How to Counter the Victim-Blaming Impulse After a Traffic Crash

When a driver strikes someone walking or biking, the tendency to blame the victim runs deep. Ask Raquel Nelson, who lost her young son to a hit-and-run driver, then got convicted for vehicular homicide, even though she was just trying to walk across the street with her children from a bus stop to her home. Or witness the reaction to the death of Amanda Phillips, who was struck by a truck driver while biking in Boston last week.

Whether you sympathize with victims may depend a lot on your political ideology. Photo: Peter on Flickr
Photo: Peter on Flickr

Why do people blame victims, and can anything be done to lead them to reconsider this response? New research published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that personal values play a large role in determining whether someone assigns culpability to victims or perpetrators — and that the way incidents are described can influence these attitudes.

Writing in the New York Times, study authors Laura Niemi and Liane Young say that people who value “loyalty, obedience and purity” are more likely to view victims of sex crimes and physical violence as “contaminated” or responsible. Psychologists refer to these as “binding values” because they’re associated with a worldview that prioritizes group cohesion. People who hold binding values tend to more more religious and more politically conservative.

On the other end of the spectrum are people who subscribe to “individualizing” values like fairness and reducing harm. This group is less likely to blame victims, Niemi and Young write, and tends to be politically progressive.

People’s values tend to be fixed, but Niemi and Young found that the way incidents are framed can influence how they perceive victims and perpetrators:

[W]e explored whether nudging people to focus on perpetrators versus victims could affect people’s moral judgments. We did so by placing either the perpetrator or the victim in the subject position in a majority of sentences in descriptions of sexual assault (e.g., “Lisa was forced by Dan” versus “Dan forced Lisa”). We then asked the participants to assign percentages of blame to the victim and perpetrator.

Consistent with our previous findings, the more participants endorsed binding values, the more blame they assigned to victims and the less blame they assigned to perpetrators. But we also found that focusing their attention on the perpetrator led to reduced ratings of victim blame, victim responsibility and references to victims’ actions, whereas a focus on victims led to greater victim blaming. This was surprising: You might assume that focusing on victims elicits more sympathy for them, but our results suggest that it may have the opposite effect.

Victim blaming appears to be deep-seated, rooted in core moral values, but also somewhat malleable, susceptible to subtle changes in language. For those looking to increase sympathy for victims, a practical first step may be to change how we talk: Focusing less on victims and more on perpetrators — “Why did he think he had license to rape?” rather than “Imagine what she must be going through” — may be a more effective way of serving justice.

While Niemi and Young found this effect was small compared to the moral orientation of the observer, it applied to everyone across the spectrum of values.

There are clear parallels to traffic violence. People may feel more sympathetic to a crash victim if the description of the incident focuses on the actions of the driver. A lot of coverage of traffic crashes mentions “cars,” not drivers, however. And even stories that do mention driver behavior only do so in the passive voice.

If we want fewer people to blame the victims of traffic crashes, we need reporters to change how they describe traffic violence.

  • Most importantly for the victim-vs-perpetrator effect, we must change how law enforcement officers describe crashes, which are almost always victim-blaming to some degree.

  • thfs

    Without casting aspersions on any particular agency or class of public servants, it’s worth asking whether there are particular lines of work that are more likely to attract individuals with binding values and how that influences reactions to crashes.

    That said, these kind of studies that rely on the researcher classifying and grouping sets of values sometimes have ideologically self-reinforcing methodologies (cf. work on “inactivated authoritarians personalities”). Not saying this one has that issue, but it’s well-known in the academic world.

  • Caleb

    Wow, this is a lazy, diffuse article. It sounds like it could lead to insight on first read, but upon closer examination, there’s just nothing there.

    There is definitely misplaced victim blaming happening in these incidents, but this particular analysis is just warmed over “pop psychology”.

  • betty barcode

    Yes. And when they describe any crash or traffic fatality as “a tragedy,” they are telegraphing that they don’t intend to press charges.

  • Anne A

    Too often they give the driver the benefit of the doubt and fail to write tickets, even when the crash narrative places the driver at fault.

  • neroden

    This is why corrupt cops attempt to hide the identities of killer drivers. If they hide the identity of the killer, it’s harder for the media to report on the killer. By not reporting on the killer, that leads the “binding values” types to blame the victim.

  • neroden

    They routinely conceal the identity of the killer driver. While publishing the name of the victim.

  • rp

    This is some very poor research, in my opinion. You shouldn’t do a study about values and how you frame the report. YOu need to isolate for one variable. This pretty much makes the results meaningless. Secondly, it is kind of meaningless to talk about blaming the victim. Because victim implies that it is the fault of the driver. sometimes it is the fault of the driver, and sometimes the bicyclist or pedestrian, and sometimes it is just a mishap or maybe partially one and partially the other. By suggesting that the one that takes the brunt of the injury, which of course is going to be the bicyclist or pedestrain, is a victim of the driver, you totally destroy any credibility. If the driver was at fault, then driver should be blamed. but if ped or bicyclist was at fault then they should be blamed. seems like there is some meat here that is worth exploring, ut by trying to juggle 3 different factors, they have destroyed any results.


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