How We Justify Victim-Blaming, Scapegoating, and Systemic Abuse
EditBy Rebecca C. Mandeville, MFT
Last updated: 11 Jun 2020~ 4 MIN READ
The belief in a ‘just world’ can be used to blame and shame innocent victims by denying or rationalizing their genuine pain and suffering. It can also result in the scapegoating of individuals, groups, or even an entire class or race…
What is the ‘Just-World’ Hypothesis?
The just-world hypothesis (also known as the ‘just-world’ fallacy or the ‘belief in a just world’/BJW) is a cognitive bias held by individuals, groups, institutions, and systems to justify the positive and negative events others experience in life. It is rooted in the belief that people get what they deserve, which serves to mask one’s own sense of vulnerability while minimizing anxiety.
The concept of karma is closely related to the just-world hypothesis. Familiar phrases such as “you reap what you sow”, or “what goes around comes around” are common phrases related to this idea of karma or some form of universal justice. Such ‘just world’ beliefs assume that the world / Universe / ‘God’ is ultimately always fair and just. Kind acts, helpful behaviors, and earnest efforts are rewarded while ‘bad actors’ are punished.
Examples of the Just World Hypothesis
The belief in a just world is used to deny or rationalize the scapegoating of individuals, groups, and even an entire class or race. Statements such as, “You must have done something for your own family to treat you this way”; “Those people on welfare are just lazy – They should get off their butts and work for their money, like me”; and “It’s their own fault they got hurt – They should have just cooperated with the police or not gotten arrested in the first place” are examples of how a belief in the just-world hypothesis can support and validate victim-blaming, systemic privilege, and systemic racism, respectively.
Via this simplistic conceptualization of universal reward and punishment, the world may be viewed as an orderly, predictable, and ‘fair’ place where people “get what they deserve” as a result of their own positive or negative behaviors and actions.
Given that the just-world hypothesis is dependent on a belief in a divine or cosmically ‘fair’ universal force, it can influence people’s thinking even when there is little to no evidence that such a force of omnipotent justice exists. And yet, the idea that there is a direct connection between a person’s moral character and the events they experience in life persists.
The Just-World Hypothesis and Victim-Blaming
The idea of a ‘just world’ has been promoted, debated, argued against, and discussed by philosophers and social theorists for centuries. More recently, Melvin Lerner focused on the just-world hypothesis in his research in the field of social psychology.
Lerner’s research on the just-world hypothesis was informed by his repeated observation that it is an observer’s tendency to blame victims for their suffering. In one of Lerner’s earliest studies, results supported the hypothesis that rejection and devaluation of a suffering victim are primarily based on the observer’s need to believe in a just world (Lerner, M.; Simmons, C. H., 1966).
More specifically: Lerner’s research results showed that when people are confronted with the abuse and suffering of an innocent victim seemingly beyond their ability to help, those that are observing the victim will not respond with compassion, but will instead blame the innocent victim for their suffering (Lerner, 1980).
Social psychologists have continued to conduct research on the just-world hypothesis.Victims of HIV/AIDS, rape, and cancer were often the focus of these studies, with results that were disturbingly similar to Lerner’s own research in previous decades. Although some researchers argue that many of these experiments are flawed, making results difficult to interpret, there is agreement that several of the investigations generally support the just-world hypothesis (2005).
It should also be noted that recent research suggests that a belief in a just world is associated with greater life satisfaction and well-being – Researchers are actively currently exploring the reasons why the belief in a just world might have a positive effect on one’s mental health (Ritter, Benson, & Synder, 1990).
The Just-World Hypothesis, Scapegoating, and Systemic Abuse
Scapegoating (the practice of blaming a person or group) is often rooted in a just-world belief system. A scapegoat may be a child, sibling, adult, employee, political or religious representative or group, a country, or even an entire race.
Whereas the just-world hypothesis relies on a belief in a sufferer having ‘good’ or ‘bad’ moral character, scapegoating relies on agreed-upon views of ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’, whether these be individually-focused or systemic.
As it is typically the power-holders in a group or system (including family system) that determine the values, ethics, and morals those they influence are ‘ruled’ by, they are typically the least likely to be victimized within the systems whose narrative they control.
Therefore, it is most often the least empowered person(s) in a given system who will be subjected to acts of scapegoating abuse, as well as other forms of system-supported abuse, including the emotional abuse, bullying behaviors, and psychological trauma associated with racial discrimination.
