A new psychological concept called “digressive victimhood” helps explain how dominant groups rebuff claims of discrimination

New research provides evidence that dominant social groups prefer to dismiss charges of discrimination by shifting the main subject of conversation away from particular acts of discrimination and onto broader topics. The findings have been published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

“This research arose out of conversations between myself and my coauthors, Ivy Onyeador and Miguel Unzueta. We had been noticing several examples of what we came to term digressive victimhood — members of dominant groups (e.g., White Americans) responding to charges of discrimination by simultaneously claiming victimhood and changing the topic of conversation (e.g., responding to accusations of racism with claims that their free speech was threatened),” said lead researcher Felix Danbold, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at University College London.

“Sometimes, these claims seemed to be a deliberate attempt to silence further criticism against the dominant group. We designed a series of studies to see if people generally view digressive victimhood claims in this way, and if the apparent strategic benefit of digressive victimhood claims might explain their popularity.”

The researchers first asked 467 Christian participants to read two excerpts from purported op-ed articles about LGBT individuals accusing Christians of discrimination. One excerpt employed a competitive victimhood argument and the other employed a digressive victimhood argument. The former op-ed argued that Christians were the true victims in modern America and needed to be protected, while the latter argued that religious liberty was the true victim in modern America and needed to be protected. After reading each excerpt, the participants indicated how much they endorsed the argument and how effective they thought the argument would be against arguments to the contrary.

Danbold and his team found that Christian Americans favored the digressive victimhood argument and believed it would be more effective in thwarting further criticism from LGBT activists compared to the competitive victimhood argument.

To examine whether digressive victimhood was favored in relation to other social issues, the researchers conducted a second study with 1,170 White participants, who listened to an audio clip from a purported podcast describing protests at a university in response to White students wearing “racially insensitive costumes” at a party. In one version of the audio clip, the host argued that the true victims were the students who wore the costumes and who were “being denied access to education by the university.” In another version, the host argued that the true victim was “the right to free speech in America.”

In line with their previous results, the researchers found that White Americans favored the digressive victimhood argument (free speech is the true victim) and believed it would be more effective in shutting down further protest or criticism.

But the researchers also wanted to explore how non-dominant groups responded to victimhood claims made by a dominant group. In a third study, the researchers had 804 White and 640 non-White participants listen to and evaluate the same audio clips about protests over racially insensitive costumes.

Danbold and his colleagues found that non-White participants also favored the digressive victimhood argument over the competitive victimhood argument. Both White and non-White participants’ support for the digressive victimhood argument was related to perceiving it as a universal principle that protected the rights of everyone. But only White participants’ support for the digressive victimhood argument was associated with the belief that it would be more effective in silencing further criticism.

“We hope that this research helps people to draw distinctions between different types of victimhood claiming,” Danbold told PsyPost. “Sometimes members of dominant groups will claim victimhood in response to charges of discrimination by simply reversing these charges (e.g., claiming ‘reverse racism.’) Other times, they may claim victimhood while simultaneously shifting the topic of conversation (e.g., responding to accusations of racism with claims that their free speech is threatened.) We call the latter form of claiming, ‘digressive victimhood.’ Our research shows that members of dominant groups (e.g., White Americans) endorse digressive victimhood claims more strongly than more conventional competitive victimhood claims (e.g., those claiming ‘reverse racism.’) Our findings also suggest that this preference is rooted in the belief that digressive victimhood claims are more effective at preventing further criticism against the dominant group.”

The researchers also found that members of dominant groups who scored high on measures of prejudice were willing to endorse digressive victimhood arguments “even if they did not strongly believe in the principle being defended in the claim.” In other words, Christians with anti-LGBT views were willing to endorse the digressive victimhood arguments even if they did not have a strong belief in religious freedom and highly prejudiced White Americans were willing to endorse the digressive victimhood arguments even if they did not strongly endorse the right of free speech.

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“We took a very focused approach in this research, only looking at how people responded to a few specific examples of victimhood claiming,” Danbold explained. “We hope future research will examine a wider array of victimhood claims and examine how and when members of dominant groups make these claims spontaneously.”

“We look forward to the conversation and additional research that this paper generates!”

The study, “Dominant groups support digressive victimhood claims to counter accusations of discrimination“, was authored by Felix Danbold, Ivuoma N. Onyeador, and Miguel M. Unzueta.

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