Victim Mentality, Self-Efficacy, and Politics 

Richard Parncutt
, September 2012, revised September 2015

Richard Parrncutt ICMPC 2012
Victim mentality (VM) can explain a lot of cruel and crazy things that happen in politics at every level, from personal relationships right up to globalisation. It may even explain why humanity is having such trouble solving such basic problems as global poverty and global warming. If that is true, it may be worthwhile having a detailed look at VM. What is it exactly, what causes it, and what can we do about it?

What is VM?

People with VM tend to regard themselves as a victims of the negative actions of others. They tend to think, speak and act as if that were the case - even in the absence of clear evidence. VM thus depends considerably on habitual thought processes and attributions. That suggests VM is primarily learned (acquired, not inborn), for example from family members and situations during childhood. It is a cultural phenomenon, and each individual has a chance to bring it under conscious control. 

Unfortunately, control over VM can never be complete. The quasi-universal occurrence of VM suggests that it  has an evolutionary and perhaps even a genetic foundation. If VM is a part of human nature, we may reasonably ask where it comes from, originally? We can see the answer in interactions between parents and children. VM is how children behave when they are encouraging their parents to increase parental investment. This kind of behavior is strongly driven by evolution (constraints on survival and reproduction), so it probably happens in all animals. Humans are just one of countless examples. 

From this perspective, adults with VM are children who haven't quite grown up. There is a bit of VM in everyone, just as there is a bit of a child in everyone. When we become aware of our VM, we can reduce it - to the relief of the people around us.

The opposites of VM

Often it helps to understand something by considering its opposites. What are the opposites of VM? There are a number of possible candidates.

Reciprocal altruism means doing someone a favor in the expectation that they will someday return it. A person who repeatedly fails to return favors gets a reputation for being a free rider, and the favors are replaced by exclusion. Reciprocal altruism is related to the Golden Rule - a quasi-universal moral-religious principle according to which we should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. In humans, reciprocal altruism and the Golden Rule play an important role in friendship, trust, gratitude, sympathy, suspicion, guilt, and punishment. The political implications are enormous, because if countries and multinational corporations applied the Golden Rule to their everyday interactions, most of the world's problems would be solved. If US-Americans did not want to be bombed, they would encourage their government to stop bombing other countries. If multinationals did not like people stealing from them, they would stop stealing natural resources from developing countries.

Both reciprocal altruism and VM are learned from cultural environments, but research in evolutionary psychology has demonstrated that they also have a universal foundation: social groups work better if they apply the idea of reciprocal altruism, and children are more likely to survive if they use VM to extract resources from their parents. As a result, there is a constant tension in society between the "mature" forces of reciprocal altruism and the "immature" forces of VM. People with VM tend not to obey the rules of reciprocal altruism or to apply the Golden Rule, because they feel that the exchange with other people is fundamentally unfair. The internal irrational logic of VM can be so strong that it overrides the natural tendency of every person to be reciprocally altruistic.

VM is also the opposite of self-efficacy: the ability to independently complete tasks and reach goals, and to realistically estimate the nature and extent of one's own abilities, avoiding extremes of arrogance and self-deprecation.

Perhaps a more exact opposite of VM is something that could be termed "accountability mentality": the sense of being accountable for any action, situation or process to which one has contributed. Accountability implies an obligation to pay debts, whether they be financial or moral, formalised or implicit.

Another related personality trait is (psychological) hardiness, which has been subdivided into commitment, control, and challenge (Kobasa, 1979). Hardiness helps people to remain healthy under life stress, and in turn depends on the coping mechanisms that people develop to deal with different kinds of stress.

The above psychological attributes are generally positive, and the people who display them also tend to be happy, or to report that they are happy. They also tend to have good relationships with other people. But people with VM may construe these positive attributes as negative. That is part of a general resistance to positive change - a general tendency not to take responsibility for one's own life, behavior and attitudes.

Similar or comparable personality traits

Neuroticism may be defined as general emotional stability or a generally enhanced tendency to experience negative emotions. Psychoticism is characterised by aggressiveness and interpersonal hostility.

VM has central features in common with both. All three are associated with a relatively high frequency of negative emotional states such as anger, sadness and fear. But the three traits are also partially independent: for example a given individual may have a high degree of VM and a low degree of neuroticism, in which case a clinical psychologist is unlikely to regard her or him as needing treatment. Conversely, a given individual may have a high degree of neuroticism and a low degree of VM.

The features of VM suggest that is primarily or entirely learned, but the theory of parental investment also suggests it has an evolutionary basis. The better-known and better-researched psychological constructs of neuroticism and psychoticism have stronger biological or genetic bases, but of course these behaviors are also partially learned. There is a constant interplay between "nature" and "nurture".

There is a burgeoning popular literature on VM, but I could find little good psychological research. Possible reasons include (i) VM is primarily learned, but many psychologists are more interested in biological foundations; (ii) VM is largely sociological rather than psychological; and (iii) VM has political connotations (the right wing likes to accuse the left wing of VM, but the left can equally accuse the right, see below).