Consequences of the Just-World Fallacy
Believing that the world is ultimately a fair and just place can result in individual and social complacency due to the idea that justice happens on its own, fueled by an actively engaged, ‘fair’ universal force.
The belief in a just world can also result in a lack of compassion for those who struggle within inequitable social, political, and economic systems, including adult survivors of family abuse, the homeless, those struggling with mental health issues or addiction, and victims of rape, police brutality, and other forms of violence. By blaming such people for their own misfortunes, we may protect our view that the world is a fair and safe place while those most in need of our compassion, empathy, and support pay a terrible price.
Expanding Beyond the Just-World Fallacy
Uncovering the just-world cognitive bias can be difficult. Being willing to face and overcome one’s own fears, anxieties, and prejudices regarding actual injustices by being open to information designed to educate and increase awareness can be an appropriate, effective first step.
Focus on looking at all elements of the situation when you find yourself making judgments about someone’s moral character and whether they are ‘deserving’ of negative or positive ‘consequences’. This includes cultivating a more integrative, expansive, and systemic view of human behavior and life events, as well as becoming informed about, and acknowledging, contributory factors such as environmental influences, socio-economic pressures, and political / cultural expectations and/or systemic abuses others may be experiencing.
To learn more about the belief in a just world (BJW) and racism, read Anneleen De Cuyper’s outstanding thesis, Blame the Outgroup: Can our Beliefs in a Just World Lead to Prejudice and Racism?
Articles of Interest: What Dr. King Understood About Rage, Riots, and the Trauma of the Unheard
Hafer, C. L., & Begue, L. (2005). Experimental research on just-world theory: Problems, developments, and future challenges. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 128-167.
Lerner, M.; Simmons, C. H. (1966). “Observer’s Reaction to the ‘Innocent Victim’: Compassion or Rejection?” (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 4 (2): 203–210. doi:10.1037/h0023562.
Lerner, M. J. (1980). The belief in a just world: A fundamental delusion. New York:
Plenum Press. doi:10.1007/978-1-4899-0448-5.
Ritter, Christian; Benson, D. E.; Synder, Clint (1990). “Belief in a Just World and Depression”. Sociological Perspectives. 33 (2): 235–252
6 comments / Add your comment below
Yes! I lived with family members who were spiritual gaslighters and scapegoaters. It was ongoing and I wasn’t having it. As the author said, “BS”.
This said, I would like to mention that this article doesn’t address the corner cases: the people who “feel” they have to act out a gruesome act since their inner soul told them to do it. Or “feel” it’s their “right” to endanger other people. I wish there was a way to address this.
Thanks for commenting. Spiritual gaslighting often goes unrecognized, and I could write an entire book just about that. Interesting point you make about ‘corner cases’ – how the most hideous actions can be justified in the perpetrator’s mind. I’m thinking that this issue may be addressed in peer-reviewed research emanating from the field of Forensic Psychology. Something you might look into.
This is such a great article. I really struggled to understand why so many of my former friends treated me with skepticism when my family’s abuse reached its peak in my adulthood. Why I ended up losing so many friends. On some level I understood that they must not believe me – that it simply does not make sense that a truly innocent person would be shunned by an entire family system. The only rational explanation for the non-psych savvy is that the victim must deserve the treatment.
Frankly, I would have come to the same conclusion about someone in my situation, had I not lived the nightmare and been forced through the hellish process of questioning if I was really crazy, bad, defective, etc – and ultimately realizing I wasn’t – and that a group of people can, in fact, all be wrong about a person.
I came to understand how this can happen through reading and watching videos like yours on YouTube. The narrative about that person is controlled by the power holder in the group. History is so easily rewritten to cast the victim as the perpetrator. The power holders use sheer force and repetition of false messages to change history such that it is consistent with the scapegoat being abusive, crazy, at fault, the problem.
Now that I understand it, I see it play out in dysfunctional systems I’m a part of at the moment, such as at work. My employer is scapegoating someone to take the fall for his “violent outburst” which was actually the consequence of her actions. When she tells the story, she leaves out her role in doing something violent and illegal which provoked the scapegoat to “act out”. What he did was a normal self-defense response. Taken out of context of her attack, it appears pathological on the part of the scapegoat. So conveniently she leaves out the relevant details to avoid accountability for her actions.
