Perception & Judgment
Are we more likely to blame the victims of accidents with severe rather than benign consequences?
As observed by Walster (1966), “people have no real control over many of the things that happen to them”. Logically, then, we usually acknowledge “that some kinds of accidents are bound to occur, and that these accidents could happen to anyone. And when we hear of an accident, for the most part we sympathize with the helpless victim of fate.” However, we also routinely blame the victim—a tendency that “increases as the consequences of the accident become more serious”. According to Walster (1966), the reason is the following: “When we hear of a person who has suffered a small loss, it is easy to feel sympathy for the sufferer, attributing his misfortune to chance and acknowledging that unpleasant things like the accident can happen to a person through no fault of his own. As the magnitude of the misfortune increases, however, it becomes more and more unpleasant to acknowledge that ‘this is the kind of a thing that could happen to anyone.’ Such an admission implies a catastrophe of similar magnitude could happen to you. If we can categorize a serious accident as in some way the victim’s fault, it is reassuring. We then simply need to assure ourselves that we are a different kind of person from the victim, or that we would behave differently under similar circumstances, and we feel protected from catastrophe.”
Such an explanation relates directly to the “Just World Belief” theorized by Melvin Lerner. According to Lerner (1980), the “belief in a just world” is predominant among human beings. Such a “just” world is one in which the relation between people’s characteristics, actions, and life events are not only predictable but also appropriate. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, such a belief is central to human goal-directed behavior for two reasons. First, it supports our sense of efficacy by guaranteeing that our environment is largely under our control. Second, it supports our optimism by reassuring us that, to the extent that they are not controllable, random events are still “fair”. Consequently, faced with evidence that the world is not just, we tend to use different cognitive strategies to salvage this important belief. One such strategy is to reinterpret the characteristics and/or actions of the victim, so as to make their suffering logical and/or deserved. Although “normal”, Lerner (1980) deemed such a reaction irrational and problematic. To him, a rational and effective response would be for human beings to use their new-gained knowledge of the Just World Belief to accept the reality of injustice and try to prevent or address the corresponding issues.
Participants and Procedures
88 students from the University of Minnesota.
“To test the proposition that the more serious the negative consequences the victim suffers, the more we feel that he is in some way responsible for the punishment he received, subjects were asked to rate the responsibility of a young man for an accident” (Walster 1966.)
To prevent any suspicion, participants were actually treated as research staff and told that they were helping select materials and procedures for a future experiment. To do so, they were to listen to a tape, and then to answer a series of questions. The recordings provided identical accounts of the personality of a teenager named Lennie. First, his mom described Lennie as a good boy. Then, a former teacher painted him as a nice and enthusiastic person who was always very conscientious with their schoolwork and only failed to submit an assignment once (because of a lack of skill and money.) Next, a neighbor detailed the car accident in the following terms:
“That was late this summer. Lennie had just bought a car—it was about 6 years old or so. He and his buddy drove up to Duluth and parked at the top of this hill. Lennie’s buddy said Lennie did set the handbrake, but while they were gone the car started rolling. Some camp police who checked the car later said the brake cable was pretty badly rusted and must have broken. Anyway, the car started rolling…”
At this point, the tapes explained different sets of consequences:
Tape I explained that the car could have been destroyed if it had gone all the way down hill, but was fortunately stopped by a stump; so that Lennie’s possession suffered no real damage (only a tiny dent on the bumper).
Tape II explained that the car could have been stopped by a stump, but unfortunately went all the way down hill and was seriously damaged by a tree; so that Lennie’s possession was completely totaled.
Tape III explained that the car could have crashed into the window of a nearby store and hurt a kid or the grocer, but was fortunately stopped by a stump; so that Lennie’s possession suffered no real damage (only a tiny dent on the bumper).
Tape IV explained that the car could have been stopped by a stump, but unfortunately crashed into the window of a nearby store, dazing a kid and hurting the grocer, who stayed in the hospital for an entire year.
Finally, another teacher described Lennie as an average student, while a neighbor said that he didn’t know the boy.
The questions participants had to answer were the following:
First, they were asked: “Do you feel that any responsibility should be assigned to Lennie for the automobile accident?” and given 4 possible answers, from “Lennie was not at all responsible; the accident was completely beyond his control”, to “Lennie was completely responsible for the accident”.
The second section assessed participants’ evaluation of Lennie’s carelessness. To do so, the researcher asked for their “hunch” about several facts that were not definitively contained in the tape:
- Did Lennie check the brakes between the purchase of the car and the accident?
- Did Lennie pull the handbrake?
- Did Lennie turn the wheels towards the curb?
The next section of the questionnaire focused on participants’ convictions related to moral standards, which they probably used to judge Lennie. This included: “How often is a person ‘morally responsible’ for having his brakes and other safety devices checked?”
Finally, the last question asked participants how much they liked Lennie.
As can be seen from the table above, more responsibility was assigned to Lennie for the severe accidents than for the mild ones. Interestingly, this increased responsibility was not a result of the imputation of greater carelessness. Rather, “the standards subjects profess (and the standards by which they presumably judge Lennie) increase in strictness as the ‘accidental’ consequences become more severe.”
NB. In tape IV, Lennie was not really the victim of the accident. However, his increased responsibility can still be explained by the Just World Belief. Walster (1966) writes:
“But what if it is not possible to discredit the victim? Does one also gain reassurance from attributing responsibility for the catastrophe to someone else? Probably so. If a serious accident is seen as the consequence of an unpredictable set of circumstances, beyond anyone’s control or anticipation, a person is forced to concede the catastrophe could happen to him. If, however, he decides that the event was a predictable, controllable one, if he decides that someone was responsible for the unpleasant event, he should feel somewhat more able to avert such a disaster. He can protect himself by putting people like the ones responsible away—isolating them so they cannot cause calamities, or reforming them so they will not cause them. Or, he can simply assure himself that the people in contact with himself are different or that their behavior could be controlled by him.”
Thus, the Just World Belief does not only explain the ease with which we “blame the victims”, but more generally our tendency to find culprits and assign blame for potentially threatening events. Even the thought that “bad things come from bad people” can be reassuring and, if not “just”, at least morally consistent. It does make the world more controllable by enhancing our perceived ability to understand and modify it.
In line with IB guidelines, we recommend that students only compare two conditions in their experiment and obtain a single measurable result for each participant in each condition. Doing otherwise would complicate inferential statistics without any benefit as far as the IA is concerned. Thus, students should only compare tapes I and II (or III and IV). Likewise, they participants should only be asked one critical (and numerical) question. However, students should feel free to modify the scenario, as well as the critical question, to make them relevant to their participants. There are many different contexts in which we attribute negative events affecting others to dispositional rather than to situational factors.
This experiment is easily adapted online, but students should make sure not to use the extensive deception from the original study.
Walster, E. (1966). Assignment of Responsibility for an Accident. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3(1), 73-79