims, because people perceive the external situation as unchangeable that pushes people into survival or precautionary mode. People who compare parents' advice to politicians' advice are to be constantly reminded - parents advice so because they take the external situation as given as it's not in their hands to change it. Governments aren't supposed to sound precautions to women, blaming them in case of assault, because it is their duty to change the external situation. They can't talk from the vantage point of taking insecurity as granted because it is in their hands to change it and it is their duty.

Four, repair the house when it isn't raining. Usually, such topics come up for discussion only when an incident is reported in news. The emotions are running high in such times. People who are supposed to nudge the narrative are too angry to engage and those who believe in victim hood blaming are too defensive.

The act of talking people through their biases can be unsettling to people. One can get too defensive and hence much of the work has to be done when it isn't in news. Ultimately, dislodging beliefs through careful reasoning is a matter of having a conversation, asking right questions. Education institutes are a good place to have such conversations. In a tech-obsessed world, humanities are ignored resulting in such repercussions!

Needless to say, we need to spend invest more on i) understanding the issue in depth; and ii) employing appropriate communication mechanisms to counter the narratives.

Once we do this for long enough time, hopefully, we reach a stage where victims aren't blamed and it is considered incorrect. History suggests that it's possible to do that because many such popular narratives justifying unacceptable acts like slavery have been successfully defeated.

Finally one must note that the victim blaming phenomenon isn't seen in sexual assaults alone. Many don't realize it but it is seen in many other areas like poverty etc. - people are poor because they are lazy, people are poor because of their karma, people are poor because they must have not been spending wisely. As in the case of sexual assaults, here again, we put the blame on the poor. It appeals to our "just world hypothesis" and as we have seen it needn't necessarily be true.

Same is the case with whistleblowers and activists who fight against the state, vested interests and political parties.  The government's harassment of activists and sometimes the opponents becomes so pervading that it's normalized. The government's harassment is taken as a default and unavoidable. Activists and opponents are then expected to behave accordingly.

As in the case of victim blaming in sexual assault, when activists and opponents are harassed by the government, our immediate instinct is "un se panga kyu liya?" (why did you pick a fight with them?). We think of it as the mistake of activists and opponents while absolving the government of its excesses.

Here again, we need to change the narrative and ask - what right does it give the government to unnecessarily harass the activists and opponents? We shouldn't do the mistake of taking the government's behaviour of bullying as granted. Instead, we should question it and stop blaming activists and opponents.

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