Perceptions of victimhood: effects of culpability and severity of misfortune

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University of Alabama Libraries

Numerous social psychological studies have examined the factors that influence cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses to victims of misfortune. However, this body of research does not offer clear evidence regarding the factors that distinguish victims from non-victims. The current investigation sought to assess the role of two variables in decisions about victimhood: degree of culpability and severity of misfortune. Each of these variables was considered in three distinct levels to determine whether perceptions of victimhood function linearly with increases in culpability and misfortune severity. Participants read about a negative life event (i.e., a house fire) in which degree of culpability and severity of misfortune were manipulated, and then watched a video interview with the person who experienced the event. Participants then reported their emotional responses to the person’s misfortune, their attributional and interpersonal judgments about the person, and their appraisals of the person as a victim. Culpability and misfortune severity had significant linear effects on participants’ emotional responses, attributions, and interpersonal judgments of the person. More importantly, increased misfortune severity and decreased culpability led to stronger perceptions of the person as a victim and greater legitimacy of the person’s victim role benefits. Contrary to predictions, no interaction of culpability and misfortune severity occurred, suggesting that these two factors operate independently to shape observers’ perceptions of others as victims following a negative life event.

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Social psychology