Jordan, J., & Kouchaki, M. (2020, April 11).
Humans ubiquitously encounter narratives about immoral acts and their victims. Here, we demonstrate that these narratives can influence perceptions of victims’ moral character. Specifically, across a wide range of contexts, victims are seen as more moral than non-victims who have behaved identically. Using 13 experiments (total n = 8,358), we explore this Virtuous Victim effect. We show that it is specific to victims of immorality (i.e., it does not extend equally to victims of accidental misfortune) and to moral virtue (i.e., it does not extend equally to positive nonmoral traits). We also show that the Virtuous Victim effect can occur online and in the lab, when subjects have other morally relevant information about the victim, when subjects have a direct opportunity to condemn the perpetrator, and in the context of both third- and first-person victim narratives. Finally, we provide support for the Justice Restoration Hypothesis, which posits that people see victims as moral in order to motivate adaptive justice-restorative action (i.e., punishment of perpetrators and helping of victims). We show that people see victims as having elevated moral character, but do not expect them to behave more morally or less immorally—a pattern that is consistent with the Justice Restoration Hypothesis, but not readily explained by alternative explanations for the Virtuous Victim effect. And we provide both correlational and causal evidence for a key prediction of the Justice Restoration Hypothesis: when people do not perceive incentives to help victims and punish perpetrators, the Virtuous Victim effect disappears.
From the Discussion
Our theory and results negate the hypothesis that people see victims as morally deserving of mistreatment in order to maintain just world beliefs. We suggest that, when exposed to apparent injustice, the default reaction is not to justify what has occurred, but rather to seek to restore justice (by punishing the perpetrator and/or helping the victim) .It has been proposed that restoring justice is another route through which people can maintain just world beliefs(25, 26). And we have argued it is typically a more adaptive response to wrongdoing, because people frequently face incentives for justice-restorative action. Our experiments are consistent with the hypothesis that in order to adaptively motivate such action, people see victims as morally good. Future research should investigate whether people also see victims as possessing other traits (e.g., helpless, neediness, or innocence) that might motivate justice-restorative action.