Sunday, March 19, 2017

The need for victim blaming


  • A woman was attacked while walking home from the pub? She shouldn't have been out walking in the dark.
  • Someone took all the produce and didn't put money into the honesty box? It's madness to leave your stuff out where anyone can steal it.
  • Young person can't get a job? They are probably lazy and entitled.


These are all examples of victim blaming. It's very politically incorrect to do so, but we've all heard (maybe even said) something like the above, often.

I think it's to do with believing in the cause and effect, and the need to have control. For example, if I work hard at my job I will get a promotion and a pay rise; if I take care of my looks, keep the house clean and cook my husband great meals he won't leave me for someone else. If I eat healthily I won't get sick.

But we all know these are not guaranteed. Good things happen to bad people. Financially responsible people can become homeless. Non smokers can get lung cancer.

I've been re-reading The Idiot Brain, by Welsh neuroscientist Dean Burnett. Quite apart from the fact that this guy writes like the Bill Bryson of medical writing (i.e. highly readable, funny and really enlightening), he provides a neuroscientist's view of why we as society victim-blame.

One factor in why we do this is is because we tend to find it difficult to empathise (obviously it varies from person to person), due to the fact that our brains are egocentric. He describes an experiment in which one person has to touch something nice while a second person has to touch something disgusting. The person touching something nice finds it difficult to sympathise with the other. However if both people have to touch something gross then it's easy for them to sympathise with each other.

The other factor is what he calls the "just world" hypothesis. The brain assumes that the world is fair, good behaviour is rewarded and bad behaviour is punished. If a bad thing happens to someone then they must have done something to deserve it. Because if they didn't, then that means it could happen to us, who are most definitely behaving well. Our brain is uncomfortable with the possibility that bad things could happen to us even if we don't deserve it. So it chooses to have us believe that it must have been deserved.

So there you have it - our brains make it hard for us to empathise with someone less fortunate than us and in fact makes us blame the unfortunate for whatever has happened to them.

(That doesn't mean we should just let it happen though.)