As she is the power holder in the system and the victim clearly has Stockholm syndrome, she is the one who told the story to the rest of the system, and it doesn’t even occur to the victim himself that he is not bad for having acted as he did. He doesn’t even bother to point out that he was defending himself. So everyone who hears the story secondhand now knows no better, and are hence reinforcing to the scapegoat the inappropriateness of his actions, not that this is needed. He is already convinced he’s an awful person and the whole thing is his fault. Even the victim himself joins in the victim blaming, making it close to impossible for anyone to ever get to the truth.
Several times I’ve pointed out to this person that her story is inaccurate, and so she just started leaving me out of group wide communications on the matter in order to maintain control of thee narrative. When I saw that (the scapegoat mentioned, innocently, an email to the group, assuming I’d been included in it – this is how I came to realize I was being excluded) I got the first real confirmation that something rotten was at play here. For a long time, I’d participated in scapegoating the scapegoat, too, unconsciously. Over time, I saw the truth. What a painful reality it is.
Anyway, the tough thing is just this – that the family narrative spreads to infect everything both directly through the power holders’ lies and through the scapegoat’s own acceptance of undue blame by everyone – until the veil is lifted, and we start to fight back. We start to try to take back our story. Ultimately we lose almost everyone because the cognitive dissonance this provokes in people who knew us as one thing while we are realizing we are not that is too tough to reconcile. Like puzzle pieces, our former “shape” attracted only matching pieces. As victims, we attracted victimizers. Probably our entire social circle is made up of some version of these. Freeing ourselves often requires that we accept the total loss of everything, everyone, we knew before. Total redefinition and a constant fight to uncover the lies and overwrite them with truths about ourselves.
Recently I reached out to an old friend that I’d stopped communicating with while in the midst of my own veil lifting, because my trauma brain was causing cycle after painful cycle of repetition. I was landing in abusive workplaces, intimate relationships, and more, and I was ashamed. I still wasn’t sure it wasn’t me. So, I stopped reaching out to my good, sane friends because I was humiliated. I’ve since stabilized, and told I was sorry for dropping off the map. She responded thoughtfully, but among her points was that she thought I was not taking responsibility for my part in the abusive relationships I’d landed in at work. She thought I must have done something to warrant the way I was treated. I started to explain how family scapegoating primes people to accept abuse in other arenas, how my vulnerability made me an easy target in this particular environment, how toxic work places always have a scapegoat, how I was actually pretty damn good at my job and well liked until I somehow stepped on the wrong person’s toes (probably in part due to my competence and work ethic, actually) but then I realized how explaining all this put me right back in that role. A child, screaming into the world for help, screaming into the world “Please believe me!” And so I stopped explaining – I believe myself finally, at least today. While it’s a shame to lose people from our past, I don’t know a way around it.
I can’t believe I just left a journal entry in the comment box, but this information is so deeply important to our self validation, and I’m so glad I found this blog. I had no idea about Just World Theory until I saw this.
It sounds like you have worked very hard on your recovery and now have the benefit of deep insight and keen awareness. I hope many visiting here will read your comment in full. Thank you for sharing these aspects of your journey.
Thank you for saying that ! A part of me is still seeking validation that it’s not my perspective that needs shifting. Watching the situation unfold at work is a big time trigger, and I keep wondering if I’m crazy, because no one else sees it. Do you think we tend to just overlay our own story over everything, and see scapegoating where it’s not really happening? Or are we scapegoats just more attuned to it, having been through it? Do you see a lot of clients that ultimately end up in a “scorched earth” type of situation, rebuilding everything from the ground up? Maybe it was worse for me than for most, but I literally ended up at ground zero. How do most scapegoats even come to the realization that they have been scapegoated their entire lives? I believed the lies so thoroughly that I was 30 before I had even an inkling that I wasn’t “the problem”. So often the power holders in the situation can manipulate even therapists and psychiatrists into believing their version of events, retraumatizing the scapegoat and further convincing them that they are the issue. That’s what I’m seeing with this poor kid I work with.
My FSA research suggests that a high percentage of those in the family scapegoat role are the family Empath. Also, truth and justice seekers. This can contribute to the scapegoating, as mentioned in my book and in some of my articles (if you haven’t read my book – Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed – you might want to, I have a chapter on Empaths and scapegoating in there). And yes, I know several people who have been at ‘Ground Zero’ and been there more than once, myself included. There are many factors at play, both individual and systemic, and I hope to address this in future offerings. There is much I can say about this phenomenon.