Episode 7: Blaming the Victim and other Attribution Biases

MichaelCognition, Intelligence and Language, Social Psychology11 Comments

Blaming the victim – why do we do it? For example, are rape victims responsible for what happens to them? Are victims of car crashes or other accidents responsible for what happened to them? These are the kinds of questions we examine as we look at the strange human tendency to blame the victim. We make all kinds of attributions as to why people do what they do – where do we often go wrong?

Here is the concept map for the biases discussed in this show.
Attributional Biases

Click here to take my Concept Map Quiz on these attributional biases!

Test yourself to see if you really know the difference between these types of biases (requires latest version of Flash).

Blaming The Victim

1: Fundamental Attribution Error

  • “people do what they do because of the kind of people that they are, not because of the situation they are in”
  • “people tend to underestimate external influences when explaining other people’s behavior”

2: Actor/Observer (bias) Difference

  • “Whereas we are very likely to find internal causes for other people’s behavior, we tend to look …to the situation to explain our own behavior”
  • Example: in a murder trial, the prosecution will call the person a murderer, defense will focus on the difficulty of the person’s life at the time or their childhood, characteristics of the person murdered. “That person drove my client to do what he/she did”

3. Self-serving Attribution (bias): while we tend to take credit for our successes (attribute success to internal causes), we blame our failures on external causes

  • I earned an A, my professor gave me a C
  • Why? Because it threatens our self esteem to think that failures were caused by something about ourselves
  • Example: sports – when a team wins, they attribute it to talent or skill, when they lose, they attribute it to bad luck, poor playing conditions, bad calls from the umpires rather than “I didn’t train hard/study hard enough”, “Our team wasn’t as good”
  • It feels bad to attribute our failures to ourselves

4. Optimism bias: “good things are more likely to happen to oneself than to others and bad things are less likely to happen to oneself”

  • A kind of “defensive attribution”
  • Teenage driving habits – very risky
  • Runner Jim Fixx wrote a book: “The Complete Book of Running”, and died at a young age.
  • Why do we tend to hold this belief? Because the world is a scary, unpredictable place and that makes us feel anxious. The only way to feel a little better is to believe that it couldn’t happen to me. “I would have acted differently”, “That wouldn’t happen to me because…”I would make different decisions”

5. Belief in a Just World: bad things happen to bad people, “or at least to people who make mistakes, poor choices, etc.” thus, bad things won’t happen to me because I wouldn’t make those mistakes.

  • “the belief in a just world keeps anxiety-provoking thoughts about one’s own safety at bay” Aronson, et. al.
  • when the world seems chaotic or dangerous, this is anxiety provoking. so we attempt to reassure ourselves by blaming the victim

Resources for this week’s episode

  • Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person
  • The quote this week came from the book “The Art of Growing Up” by Veronique Vienne and with some wonderful photographs by Jeanne Lipsey. You can find it at Amazon here.

    Last but not least, savor apparently insignificant moments when nature itself seems to encourage us to release our grip: when a leaf falls form a tree, when the sun suddenly disappears behind a hill, or when a soft autumn drizzle blurs the landscape.

    Activities for Teachers and Students

    • Do students agree that the optimistic bias is stronger than any education we might give women? If that’s so, what can be done?
    • Students could debate the statement that “Women should know what they are getting themselves into” when they go to frat parties and the like. Students could anonymously write down a number from the following scale: 1 = “It’s totally the woman’s fault if she gets date raped at a frat party.” to 10 = “It’s not at all the woman’s fault.” Then discuss the issue and take another anonymous poll (little slips of paper folded and handed into the teacher for counting) after the discussion.
    • One treatment for violent offenders, including rapists, is to have them watch and listen to rape victims so that they see the pain that is inflicted on them. Should this be done at college orientations? If some students consider this approach too drastic, what other ways might there be to help college men understand the gravity of this violation?

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    11 Comments on “Episode 7: Blaming the Victim and other Attribution Biases”

    1. Pingback: Ep 273: Stereotypes and How We Get Past Them | The Psych Files

    2. Pingback: Blaming the Victim | The Psych Files

    3. College age men can choose whether or not to rape someone. Especially since consent is needed if it’s supposed to be considered other than rape. Putting it all on women in an optimism bias is misleading, and only serves to free the men of having to face responsibility. As in the audio, it’s unrealistic to have a “should have known” mentality, yet that seems to perpetuate circumstances such as rape culture. We need to perpetuate something else – responsibility.

    4. Pingback: Updating Theories | Brandy A. Brown, Ph.D.

    5. I disagree with the part about external influences being somewhat responsible for your behavior. I believe that situations are like mirrors, they show you who you truly are. Adverse situations are when you see someone's true character. You cannot blame a situation for how you chose to react to it. That's like when a friend of mine used to beat his girlfriend in college and said it was because she "was constantly disrespecting him". Ten years later he beats his new wife, while I have never hit a woman despite numerous conflicts. To me that just isn't an option; where to him it is. The situation has changed, but his behavior has not because he is the constant.

      I once read this article on how people interpret situations. First there is the stimuli, then evaluation, then a response is selected. Two of those three processes are internal, so you can't blame a situation for how you respond. Different people would react to that same situation differently.

    6. Joanna, glad you’re enjoying the Psych Files (though it’s more of a podcast than a blog). I hadn’t heard of Donna Orange and I’m not familiar with Phillip Bromberg, but I found Donna’s book on Amazon and will definitely give it a look. I’ve never really gotten into self psychology, so this might be quite interesting. Thanks! Michael

    7. hi micheal. love the blog – just arrived here today for the first time.

      not sure if you are familiar with Donna Orange’s work, esp Falling Backwards in which she describes subjective distortions of reality (like misatribution) to control mechanisms similar to the one’s you describe. She also sights that these ‘mistakes’ of reason are more pronounced in trauma victims….these ideas are then developed by Phillip Bromberg and others in speaking about every-day dissasociation.

      Love the blog!! Will def keep reading. Thanks for the great info.


    8. Sarah – I think you’re right that it’s just plain harder to put a young female in this and many other societies. I gave many an orientation speech to young male freshmen about proper behavior but a lot of times I left shaking my head. Adolescence is a tough time and young men just aren’t that typically mature until their mid 20s.

    9. One point that frustrates me is sex/gender differences.
      When you were talking about frat parties how the female should be aware, i agree she should be aware. But if the males have a sort of get out of trouble free pass because of their testosterone why don’t the females also have one? I believe not just females should be informed i think males should also. Inform males how peer pressure and testosterone can over come them.
      I just think males can be young and care free but it is harder for females to do the same thing or to just be young and a bit naive (this guy is different). When a female is carefree she is generally viewed as stupid, reckless, wanting the bad things to happen to her. However when a male is carefree it generally seems to be put down to his testosterone and he is really a good kid.

      Just had to release some of my frustration, i am not aiming this at you directly the view seems to be generally held by society. I found it very interesting.

    10. Greg,

      Thanks so much. You are very, very kind. I do enjoy doing the podcasts and getting feedback is like yours is really nice. “Procrastination” eh? I’ll look into it – sounds like it could be a good podcast. Good luck with your psych course.


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