A series of 17 studies published in Science Advances document the Virtuous Victim effect – the tendency for people to see victims of wrongdoing as more morally virtuous than non-victims who have behaved in an identical manner.
Narratives about victims of immoral acts are prevalent in contemporary discourse – found in personal and work lives, the news, and on social media. Perceptions of victims may have societal implications, including the shaping of policy and legal responses, the treatment of victims in their social networks, the decisions victims make about whether their story ought to be shared with others, and the societal framing and evaluation of moral debates regarding allegations of victimization.
Some research suggests that at times victims are blamed for causing their own victimization. Other bodies of work have found that people perceive victims as less agentic and more passive. In this work, Jillian J. Jordan and Maryam Kouchaki ask: “How do people perceive the moral character of victims?”
A total of 9,676 participants were recruited across 17 experiments, with 16 of the studies conducted online and 1 conducted in a laboratory. The basic design of this research involved assigning participants to a neutral or victim condition, where they were presented with narratives that contained identical information regarding a target character’s behaviour. In the victim condition, participants were informed that another character treated the target immorally, while this was not the case for the neutral condition.
After reading narratives, participants provided a morality and trustworthiness rating for the target character. Some experiments also included secondary measures, such as sympathy felt for the target. This basic design was applied to six different narratives with six distinct moral transgressions (e.g., theft, verbal attack, medical malpractice).
The researchers also explored potential boundaries of the Virtuous Victim effect by manipulating variables such as first or third person narration, target gender, and competence. As well, they explored possible explanations for the effect, including the Justice Restoration Hypothesis which argues that victims are seen as moral because this motivates punishment of perpetrators and helping of victims, and people are frequently incentivized to enact or encourage such justice-restorative actions.
Jordan and Kouchaki found that victims are often seen as more virtuous than non-victims across a wide range of moral transgressions – not because of how they have behaved, but because of how others have mistreated them. This effect was not moderated by the victim’s race or gender. In exploring the potential boundaries of this effect, the researchers found that the effect may be especially likely for victim narratives that describe the perpetrator and are narrated in third person. Further, this effect was specific to victims of immortality, and did not extend to accidental victims, or to moral virtue (i.e., positive but nonmoral traits, such as athleticism and funniness).
Additionally, the results provide support for the Justice Restoration Hypothesis, which suggests that seeing victims as virtuous motivates justice-restorative action. Importantly, introducing disincentives for such action eliminated the Virtuous Victim effect.
One limitation of this work is that it relied on hypothetical narratives, with most of these presented in third person. The authors suggest that future work explore perceptions of real-world victims, both in third person contexts (e.g., news coverage, gossip), as well as personal story sharing.
The study, “Virtuous victims”, was authored by Jillian J. Jordan and Maryam Kouchaki.