Beliefs that underlie VM

To the extent that VM is learned, it is based on an inter-related set of beliefs:

Resultant patterns of thinking, talking and behavior

The above beliefs may produce the following attitudes and behaviors:

Common problems encountered by individuals with VM 

People with VM may experience problems of the following kind, or they have these experiences more often than people without VM in similar situations:
VM 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.

What does VM do to relationships? The following points are intended to apply to any kind of relationship: colleagues at work, friends, lovers, parents and children, and so on.
The worst thing you can do to a relationship is violence. There is never any excuse for violence, except in clear cases of self-defense or the defense of dependents. Hopefully, humans will one day realise that this principle also applies to international politics (there is no excuse for war except in self-defense, which can only happen at home, not abroad) and law (there is no excuse for torture or the death penalty, ever). Perhaps VM is the biggest hurdle standing in the way of progress in this direction. The second-worst thing you can do to a relationship is cheating on your partner. Cheating is only reasonably possible if there is a prior agreement about it. Otherwise, there is no excuse for it. The same applies to lying and cheating in politics and law, and if you don't like the latter, you shouldn't do the former. The cheat who realises his/her mistake and sincerely regrets it has the chance to make up for the damage s/he has caused, but to be plausible the attempt to make up has to be somehow equal in size to the size of the original crime. This is called paying your moral debts, and people with VM are not good at it. The same principle applies to financial transactions, both within relationships and in local, national and international politics. In relationships, cheating is the best way to ruin everything permanently. After that, you can complain for the rest of your life about the consequences of what you did yourself, which is a typical feature of VM.

Breaking out

Everyone has a certain amount of VM. In fact, one could say that a certain amount of VM is normal and healthy. There is no point trying to be a martyr. But it is also normal to try to keep VM to a minimum or optimum level.

If VM is mainly learned, it is always possible to reduce VM, or at least to reduce excessive levels. The victim role is essentially just that: a role. Shakespeare was right that "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players". Getting rid of VM should be as easy as changing roles in a play.

But as every actor knows, changing roles is not easy. Nor is it easy to shake off habitual or chronic VM. Essential prerequisites include:

People who identify aspects of VM in their own thinking in behavior that they would like to get rid of, and other people who support them (including therapists), may find the following strategies for "breaking out" useful:

Intellectuals might like to read Jean-Paul Satre's existential philosophy and consider his concept of freedom. Conscious beings are free by definition - we do not have a choice between freedom and non-freedom. It follows that we must take responsibility for our decisions and that victim behavior is hiding from (or distortion of) reality.

Politics, history, and offender-victim reversal
(aka "blaming the victim"; in German: Täter-Opfer-Umkehr)

VM can explain why kind, generous and caring people sometimes support political parties whose policies are the opposite of kind, generous and caring. In this way, VM can explain one of the great paradoxes of political behavior when viewed from a moderate left-wing viewpoint. "Kind conservatives" might simply have had disastrous dealings with one or more people with VM, and concluded that some people just cannot be helped. Their experience with VMers may have convinced them that there is no use being generous to people at the political level, because the generosity will never be repaid. 

This conclusion is correct in one respect and incorrect in another. It is true that there are people out there with VM who never seem to learn, and it is true that governmental generosity (e.g. in the form of welfare payments) toward such people can be wasted. However, this is a statistical question and one has to consider the big picture. First, if the government is generous toward everyone, a certain percentage of those people will waste the money that they were given, but if things are carefully planned and managed, a larger percentage will put that money to good use, so that the net social benefit of the policy is positive. Second, the amounts of money lost to governments by tax evasion or failing to tax the rich appropriately are orders of magnitude greater than the amounts of money lost by welfare fraud: if we are talking about the difference between millions and billions, the ratio is a thousand to one. If "kind conservatives" understood these two simple points, they might switch sides and become more supportive of responsible left-wing or green politics, which would have net benefits for everybody. For example, they might support the idea of universal basic income combined with flat income tax (UBI-FIT), rather than clinging to the paranoid idea that governments have to control every bit of money they give away - so much so that the cost of administration exceeds the cost of the benefits. The force that causes conservatives and nationalists to cling to irrational beliefs and attributions rather than embrace positive change is emotional rather than logical, and the idea of VM may be the best way to understand it.

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. Nazi Germany is a well-known example: In "Mein Kampf", Hitler presented himself and the Germans as victims of Versailles (which had some justification) and of the Jews, who he believed had caused the depression (which was nonsense). The European Jews had been been victimized in for centuries, but as a group (if it means anything to talk about such as diverse group) they were obviously innocent. No matter, an increasing number of Germans were looking for scapegoats. This case of offender-victim-reversal paved the way for the Holocaust - the worst crime humanity has ever witnessed. 

