A recent series of studies reveals a strong connection between an individual’s tendency to feel victimized and their support for political violence. This research, which has been accepted for publication in Psychology of Violence, sheds light on how personal perceptions of victimhood can influence attitudes towards violent political actions.
In an era where political tensions often lead to violent outbreaks, understanding the root causes of such violence is crucial. Past research has linked trauma, abuse, and relative deprivation to violent political extremism. However, these factors alone don’t explain why some individuals, and not others, turn to violence under similar circumstances. The new research delves into trait victimhood – a consistent personal tendency to feel victimized in daily life – and its potential role in driving support for political violence.
“The initial interest was sparked when I came across the first papers Arie Kruglanski and colleagues wrote about the Significance Quest Theory,” explained study author Boaz Hameiri, the Head of the Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Tel Aviv University and co-editor of “Psychological Intergroup Interventions.”
“I always thought that while they conducted remarkable research and significantly contributed to our understanding on why people radicalize and engage in political violence, the theory was somewhat incomplete, as people can find meaning and significance in their lives through various means that do not necessarily have to be violent.”
“This gave me the initial motivation to try to understand what other factors might be driving radicalization and violence,” the researchers said. “I thought that the Tendency for Interpersonal Victimhood (or trait victimhood), a personality construct that I helped develop a few years ago, might play a significant role due this trait’s effects on the interpersonal level. So, I set out to explore this hypothesis.”
The research was carried out in three distinct studies, each designed to explore different aspects of the relationship between trait victimhood and political violence.
In the first study, the researchers surveyed 393 participants, recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk), to assess their levels of trait victimhood, search for meaning in life, and support for abstract political violence. The participants, ranging in age and representing a diverse demographic, responded to a series of carefully designed questionnaires.
The researchers found a significant correlation between trait victimhood and support for political violence. In other words, those who agreed with statements such as “It is very hard for me to stop thinking about the injustice others have done to me” and “It is important to me that people who hurt me acknowledge that an injustice has been done to me” were more likely to agree with statements such as “Violence is permissible when conducted by a group fighting for a just cause.”
Notably, this correlation was moderated by the individual’s search for meaning in life – meaning that the link between searching for meaning and supporting political violence was stronger in those with high levels of trait victimhood.
The second study expanded the sample size and demographic representation. Here, 1,000 participants, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, were selected through YouGov, a web-based panel. This phase aimed to replicate the initial findings in a more nationally representative sample. It also introduced new measures, such as the participants’ sense of intergroup competitive victimhood and their history of engaging in real-world political violence, such as vandalizing property, threatening individuals, or physically attacking others.
Intergroup competitive victimhood is a psychological concept that refers to a situation where members of different groups compete to establish that their group has suffered more than the other. In this study, participants were asked to evaluate the extent to which they felt that their group (conservatives for Republican participants and liberals for Democrat participants) had experienced more injustice than the other group.
The second study reinforced the previous findings in a larger, more diverse group. Hameiri and his colleagues found that trait victimhood was not only directly linked to support for political violence but also indirectly, through intergroup competitive victimhood. Interestingly, while trait victimhood was associated with past engagement in violent political behavior, it did not correlate with engagement in non-violent political actions, such as signing petitions.
The final study involved an experimental manipulation. A total of 824 participants from MTurk were asked to recall instances of intergroup competitive victimhood – situations where their political group was perceived as being treated unfairly. This manipulation was intended to explore the causal relationship between perceived group victimhood and support for political violence.
The experimental manipulation in the third study further supported the findings. It demonstrated that merely recalling instances of intergroup competitive victimhood increased support for political violence, but significantly so only among those participants who were high in trait victimhood. This finding suggests that while perceptions of group-based victimization can influence attitudes towards violence, it is particularly potent when combined with an individual’s predisposition to feel victimized.
“I think that one of the main takeaways from this study is that we need comprehensive models that take into account various contextual, situational and dispositional factors to explain complicated social phenomena; in this case, radicalization and political violence,” Hameiri told PsyPost.
“This is necessary in order for us to better understand why, in some cases, individuals become more extreme and engage in political violence even if objectively they or their group have not suffered severe injustices; while, in other cases, even individuals or their groups who have, genuinely, experienced victimization and unfair treatment do not all support and engage in political violence. In the current research, we added our contribution to this endeavor by showing the important role trait victimhood plays in these processes.”
But the new study, like all research, includes some caveats. Firstly, the majority of participants were from the United States, and most were recruited through Mechanical Turk, which might limit the generalizability of the findings to other cultures and contexts. Secondly, the correlational nature of much of the research makes it challenging to establish cause-and-effect relationships.
“There are several limitations and important questions that are left for future research,” Hameiri explained. “First, the research is mostly correlational, so we cannot fully establish that trait victimhood has a causal effect on political violence. This is because trait victimhood is a personality trait that I haven’t managed to manipulate (even though I tried several times, using several different manipulations).
“Second, the research was conducted only among Democrats and Republicans in the United States. However, since this original research was conducted, we replicated this model in various other contexts, albeit this research has not been published yet. As an important future direction, it’s important to understand what are the applied implications of this research. Does it contribute to our ability to design better interventions to mitigate political violence? I am currently working with my colleague, Rebecca Littman from the University of Illinois Chicago, on this exciting possibility.”
“This research is near and dear to my heart because it’s strongly connected for me to the illness and passing of one of the coauthors on the paper, and my former postdoc advisor at the University of Pennsylvania, Emile Bruneau,” Hameiri added. “On the same day, only a few hours after I shared with him the results of the first study of this project, he told Samantha Moore-Berg (another coauthor on the paper and a former postdoc of Emile) and me that he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Emile devoted his life to ‘put science to work for peace,’ as he used to say. He passed on September 30, 2020.”
The study, “Perceived victimhood shapes support for inter-partisan political violence in the United States“, was authored by Boaz Hameiri, Samantha L. Moore-Berg, Celia Guillard, Emily Falk, and Emile Bruneau.