By Jeff Boone
Many people don’t understand what victim mentality is let alone how it contributes to negative human outcomes. This article attempts to explain it in layman’s terms while specifically connecting it to community malaise.
But first a comment about envy. Specifically, I am talking about the natural human tendency to measure one’s self against associative peers and then to develop an emotional response from perceived inequity.
In his 1930 book “The Conquest of Happiness” philosopher and Nobel Prize winning author Bertrand Russell devoted an entire chapter to the subject. Russell, and many others before and after him, concluded that envy was one our most troublesome human traits.
- “Next to worry probably one of the most potent causes of unhappiness is envy. Envy is, I should say, one of the most universal and deep-seated of human passions. It is very noticeable in children before they are a year old, and has to be treated with the most tender respect by every educator. The very slightest appearance of favouring one child at the expense of another is instantly observed and resented. Distributive justice, absolute, rigid, and unvarying, must be observed by anyone who has children to deal with.”
- “Of all the characteristics of ordinary human nature envy is the most unfortunate; not only does the envious person wish to inflict misfortune and do so whenever he can with impunity, but he is also himself rendered unhappy by envy. Instead of deriving pleasure from what he has, he derives pain from what others have. If he can, he deprives others of their advantages, which to him is as desirable as it would be to secure the same advantages himself.”
- “With the wise man, what he has does not cease to be enjoyable because someone else has something else. Envy, in fact, is one form of a vice, partly moral, partly intellectual, which consists in seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations. I am earning, let us say, a salary sufficient for my needs. I should be content, but I hear that someone else whom I believe to be in no way my superior is earning a salary twice as great as mine. Instantly, if I am of an envious disposition, the satisfactions to be derived from what I have grow dim, and I begin to be eaten up with a sense of injustice.”
But is envy a bad thing?
Apparently that is the widely held view. For example, In Hinduism, envy is considered a disastrous emotion. In Islam, envy is an impurity of the heart and can destroy one’s good deeds.
From the Bible, James 4:2-3:
- “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
But more recently psychologists have divided envy into two types: malicious and benign, and offer that benign types of envy can become a beneficial motivational force. However, there is debate on this theory as many behavior specialists believe what is labeled benign envy incorporates a secondary response which is an actual remedy (motivation to achieve)… serving to mitigate the fully negative emotion of envy.
Leaving this “good-bad” debate aside for the moment and focusing on what is labeled malicious envy; it is clearly identified as a damaging and destructive force. And so it serves reason to see it as a human trait that must be overcome.
It is true that the size of your neighbor’s house or the expense of the car he drives does not impact your happiness except for the impact of your envy. Complaints of inequity are largely just a function of envy. Resolve the emotional response of envy and much of the complaint of inequity goes away.
But back to the definition of victim mentality.
Wikipedia defines it as an: “acquired (learned) personality trait in which a person tends to regard him or herself as a victim of the negative actions of others, and to think, speak and act as if that were the case — even in the absence of clear evidence. Victim mentality is primarily learned.”
In his blog article entitled “Victim mentality, self-efficacy, politics”, psychology professor Richard Parncutt delivers a summary of his thinking about the causes and effects of victim mentality (VM).
Parncutt compares VM to things like self-efficacy, accountability mentality and psychological hardiness. Compared to VM, he sees these as opposing personality traits considered generally positive and contributing to greater individual happiness.
He lists beliefs that he sees as underlying VM:
- “Limiting beliefs about one’s own ability or influence a situation; a feeling of powerlessness.”
- “Ascribing non-existent negative intentions to other people; believing that others are generally luckier and happier, and wondering why one has turned out to be (or has somehow been chosen to be) the unlucky one (“Why me?”).”
- “Failing or being unwilling to take responsibility for one’s own actions or actions to which one has contributed; instead, blaming others for a situation that one has created oneself or significantly contributed to.”
- “The idea that if things are the way they are, and especially if things are bad, they probably will not change; or if people are the way they are, they probably will not change (a belief in “nature” rather than “nurture”). This belief reduces motivation to engage in processes that could lead to a solution.”
- “Gaining short-term pleasure from feeling sorry for oneself or eliciting pity from others; eliciting sympathy by exaggerating the bad things other people have done to the “victim” and forgetting the good things; developing convincing and sophisticated arguments in support of such ideas and using them to convince oneself and others of victim status.”
Parncutt lists some patterns of talking and behavior that identity VM:
- “Complaining about situations which one has caused or to which one has contributed, while pretending not to be aware of this connection.”
- “If there is a choice between solving a problem or just complaining about it, a preference for the latter, which can even develop into a general dislike of non-VM people with a helpful, problem-solving orientation.”
- “Anger toward people who are basically innocent, coupled with convoluted attempts to explain their guilt and hence justify the anger. More generally, a failure to take responsibility for one’s own emotions (both positive and negative) and instead attribute them to other people.”
