Bias Toward Victim Blaming: Comparison Between Legal Scholars and Laypeople


  • Tajda Hančič University of Ljubljana



The study will explore the bias that is imposed by information contextualization that triggers imagining alternatives about the victim’s past actions resulting in victim blaming and the extent of its impact on legal scholars. The research will shed a new light on why people would blame the victim rather than the perpetrator and it explores a bias caused by the framing effect that can influence decision-making when ascribing blame in the court.

Theoretical Background

Counterfactual thoughts are spontaneously generated mental representations of alternatives to the past or future. They can be formed to support moral judgment such as blame ascription which is often used in the court [1]. For that reason, they put forward the defendant’s actions and show they were to ones who could have done differently, making them responsible for the bad outcome. However, the story of an incident can be also framed in a way that shifts blame to the victim [2]. Salient and focal representations of events and actors influence whose actions are taken into consideration. Events or people’s actions that are brought forward and presented in a way that they can be mutable are more likely to be marked as causational and therefore blameworthy – a phenomenon also known as the framing effect [3].


There will be three research questions guiding the experiment. R1: How likely are legal scholars to blame the victim when forming counterfactuals about their actions compared to laypeople? R2: Does the degree of moral blame ascribed to a victim influence the degree of moral blame assigned to the perpetrator? R3: How are the ascription of moral blame and the determination of legal punishment connected?

An experiment will involve two participant groups (legal scholars and laypeople), each further divided into control and counterfactual conditions. Participants will read a crime scenario vignette. The counterfactual groups in each category will be instructed to write down alternative actions the victim could have taken. Subsequently, all participants will complete a questionnaire assessing their blame attribution for both victim and perpetrator, along with their perceived severity of punishment for the perpetrator.

Expected Results

Firstly, a new understanding of legal scholars’ bias to blame the victim, secondly confirm or put into question already existing findings and thirdly, a new connection between moral blame and legal punishment will be made.


[1] Byrne, R. M. J. (2016). Counterfactual thought. Annual Review of Psychology, vol. 67, no. 1, pp. 7.1-7.23. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-122414-033249

[2] Branscombe, N. R., Owen, S., Garstka, T. A., & Coleman, J. (1996). Rape and accident counterfactuals: Who might have done otherwise and would it have changed the outcome? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol. 26, no. 12, pp. 1042-1067. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.1996.tb01124.x

[3] Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, New Series, vol. 211, no. 4481, pp. 453-458.