By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
There is a story making the rounds on social media, unfortunately a true story, about two Argentinian young women in their twenties. Maria José Coni and Marina Menegazzo were traveling the world together and found themselves in Ecuador without a place to stay for the night. They accepted an offer from two men they didn't know. A few days later, their bodies were found in plastic bags by the side of the road. Your first thought might be, "How awful," and focus on the monsters who committed those murders. And your second thought might be, "What were they thinking?" and focus on the the judgment of the two young women in putting themselves in the hands of strangers. And for some of us -- be honest -- that second thought, "What were they thinking?," was really the first thought.
There is a human tendency to focus on the victim, and that tendency can sometimes translate into disproportionate blame. But that tendency is not distributed equally. Knowing something about your own individual moral foundations, I could have predicted which readers would focus first on the victims and which would focus first on the perpetrators. And language and framing also plays a role. Note that the story above is framed as being about two young Argentinian women. If it was instead framed as being about two Ecuadorian predators, your focus would be different. That, in a nutshell, is the conclusion of new research (Niemi & Young, 2016) looking at the question, "Why do victims sometimes receive sympathy and sometimes receive blame?" Over the course of four studies, the authors focus on the content of individual moral values in order to predict attitudes toward victims in scenarios like the one above. They find that those who put the greatest emphasis on the "binding values" of loyalty, obedience, and purity will increase blame toward victims, while those who emphasize "individualizing values," focusing on care, fairness, and a prohibition against harm, will instead focus foremost on the perpetrators. This research carries clear implications for litigators: In both civil and criminal contexts, there are perceived victims and perpetrators, and the individual differences in how we blame one versus the other is important to both jury selection and message construction.