I Know I Am, But What Are You? Competitive Use Of Victimhood

It’s no secret; I’m a paragon of mankind. Beyond simply being a wildly-talented genius, I’m also in such peak physical form that it’s common for people to mistake me for a walking Statue of David with longer hair. As the now-famous Old Spice commercial says, “Sadly, you are not me”, but wouldn’t it be nice for you if you could convince other people that you were? There’s no need to answer that; of course it would be, but the chances of you successfully pulling such a feat off are slim to none.

The more general point here is that, in the social world, you can benefit yourself by strategically manipulating what and how other people think about you and those around you. Further, this manipulation is going to be easier to pull off the less objectively observable the object of that manipulation is. For instance, if I could convince you that my future prospects are good – that I would be a powerful social ally – you might be more inclined to invest in maintaining a relationship with me and giving me assistance in the hopes that I will repay you in kind at some later date. However, I would have harder time trying to convince you I have blue eyes when you can easily verify that they are, in fact, brown.

He’s going to have a hell of a time convincing his boyfriend he’s gay now.

As I’ve written about before, one of those fuzzy concepts open to manipulation is victimhood. Given that legitimate victimhood status can be a powerful resource in the social world, and victimhood requires there be one or more perpetrators, it should come as no surprise that people often find themselves in disagreement about almost every facet of it: from harm, to intent, to blame, and far beyond. Different social contexts – such as morally condemning others vs. being morally condemned yourself – pose people with different adaptive problems to solve, and we should expect that people will process information in different ways, contingent on those contexts. A recent paper by Sullivan et al. (2012) examined the matter over the course of five studies, asking about people’s intuitions concerning the extent of their own victimhood in three contexts: one in which there was no harm being done, one in which a group they belong to was accused of doing harm, and one in which another group was accused of doing harm.

In the first study, 49 male undergrads were presented with a news story (though it was actually a fake news story because psychologists are tricksters) that had one of three conclusions: (a) men and women had equal opportunities in modern society, (b) women were discriminated against in modern society, but it was due to their own choices and biology, or (c) women were discriminated against, and this discrimination was intentionally perpetrated by men. Following this, the men indicated on a 7-point scale whether they thought men or women suffered more relative discrimination in modern society (where 1 indicated men suffered less, 4 indicated they suffered equally, and 7 indicated men suffered more). When confronted with the story where women were not discriminated against, men averaged a 1.69 on the scale; a similar set of results was found when women were depicted as suffering from self-inflicted discrimination, averaging a 1.87. However, when men were depicted as being the perpetrators of this discrimination, the ratings of perceived male oppression rose to 2.61. When men, as a group, were accused of causing harm, they reacted by suggesting they were themselves a victim of more discrimination, as if to suggest that the discrimination women faced wasn’t so bad.

What’s curious about those results is that men didn’t rate the discrimination they faced, relative to women, as more equal when the news article suggested equality in that domain. Rather, they only adjusted their ratings up when their group was painted as the perpetrators of discrimination. The information they were being given didn’t seem to phase them much until it got personal, which is pretty neat.

A similar pattern of findings arose for women in a following experiment. One-hundred forty-two women read a fictional news story about how men were discriminated against when it came to hiring practices, and this discrimination either came from other men or women. Following that, the women filled out the same 7-point scale as before. When men were depicted as responsible for the discrimination against other men, women averaged a 5.16 on the scale, but when women were depicted as being the cause of that discrimination, that number rose to a 5.42. While this rise in ratings of victimhood was smaller than the rise seen with the men, it was still statistically significant. The difference in the scale of these results might be due to the subjects, (the males were undergrads whereas the women were recruited on Mturk) or perhaps the nature of the stories themselves, which were notably different across experiments.

Sexist male behavior is the cause of all the problems for women across society. On the other hand, 65% of women might not hire a man. Seems even-handed to me.

