Arts & Sciences

Why do we blame the victim?

In a new study, Pascal Boyer explores the reasons we often decline to lend a helping hand. (Photo: The Ampersand)

In an age of GoFundMe campaigns, it’s easier than ever to help family, friends, and even strangers in times of need. It’s also easy to look the other way. “Most people see themselves as cooperative and generous, but there’s a cost to helping people who can’t reciprocate,” said Pascal Boyer, PhD, the Henry Luce Professor of Collective and Individual Memory.


In a new study published in Evolution and Human Behavior, Boyer and co-authors suggest that many people resolve this inner conflict by finding shortcomings in the person needing help. “It’s a pervasive phenomenon, but it has barely been studied,” he said. 

For the study, Boyer and co-authors — including Eric Chantland, a data scientist in the Department of Anthropology — presented test subjects with a variety of fictitious news stories describing cases of misfortune, such as someone in a car accident while texting and driving, someone shot by an unsecured gun, and someone attacked by a bear while hiking.

Participants thought the stories were real, but each scenario was carefully designed to test a person’s empathy and willingness to help. After reading each story, test subjects were asked to rate the character of the victim and their level of blame for the mishap. In some experiments, participants were offered a chance to donate their total compensation for participating in the study, up to 60 cents, to help the victim. In others, they were asked if they would hypothetically be willing to help the person with their own money. After the experiments were completed, participants were reassured the stories were made up for the study.

Results suggested a general lack of generosity. For example, participants in one experiment offered to donate an average of about 15 cents to the victim, less than a third of the maximum amount possible. A closer look at the data across multiple experiments revealed an intriguing trend: The more character flaws participants saw in a victim, the less willing they were to donate. “They’re saying that the victim doesn’t deserve help,” Boyer said.

The finding goes against a long-held assumption about human nature. In the 1960s, psychologists suggested people were reluctant to help victims of misfortune based on a fundamental belief that the world was fair and bad things only happened to bad people.

But Boyer says the idea of a just world is both uncommon and unfounded. “In most places, people think the world is deeply unfair,” Boyer said.

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