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Innocent Victim

Main Findings

When we are helpless in a situation where one is suffering, we tend to devalue the victim by assuming he or she somehow deserved the suffering or devalue the victim by seeing him or her as having a more negative disposition.  This reduces the anxiety we feel and restores our faith in a "just world."

Video Introduction


Shortly after the Milgram experiment, Melvin Lerner conducted a study of his own using a similar (ethically questionable—at least by today's standards) ruse involving learning and electricity in the form of painful shocks.

Unlike Milgram, Lerner preferred the ladies—75 to be exact, who were recruited for this study, divided into several smaller groups where the conditions of the study varied slightly.  The basic premise was this: The groups of participants would watch as a learner (a female confederate) would answer questions, get them wrong, and receive painful shocks as a result.  Actually, no shocks were given, the confederate was just a really good actor.  After 10 minutes of watching Lerner's chamber of pain (a recording, which was ostensibly taking place live in the next room), the participants were given a set of instructions, depending on to which group they were assigned. These instructions were as follows:

  1. Midpoint.  The experiment was 1/2 over and would continue.
  2. Reward. The participants were allowed to vote to make the pain stop, then told that it would stop.
  3. Reward Decision.  Same as above but were not told the results of the vote.
  4. End Point. The participants were told that the experiment was over.
  5. Past Event. Same as above but the participants were shown another video of another "victim" whom they met after and saw she was fine and well compensated.
  6. Martyr. Same instructions as end point, except they added a little drama before the shocks began.  The victim protested to the shocks, but the instructor pleaded to her altruistic motives by telling her many students' credits are depending on her, and she will have wasted everyone's time if she were to back out.  The victim agreed, for the sake of the students.

Finally, the participants were asked to make their ratings of the victim using a scale that recorded how the participant felt about the victim.


The results provided good support for the hypothesis: When the observer was unable to stop the suffering, she chose to devalue and reject the victim.  The results provide support for the assertion that people have a great need to believe in a just world.

The subjects who verbally objected to the experiment exhibited much less rejection of the victim, indicating less of a coping strategy to reduce dissonance and more of an action strategy to fix what they perceived as a moral injustice.

The greatest rejection of the victim was seen in the martyr condition.  It appears as if the more noble the victim, the stronger the need to devalue the victim and make the suffering of the victim "just"—at least in the mind of the observer.


The obvious question is: Why did Lerner use all women for this study, and would the results be the same with men?  Although the sample of 75 is decent, these students were divided into the six smaller groups (conditions) listed in the summary.  For example, in the martyr condition, there were only 9 participants.

Applied Ideas

Blaming the victim is certainly not an uncommon phenomenon.  This practice is strongly associated with those who support the just world theory.  For example, Pat Robertson blamed the 2010 Haitian earthquake on a "pact that the Haitians made with the devil"  (“Why Is Pat Robertson Blaming Haiti? - The Haiti Earthquake - TIME,” n.d.).  While blaming the victim does allow us to relieve some cognitive anxiety and perhaps maintain an illusion of a perfectly just deity keeping score, it interferes with social change and moral progress.

What if Martin Luther King Jr. simply assumed our world was already just rather than encouraging all of us to create a just world?

More Video

Other Details

  • Year: 1966
  • Researcher(s): Melvin J. Lerner and Carolyn H. Simmons
  • Reference(s):
    Lerner, M. J., & Simmons, C. H. (1966). Observer’s Reaction to the “innocent Victim”: Compassion or Rejection? Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 4(2), 203–210.
    Why Is Pat Robertson Blaming Haiti? - The Haiti Earthquake - TIME. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1953379_1953494_1953674,00.html

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