Two of the five experiments also examined whether one group discriminating against another in general was enough to trigger competitive victimhood, or whether one’s own group had to be the perpetrator of the discrimination to cause the behavior. Since they had similar results, I’ll focus on the one regarding race. In this experiment, 51 White students read a story about how Black students tended to be discriminated against when it came to university admissions, and this discrimination was perpetrated either predominately by other White people, or by Asian people. Following this, they filled out that same 7-point scale. When Blacks were being discriminated against by Asians, the White participants averaged a 2.0 on the scale, but when it was Whites discriminating against Black students, this average rose to 2.78. What these results demonstrate is that it’s not enough for some group to just be claiming victimhood status; in order to trigger competitive victimhood, your group needs to be named as the perpetrator.

These results fit neatly with previous research demonstrating that when it comes to assigning blame, people are less likely to assign blame to a victim, relative to a non-victim or hero. When people are being blamed for causing some harm, they tend to see themselves as greater victims, likely in order to better dissuade others from engaging in punishment. However, when people are not being blamed, there is no need to deflect punishment, and, accordingly, the bias to see oneself as a victim diminishes.

There is one part of the paper that bothered me in a big way: the authors’ suggestions about which groups face more victimization objectively. As far as I can tell, there is no good way to measure victimhood objectively, and, as the results of this experiment show, subjective claims and assessments of victimhood themselves are likely to modified by outside factors. For example, consider two cases: (a) a woman suggests that her boyfriend is physically abusing her, vs. (b) a man suggesting that his girlfriend is physically abusing him. Strictly in terms of which claim is more likely to be believed – regardless of whether it’s true or not – I would put the man’s claim at a disadvantage. Further, if it is believed, there are likely different costs and benefits for men and women surrounding such a claim. Perhaps women would be more likely to receive support, where a man might just be painted as a wimp and lose status among both his male and female peers.

Whether that pattern itself actually holds is besides the point. The larger issue here is that this strategy of claiming victimhood may not work equally well for all people, and it’s important to consider that when assessing people’s judgments of their victimhood. The third-parties that are assessing these claims are not merely passive pawns waiting to be manipulated by others; they have their own adaptive problems to solve when it comes to assessment. To the extent that these problems entailed reproductive costs and benefits, selection would have fashioned psychological mechanisms to deal with them. A man might have more of a vested interest in concerning himself with an attractive woman’s claim to victimhood over a sexually unappealing man, as preferentially helping one of the two might tend to be more reproductively useful.

How often do you come across stories of knights rescuing strange “dudes in distress”, relative to strange damsels?

It should be noted that claiming victimhood is not the only way of deflecting punishment; shifting the blame back towards the victim would likely work as well. The results indicated that competitive victimhood was not triggered in those contexts, presumably because there was no need for it. That’s not to say that they two could not work together – i.e. you’re the cause of your own misfortune as well as the cause of mine – but rather to note that different strategies are available, and will likely be utilized differently by different groups, contingent on their relative costs and benefits. Further work is going to want to not only figure out what those other tactics are, but assess their effectiveness, as rated by third-parties.

I’d like to conclude by talking briefly about the quality of the “theory” put forth by the authors in this paper to explain their results: social identity theory. Here is how they define it in the introduction:

Individuals are motivated to maintain a positive moral evaluation of their social group…we argue that when confronted with accusations of in-group harm doing…individuals will defensively attempt to bolster the in-group’s moral status in order to diffuse the threat.

As Steven Pinker has noted, explanations like these are most certainly not theories; they are simply restatements of findings that need a theory to explain them. Unfortunately, non-evolutionary minded researchers will often resort to this kind of circularity as they lack any way of escaping it. To suggest that people have all these cognitive biases to just “feel good” about themselves or their group is nonsense (Kurzban, 2010). Feeling good, on its own, is not something that could possibly have been selected for in the first place, but even if it could have been, it would be curious why people wouldn’t simply just feel good about their social group, rather than going through cognitive gymnastics to try and justify it. I find the evolutionary framework to provide a much more satisfying answer to the question, as well as illuminating future directions for research. As far as I can tell, the “feel good” theory does not.

References: Kurzban, R. (2010). Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sullivan, D., Landau, M.J., Branscombe, N.R., & Rothschild, Z.K. (2012). Competitive victimhood as a response to accusations of ingroup harm doing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 778-795.

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