A young woman dresses up, goes out late at night to a party, has a few too many drinks, and goes home with a guy she barely knows. She then gets raped. Many people who hear of stories like this point their finger at one person: the woman. She shouldn’t have dressed provocatively, she was dumb for drinking too much, and bringing the fellow home is simply asking for trouble.
This is the quintessential “blaming the victim” story. Why do we do this? Because of the Just World Phenomenon, a social psychological concept that reflects our deeply held cultural belief that the world is a fair and predictable place. Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. It is comforting to believe that all events have a purpose and fairness is to be expected from life, so if the young woman got raped, well, she must have gotten what she deserved. Frankly, blaming the victim makes us feel better about ourselves by giving us a false sense of control over our experiences. “That would never happen to me. I’m too smart for that!”
Unfortunately the target of our blame is not just others who are victims – it can be ourselves, too. ‘If only I had done something different.’ ‘I’m a bad person and I was punished by god.’ Anything to escape the possibility of randomness. The truth, as Harold Kushner’s classic “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” explained, is that the Just World is a fallacy. The real world is scary, unsettling, and upsets our sense of control. No matter what we do or how good we are there’s no guarantee that we can escape pain and heartache. Randomness exists and it’s up to us to find a way to cope with it.