Thursday, April 16, 2015


In a prior post, I discussed the finding that blaming is socially contagious.  After observing others protect their self-image by blaming external factors for failures, people are more likely to attribute blame to others for their own failures rather than take personal responsibility.  Within a divorced family, for example, children who observe their parents blame one another for the end of the marriage rather than acknowledging their contribution to its undoing are more likely to blame their coach or team members when they play poorly in a game rather than acknowledging that they need more practice.

But when people observe others experiencing an injustice, who do they blame then?    In the case of the scenario above, for instance, how does a child cope with the perception that one parent is being treated unfairly, that the other parent’s blame is misplaced and the consequences unfair?  To answer these questions, we can turn to the research findings of the social psychologist, Melvin Lerner.

Using creative laboratory experiments, Lerner demonstrated that people crave justice and will work hard to eliminate injustice.  That’s why we have a criminal justice system and rights’ movements. He also found, however, a troubling outcome when ending someone else’s suffering is difficult or beyond our means.  In these latter instances, people tend to reframe the victim as deserving the mistreatment (e.g., by denigrating their character or judgment).

Let’s illustrate.  In a series of Lerner’s studies, observers watched a ‘volunteer’ in a learning experiment appear to undergo painful shocks in response to incorrect answers.  One group of observers had the option of ending the shocks by assigning the learner to a positive reinforcement condition. A second group was not given that option; they could only watch helplessly while the learner was supposedly shocked.

As expected, most of the observers in the first group chose to end the learner’s discomfort by reassigning the learner to a different condition.  The observers achieved justice by ending the injustice. When debriefed, the observers in this first group described the learners positively as  likeable, innocent victims. In contrast, the second group of observers, who could not stop the alleged shocks, disparaged the learners, suggesting that they deserved to be shocked. In other words, the second group achieved justice by devaluing the learner: “She got what she deserved.” 

The conclusion?   Apparently it is not justice we crave so much as the perception of justice.  And in some instances, the perception of justice can be more easily achieved by reframing the victim as deserving the injustice rather than meeting the unfairness head on.  This is what is meant by the phrase: Blaming the victim.

These findings may help explain some instances of children unreasonably rejecting a parent post-divorce.  If a child of divorced parents perceives that one parent is the focus of unreasonable attacks by the other parent, she will perceive an injustice: “My father (or mother) doesn’t deserve to be treated that way.”   In most instances, however, children are in the same position as the observers in the second group described above—there isn’t much they can do to stop the unfair treatment.  And to confront the vindictive parent runs the risk of being targeted for similar unfair treatment.  For some of these children, the easier and safer route to achieve a sense of justice is to adopt the mindset that the maligned parent deserves such: “It’s okay for them to be treated like a jerk, they are a jerk, I can treat them that way too.”

Lerner’s findings, therefore, may offer one explanation for blame contagion in these families: Family members adopt a mindset that the rejected parent deserves to be mistreated to satisfy their own need for a sense of justice and to avoid the unsettled feeling that a wrong is being done. 

Such a process is not inevitable or irreversible.  Empathy for the mistreated family member can be heightened by encouraging others to recognize how they felt when they were similarly singled out for mistreatment or ridicule, such as by peers.  It can be pointed out that as much as we don’t like to accept it, the fact is that “bad things sometimes happen to good people” – and that this does not reflect upon their character.   Children can also be “hardened” to the effects of these dynamics by providing cognitive coping strategies.  One teen, for example, benefitted from reminding herself that “Dad’s not a bad guy, Mom is just angry and lashing out because things didn’t turn out the way she hoped. It’s about her, not him.”