In everyday politics, offender-victim reversal is typical of the populist publicity campaigns of extreme-right political parties. Constructed social groups such as "foreigners" or "Muslims" are turned into scapegoats by fabricating or exaggerating stories about their evil ways. This increases the incidence and intensity of discrimination against them. In fact, they are the true victims, and the political extremists are the true offenders. A related tendency may be observed in the conflict between Judaism and Islam in the Middle East. The Israeli government has repeatedly justified its deadly attacks on Palestine by posing as an innocent victim of the Palestinians, knowing that it could rely on US support. In fact, in just about every conflict, the number of Palestinians killed has been far greater than the number of Israelis killed. Even disregarding the violence, the Palestines are suffering much more than the Israelis from poverty and lack of freedom. Objectively speaking, it is clear which side is the main victim and which side is the main perpetrator, even if the distinction is often blurred. It follows from these clear and uncontroversial observations that the primary responsibility for resolving the conflict lies with Israel - and with Israel, the USA and the West. (The reason why I am mentioning this here is that I personally identify with the West, and hence with USA and Israel. In this sense I am "on Israel's side" and feel a sense of shared responsibility.)

Offender-victim reversal can also be observed in a more subtle form in moderate rightwing politics. Many moderate rightwing voters and politicians believe in the myth of the "self-made man". According to this myth, people (normally understood to be men, strangely enough) can "make it to the top" by their own efforts and without any support from the government. And of course this really does happen, or seem to happen, quite often. It follows from this somewhat myopic logic that people receiving social security benefits or free health insurance are too lazy to fend for themselves, and if they claim to be victims of an unfair system, they must have VM. The big picture looks rather different. Most "self-made men" got all kinds of help from other people on the way, most of which they do not acknowledge - or perhaps did not even notice. They could never have "made it" without the everyday infrastructures that only government can provide and only taxation can make possible. Conversely, people on welfare benefits often come from poor families, received an inadequate education, had poor role models and so on.

Moderate conservatives are displaying VM when they

Since leftwing politics represents people who are more likely to be true victims of an unfair socio-economic system, it is more understandable when leftwing politicians and voters fall into the trap of VM. But it is also in their best interests to recognize these forms of thinking and behavior for what they are, and try to move beyond them. That strategy would benefit leftwing politics and ultimately the whole of society. That is one of the aims of this page.

Why I wrote this page

I wrote this page for several reasons.

1. I could not find good psychological literature on VM, suggesting either that it has somehow been neglected or that I am not using standard psychological terminology. A further possible problem is that the listed features of VM are not necessarily associated with each other - some people might have some features and others have other features. An empirical study on this question would be interesting! In any case please send me references to relevant psychological literature. My email address is on my main page.

2. 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. Students need activities that improve their self-efficacy such as sport and music, and they also need to learn about self-efficacy and VM in order to better understand themselves and others.If this kind of explanation is valid, the problem of global poverty and global warming is shifted to a newlevel. How can we increase awareness for VM in the next generation? Should it be part of high-school philosophy or values programs?

3. I have lived in different countries and I have often been aware of VM in other people, and the consequences for me personally have sometimes been serious. In such situations I was often tempted to "join the club" and regard myself as a victim along with the rest. I now live in Austria. Many Austrians seem to think there is more victim mentality in Austria than elsewhere, but I am not convinced. Sociological studies of happiness suggest that Eastern Europeans have more victim mentality and Carribeans less; perhaps there is a grain of truth in that, but it is dangerous to generalize. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians regard themselves of victims of the other side; the conflict could be resolved if both sides became more aware of the irrationality of this position. How about the "Tea Party" in the USA? They advocate strict adherence to the US constitution; an exaggerated love of law and order is typical of VM. They want to reduce social services, because they regard taxation as generally unfair. Taxation causes the rich to suffer. The poor rich! They have worked so hard for this country and look how we are treating them! In fact, the rich do not, on average, work any more or less than the poor, and those rich people who worked exceptionally hard did it for themselves, not for the country. They may have worked twice as hard as others, but (based on good education and contacts) were able to earn 10, 100 or 1000 times as much money. So much for the victim theory.

I created a Wikipedia page on this topic in September 2012 and copied the content from this page. Since then, both texts have changed. It is very interesting to see what others have contributed to the Wiki page.


Caroline M Apovian (2010). The causes, prevalence, and treatment of obesity revisited in 2009: What have we learned so far? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91, 277S-279S.

Isaac Prilleltensky and Lev Gonick (1996). Polities change, oppression remains: On the psychology and politics of oppression. Political Psychology, 17, 127.

Christopher Peterson (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.

Janet Lehman: "It's Not Fair!" How to Stop Victim Mentality and Thinking in Kids and Teens.

Henrick Edberg: How to Break Out of a Victim Mentality: 7 Powerful Tips.

Thomas J. Nevitt: The Victim Mentality.

For an independent analysis of this article see:

Jeff Boone (2014). Victim Mentality and Negative Human Outcomes

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