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Why Everybody Wants to Be the Victim

2012 April 12
by Eric Horowitz

Nowadays whenever a political group is accused of unjustly harming another group, it will invariably play some kind of victim card (e.g. “We’re not anti-capitalist racists screwing you over, you’re anti-capitalist racists screwing us over.”) It’s the political version of  responding to a positive steroid test with “I was taking cold medication.”

Thanks to the work done by a group of University of Kansas psychologists, we have a pretty good idea of why people respond to accusations by acting as though they have been wronged. When a group’s moral identity is threatened by accusations of unjust harm, the group (whether it be a political party, ethnicity, or your intramural basketball team) will attempt to reclaim its moral standing by engaging in something called “competitive victimhood.”

Accusations of unjust harm doing by the ingroup threaten the group’s moral identity. One strategy for restoring ingroup moral identity after such a threat is competitive victimhood: claiming the ingroup has suffered compared with the harmed outgroup. Men accused of harming women were more likely to claim that men are discriminated against compared with women (Study 1), and women showed the same effect when accused of discriminating against men (Study 3). Undergraduates engaged in competitive victimhood with university staff after their group was accused of harming staff (Study 2).

Why is the moral standing that comes from being the “true” victim so important? According to the authors, past research demonstrates that victim status “gives groups moral license to commit acts that would normally be condemned.” If Group A harms Group B, but is able to claim that they are actually being harmed by B, it makes it a lot easier for A to continue to harm B.

One reason we’re seeing an uptick in politically-driven competitive victimhood is that politics is increasingly becoming all about morals. Strategists have figured out that people respond to moral arguments, and so the two parties can no longer disagree without attacking the other’s moral standing. In the 1980′s you could support higher taxes or the deregulation of public education without being bent on destroying America. That’s no longer the case. The easy response to the constant attacks on your moral identity is to play the victim card, and that creates a cycle of competitive victimhood that makes compromise impossible.
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Sullivan, D., Landau, M., Branscombe, N., & Rothschild, Z. (2012). Competitive victimhood as a response to accusations of ingroup harm doing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (4), 778-795 DOI: 10.1037/a0026573
Wohl, M., & Branscombe, N. (2008). Remembering historical victimization: Collective guilt for current ingroup transgressions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94 (6), 988-1006 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.94.6.988

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