Many social commentators have argued that an emerging "victimhood culture" incentivizes people to see themselves as weak, traumatized, and aggrieved. In higher education, this has been associated with increased demands for specific accommodations like trigger warnings (which don't work) and the policing of microaggressions (which is ill-conceived).
But what if this is not merely a trend but an entire personality type? A new paper in the scientific journal Personality and Individual Differences posits a Tendency for Interpersonal Victimhood (TIV), an archetype defined by several truly toxic traits: a pathological need for recognition, a difficulty empathizing with others, feelings of moral superiority, and, importantly, a thirst for vengeance.
"The findings…suggest that victimhood is a stable and meaningful personality tendency," write the study's authors, a quartet of scholars associated with Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the University of Pennsylvania.
The researchers solicited several hundred participants for a series of psychological experiments that tested their assumptions. As such, the results should be taken with a grain of salt—social psychology research suffers from notoriously thorny replication issues, since these kinds of experiments are not always great substitutes for the sort of thing being studied. In one of this paper's experiments, for instance, a computer split a pot of money between itself and a human participant; this person was led to believe the computer was also a human participant. Sometimes the pot was split unevenly, and the human participant was given a chance to take vengeance by reducing the computer's pot without enriching his own. Researchers discovered that participants classified as having higher TIV scores were "strongly associated with behavioral revenge" in this scenario.
TIV was also "associated with an increased experience of negative emotions, and entitlement to immoral behavior."
The study distinguishes TIV from narcissism. Narcissistic individuals also experience moral superiority and vengeful desires, but these feelings tend to spring from the belief that their authority, capability, or grandiosity is being undermined. TIV, on the other hand, is associated with low self-esteem. And while narcissists do not want to be victimized, high-TIV individuals lash out when their victimhood is questioned.
"The self-presentation of high-TIV individuals is that of a weak victim, who has been hurt and is therefore in need of protection," write the authors. "Threats to high-TIV individuals are related to anything that can undermine their self-image of moral superiority; or elicit doubts from their environment as to whether the offense occurred, the intensity of the offense, or their exclusivity as victims."
Writing in Scientific American, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman* notes that "the researchers do not equate experiencing trauma and victimization with possessing the victimhood mindset. They point out that a victimhood mindset can develop without experiencing severe trauma or victimization."
If socialization processes can instill in individuals a victimhood mindset, then surely the very same processes can instill in people a personal growth mindset. What if we all learned at a young age that our traumas don't have to define us? That it's possible to have experienced a trauma and for victimhood to not form the core of our identity? That it's even possible to grow from trauma, to become a better person, to use the experiences we've had in our lives toward working to instill hope and possibility to others who were in a similar situation? What if we all learned that it's possible to have healthy pride for an in-group without having out-group hate? That if you expect kindness from others, it pays to be kind yourself? That no one is entitled to anything, but we all are worthy of being treated as human?
Encouraging people not to be defined by their traumas—real or imagined—seems like solid advice. But when the traumatized person resents challenges to his victimhood status and wants to punish those who want to take it away from him, getting that advice across just might be a challenge.
*CORRECTION: The original version of this article misspelled the name of psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman.