Study authors Rahav Gabay and team describe how the social world is satiated with interpersonal transgressions that are often unpleasant and seemingly unwarranted, such as being interrupted when speaking. While some people can easily brush off these moments of hurt, others tend to ruminate over them and persistently paint themselves as a victim. The authors present this feeling of being the victim as a novel personality construct that influences how people make sense of the world around them.
The researchers call it the Tendency for Interpersonal Victimhood (TIV), which they define as “an ongoing feeling that the self is a victim, which is generalized across many kinds of relationships.”
Through a series of eight studies among Israeli adults, Gabay and associates sought to test the validity of the construct of TIV and explore the behavioral, cognitive, and emotional consequences of such a personality trait.
An initial three studies established the TIV as a consistent and stable trait that involves four dimensions: moral elitism, a lack of empathy, the need for recognition, and rumination. A follow-up study further found that this tendency for victimhood is linked to anxious attachment — an attachment style characterized by feeling insecure in one’s relationships — suggesting that the personality trait may be rooted in early relationships with caregivers.
Next, two studies offered insight into the cognitive profile of those with TIV. The studies had participants consider scenarios that involved another person treating them unpleasantly — either by having subjects read a vignette describing a partner giving them poor feedback (Study 3) or by having subjects play a game that ended with their opponent taking a larger share of the winnings (Study 4). Interestingly, the two studies found that those who scored higher on the measure of TIV were more likely to desire revenge against the person who wronged them.
In Study 4, this desire for revenge also translated into behavior — those high in TIV were more likely to remove money from their opponent when given the chance, despite being told that this decision wouldn’t increase their own winnings. Participants high in TIV also reported experiencing more intense negative emotions and a higher entitlement to immoral behavior. Mediation analysis offered insight into how this revenge process unfolds. “The higher participants’ TIV, the more they experienced negative emotions and felt entitled to behave immorally. However, only the experience of negative emotions predicted behavioral revenge,” the authors report.
Gabay and colleagues express that their studies indicate that the Tendency for Interpersonal Victimhood is a stable personality trait that is linked to particular behavioral, cognitive, and emotional characteristics. “Deeply rooted in the relations with primary caregivers,” the researchers describe, “this tendency affects how individuals feel, think, and behave in what they perceive as hurtful situations throughout their lives.”
The researchers suggest that TIV as a construct offers a framework for understanding how a person’s interpretation of social transgressions can inform feelings of victimhood and lead to revenge behaviors. These insights could inform therapeutic practices for treating such cognitive biases.
The authors suggest that it would be particularly interesting for future studies to explore what happens when people high in TIV are in positions of power. The researchers wonder whether leaders with this persistent tendency to see themselves as a victim might feel more inclined to behave “in a vindictive way.”