Let’s dive deeper into these biases.
The first interpretation bias involves the perceived offensiveness of a social situation. The researchers found that people with a higher tendency of interpersonal victimhood perceived both low-severity offenses (e.g., lack of help) and high-severity offenses (e.g., offensive statement regarding their integrity and personality) as more severe.
The second interpretation bias involves the anticipation of hurt in ambiguous situations. The researchers found that people with a greater tendency of interpersonal victimhood were more likely to assume that a new manager in their department would show less consideration and willingness to help them even before they actually met.
Attribution of Hurtful Behaviors
Those with a tendency for interpersonal victimhood were also more likely to attribute negative intentions on the part of the offender and were also more likely to feel a greater intensity and duration of negative emotions following a hurtful event.
These findings are consistent with work showing that the extent to which people find an interaction hurtful is related to their perception that the hurtful behavior was intentional. People with a tendency for interpersonal victimhood may experience offenses more intensely because they attribute more malicious intent to the offender than those who score lower in a tendency for interpersonal victimhood.
This bias has been found to exist at the collective level as well. Social psychologist Noa Schori-Eyal and colleagues found that those who scored higher on a “Perpetual In-group Victimhood Orientation” scale—measuring the belief that one’s in-group is constantly being victimized and persecuted by different enemies and in different time periods—had a greater tendency to categorize out-groups as hostile to the ingroup and responded faster to such categorization (suggesting it was more automatic). High scorers on this scale were also more likely to attribute malevolent intentions to out-group members in ambiguous situations; and when primed with reminders of historical group trauma, they were more likely to attribute malevolent intentions to the out-group.
It’s also noteworthy that in their study, even though most of their participants were Jewish Israelis, there was still quite a bit of variability in the degree to which people endorsed the perpetual in-group victimhood orientation. This is further evidence that just because someone has been victimized doesn’t mean that they have to view themselves as a victim. The victimhood mindset is not the same as actually experiencing collective and/or interpersonal trauma, and there exist a number of people who experienced the same trauma but refused to perceive themselves as perpetual in-group victims.
Those with a greater tendency for interpersonal victimhood also had a greater negative memory bias, recalling more words representing offensive behaviors and feelings of hurt (e.g., “betrayal,” “anger,” “disappointment”), and recalling negative emotions more easily. The tendency for interpersonal victimhood was unrelated to positive interpretations, attributions or the recall of positive emotional words suggesting that it was specifically the negative stimuli that activated the victimhood mindset. These findings are in line with prior studies finding that rumination facilitates increased negative recall of events and recognition in different psychological situations.
At the group level, groups are likely to endorse and remember events that affected them the most emotionally, including events in which the ingroup was victimized by another group.
The researchers also found that people with a high tendency for interpersonal victimhood were less willing to forgive others after an offense, expressed an increased desire for revenge rather than mere avoidance, and actually were more likely to behave in a revengeful manner. The researchers argue that one possible explanation for the low avoidant tendencies may be the higher need for recognition among those scoring high in a tendency for interpersonal victimhood. Importantly, this effect was mediated by perspective taking, which was negatively correlated with the tendency for interpersonal victimhood.
Similar findings have been found at the group level. A strong sense of collective victimhood is associated with a low willingness to forgive and an increased desire for revenge. This finding has been replicated in diverse contexts, including thinking of the Holocaust, the conflict in Northern Ireland and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A MINDSET’S ORIGINS
Where does the victimhood mindset come from? At an individual level, many different factors most certainly play a role, including real victimization in one’s past. However, the researchers found that an anxious attachment style was a particularly strong antecedent of the tendency for interpersonal victimhood.
Anxiously attached individuals tend to be dependent on the approval and continual validation of others. They seek reassurance continually, stemming from doubts about their own social value. This leads to anxiously attached individuals seeing others in a highly ambivalent manner.
On the one hand, anxiously attached individuals anticipate rejection from others. On the other hand, they feel dependent on others to validate their self-esteem and worth. As for the direct link between anxious attachment and the tendency for interpersonal victimhood, the researchers note that “from a motivational point of view, the tendency for interpersonal victimhood seems to offer anxiously attached individuals an effective framework for constructing their insecure relations with others, which involves garnering their attention, compassion, and evaluation, and at the same time experiencing difficult negative feelings and expressing them within their relationships.”
At the group level, Gabay and her colleagues point to the potential role of socialization processes in the development of collective victimhood. They note that victim beliefs, as is the case for any other human belief, can be learned (see here and here). Through many different channels—such as education, TV programs and online social media—group members can learn that victimhood can be leveraged as a power play, and that aggressiveness can be legitimate and fair if one party has suffered. People may learn that internalizing a victimhood mentality can give them power over others and protect them from any of the consequences of online mobbing and shaming that they may impose on members of the perceived out-group.
FROM VICTIMHOOD TO GROWTH
Truth is, we currently live in a culture where many political and cultural groups and individuals emphasize their victimhood identity and compete in the “Victimhood Olympics.” Charles Sykes, author of A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American character, noted that this stems in part from the entitlement of groups and individuals for happiness and fulfillment. Building on Sykes’ work, Gabay and her colleagues note: “When these feelings of entitlement are combined with a high individual-level tendency for interpersonal victimhood, social change struggles are more likely to take an aggressive, disparaging, and condescending form.”
But there’s the thing: If socialization processes can instill in individuals a victimhood mindset, then surely the very same processes can instill in people a personal growth mindset. What if we all learned at a young age that our traumas don’t have to define us? That it’s possible to have experienced a trauma and for victimhood to not form the core of our identity? That it’s even possible to grow from trauma, to become a better person, to use the experiences we’ve had in our lives toward working to instill hope and possibility to others who were in a similar situation? What if we all learned that it’s possible to have healthy pride for an in-group without having out-group hate? That if you expect kindness from others, it pays to be kind yourself? That no one is entitled to anything, but we all are worthy of being treated as human?
This would be quite the paradigm shift, but it would be in line with the latest social science that makes clear that a perpetual victimhood mindset leads us to see the world with rose-tinted glasses. With a clear lens, we’d be able to see that not everyone in our out-group is evil, and not everyone in our in-group is a saint. We’re all human with the same underlying needs to belong, to be seen, to be heard and to matter.
Seeing reality as clearly as possible is an essential step to making long-lasting change, and I believe one important step along that path is to shed the perpetual victimhood mindset for something more productive, constructive, hopeful and amenable to building positive relationships with others.