- “A tendency to lack consideration for other people (even in minor everyday events) and compensate by promoting rigid rules of conduct, rather than developing a natural feeling of responsibility toward others.”
- “Defensiveness in everyday conversation, reading a non-existent negative intention into a neutral question and reacting with a corresponding accusation, hindering the collective solution of problems and instead creating unnecessary conflict.”
- “Unemployment or dissatisfaction with current employment. Many people really are victims of an unfair socio-economic system or a poor educational background. People with VM are not victims in that real sense. Instead, they may have a good background and skills but miss opportunities because of an exaggerated fear of taking risks or experimenting with something new.”
- “Various forms of addiction.”
He also lists how people with VM can struggle in relationships:
- “People with VM may attract each other, and the resultant relationship may become co-dependent. VM is not the only cause of co-dependency, but it may be an important one.”
- “Failing to take or give advice in an appropriate or constructive manner. If someone suggests to the “victim” that they do something, they react defensively as if they were being attacked. They don’t realise the person was just trying to help. More generally, they don’t realise that listening.” to advice from people who care is one of the secrets of success and happiness.
- “People with VM have the feeling that interactions with other people are generally unfair. That makes it justifiable to do nasty things to other people, pretend that they are innocent, and after that complain about other’s negative reaction.”
- “The “victim” feels that life has been unfair to him or her, therefore it is justified to be unfair to others. That includes dishonesty with others, but also dishonesty with oneself.”
- Parncutt offers an interesting explanation of the offender-victim reversal and political effect of a pervasive victim mentality.
- “VM can cause violence – either physical or verbal. The attacker believes him- or herself to be a victim of the person being attacked, which justifies the attack. This can lead to a reversal of offender and victim, in the mind of the offender. The true offender is presented as the victim, and the true victim is presented as the offender. Confusions of this kind are common in harassment (aka bullying and mobbing), making it difficult for investigators to get a clear picture of who is causing what. Such confusions are also typical of persecution and, in extreme cases, genocide.”
- “VM has been associated with repressive political regimes. If the leaders of a country, and the citizens who support them, collectively feel like victims of neighboring countries (e.g. following past border disputes), those leaders may be more likely to advocate violent conflict resolution or suppression of freedom of speech.”
Lastly, Parncutt offers a sweeping conclusion of the macro problem and opportunity related to VM:
“VM is a candidate for a fundamental explanation (“Urerklärung”) for the repeated failure of humankind to solve obvious and pressing problems. Today, people who care about global poverty, global warming, global economics, global biological diversity, global peace and so on are constantly and creatively developing realistic solutions to these problems. At the same time, these solutions are constantly being blocked by other people. The end result: the problems are not solved and the efforts of those who care are wasted. The blockers are often apparently sensible people presenting apparently good arguments. They are often intelligent, successful, and popular. How can we explain such behavior? Maybe they are simply suffering from VM. At some level, they think that life has been fundamentally unfair to them, which in their minds justifies their attitudes, even when others suggest to them gently that they are perhaps being selfish, stupid or both. The blockers are actively blocking progress, but we should also consider passive resistance. Many well-educated middle-class people understand very well what is happening and may even realise that they are part of the problem, but they are doing nothing about it. If you ask them why, their reply is often a variation on “I can’t”. “Realistically”, they say, these problems are simply too big, so they give up. That may seem logical on the surface, but the underlying reason may be a form of VM. The problem could be addressed by trying to reduce VM and increase self-efficacy in the entire population. Self-efficacy can be taught at all educational levels from kindergarten to university.”
I don’t think anyone can dispute the ugly history of slavery and race relations in this country. For me, the saddest aspect of our history is our modern inability to achieve greater positive outcomes after 60 years of profound civil rights advances. I put the majority blame squarely on a pervasive victim mentality. And that problem is exacerbated by the problem of unchecked class envy.
There are solutions to our social problems. But we don’t pursue them because many block the way. They block the way largely because of a locked and loaded victim mentality. And this in turn perpetuates the status of the so called victim and provides a breeding ground for destructive envy to fester and explode as we have seen in Ferguson. There are those that will debate this point… claiming that the riots and looting of Ferguson were a direct response of white-black race relations and racially-unfair policing. However, it is clear that the shooting of Michael Brown, justified or not, was only a catalyst for deeper community malaise.
Instead of the same tired old anti-cop racism narrative being promulgated into the low socioeconomic community, because it is clearly not helping make any improvements in our low socioeconomic community, why not instead focus on growing individual and collective self-efficacy, accountability mentality and psychological hardiness? Victim mentality is learned, so it can also be unlearned/corrected.
And while we are at it, why not work to improve the schools and improve job and career prospects?
And why not preach strong individual and community morality… including the destructive tendency of envy? Teach that material things are not the measure of a person, but if desired can be earned… ethically and morally. And why not start developing psychological hardiness-the tools that help a person overcome inevitable adversity and life challenges… including bias and mistreatment that most humans face from time to time.
Why not indeed? Might our victim mentality block community advancement progress yet again?