“Victim blaming appears to be deep-seated, rooted in core moral values, but also somewhat malleable…”

Can anything be done to change people’s perceptions of victims and perpetrators? In another study, we explored whether nudging people to focus on perpetrators versus victims could affect people’s moral judgments. We did so by placing either the perpetrator or the victim in the subject position in a majority of sentences in descriptions of sexual assault (e.g., “Lisa was forced by Dan” versus “Dan forced Lisa”). We then asked the participants to assign percentages of blame to the victim and perpetrator.

Consistent with our previous findings, the more participants endorsed binding values, the more blame they assigned to victims and the less blame they assigned to perpetrators. But we also found that focusing their attention on the perpetrator led to reduced ratings of victim blame, victim responsibility and references to victims’ actions, whereas a focus on victims led to greater victim blaming. This was surprising: You might assume that focusing on victims elicits more sympathy for them, but our results suggest that it may have the opposite effect.

Victim blaming appears to be deep-seated, rooted in core moral values, but also somewhat malleable, susceptible to subtle changes in language. For those looking to increase sympathy for victims, a practical first step may be to change how we talk: Focusing less on victims and more on perpetrators — “Why did he think he had license to rape?” rather than “Imagine what she must be going through” — may be a more effective way of serving justice.

Laura Niemi and Liane Young, “Who Blames the Victim?” The New York Times (26 June 2016), SR8.