New research published in Personality and Individual Differences provides evidence that negative emotions and emotion avoidance play an important role in victim derogation.
Victim derogation describes the phenomenon in which innocent victims of suffering are perceived as having less positive traits. Previous theories have held that this negative bias towards victims is used to maintain the belief that the world is fundamentally fair. But the new study suggest that this is not always the case.
“In 2011, I was involved in the Syrian nonviolent movement calling for democracy and human rights. During the uprising, videos flooded YouTube showing unarmed protestors shot in cold blood and children tortured to death,” said study author Jude Ash, a PhD student at the University of Notre Dame
“What struck me most was how some people around me responded to those scenes of innocent victimization not with empathy, but with victim blaming and derogation. I was then arrested and tortured myself and was further shocked when, after being released, members of my own family blamed me for bringing this to myself. Consequently, I became curious about what factors play into how people respond to innocent victims.”
In the study, 100 undergraduate students watched five short videos showing the suffering of innocent victims, such as a scene depicting a call from a 9/11 victim before the collapse of the Twin Towers. After watching each video, the participants then completed assessments of victim derogation and negative emotions. After watching all five videos, the participants completed questionnaires on just-world beliefs and emotion avoidance.
The researchers found that higher levels of negative emotions were associated with reduced victim derogation among participants with a lower tendency to avoid their emotions. “Our findings suggest that when individuals empathize with victims by vicariously experiencing their distress, they may be less likely to derogate them,” the researchers wrote in their study.
Beliefs in a just world, on the other hand, were unrelated to victim derogation. In other words, people who agreed with statements such as “People usually receive the outcomes that they deserve” were not more likely to derogate the victims.
“For more than 5 decades, the phenomena of victim blaming and derogation have been explained with just-world theory, which posits that beliefs about a just-world underlie these phenomena. The findings in our study challenge just-world theory and suggest that emotional factors such as empathy and emotion avoidance may play a more important role than beliefs in explaining victim blaming,” Ash told PsyPost.
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“This is a preliminary study. It was cross-sectional and correlational in nature and any causal inferences should be made with caution. Future directions include experimentally manipulating empathy and emotion avoidance to further clarify the roles of negative emotions and emotion avoidance in victim derogation,” Ash explained.
“The study suggests an important methodological flaw in the way psychological studies are conducted. Previous studies on victim-blaming and derogation had used written vignettes that may not have approximated real-life very well. By contrast, our study shows that when we used emotionally-arousing videos that more accurately simulated real-life, just-world beliefs had no effect on victim-blaming/derogation.”
“Our findings suggest that, given the empirical evidence showing that emotions strongly contribute to behavior, psychological studies should use more emotionally-arousing stimuli, include emotional variables in their statistical models, and strive to approximate real-life as much as possible,” Ash added.
The study, “Negative emotions and emotion avoidance in victim derogation“, was authored by Jude Ash and K. Lira Yoon.
(Photo credit: Anthony Gale)