Scapegoat Theory

Scapegoat theory may be described as the tendency to alleviate guilt and fear of punishment by transferring responsibility of one’s own failure or misdeed onto some person or group. It is a process that often results in feelings of prejudice toward the person or group that one is blaming.

ScapegoatingOpens in new window serves as an opportunity to explain failure or misdeeds, while absolving one’s self from blame or guilt. It is a process that manifests itself by the transference of feelings of aggression, hostility, frustration, etc., onto another party—an individual or group who is undeservedly blamed.

To give a graphic description of the scapegoat theory, it is rendered here, in verbatim, the thoughts of two psychologists:

The Origin of Scapegoat

The term scapegoat comes from the Bible’s reference to a goat upon which Aaron cast all the sins of Israel and then banished to the wilderness. Hence, the goat, though presumably blameless, was essentially punished for the sins of the people of Israel.

Psychologists have expanded the concept to include not only someone else to pay the price for one’s own immorality but also a target of blame and explanation when outcomes are not what one hoped for.

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Research Applications and Related Theories

The concept of scapegoating is somewhat consistent with Sigmund Freud’sOpens in new window notions of displacement or projection as defense mechanisms.

According to Freud, people displace hostility that they hold toward unacceptable targets (e.g., parents, the boss) onto less powerful ones. Similarly, projection refers to one’s tendency to attribute one’s own unacceptable feelings or anxieties onto others, thus denying them within oneself.

Both mechanisms protect people from their illicit desires or fears by helping them reject the notion that they are the holders of such feelings. As such, the target of their displacement or projection may serve as a scapegoat.

More recently, social psychologists have explained the tendency to scapegoat in similar terms, but with some qualifications and clarifications. For example, the notion of displaced aggression has received a good deal of attention in the field. If a woman has a fight with her boyfriend, she may come home and kick her dog for a minor misbehavior. The dog, then, is her scapegoat and is paying the price for the fight with the boyfriend.

The aggression that the fight produced is not being directed toward its true cause, but instead is directed at the dog, which is a more acceptable target because it cannot retaliate or argue back, as the boyfriend is likely to do. In addition, the theory of relative deprivation is relevant as an explanation for people’s tendency to scapegoat.

This theory suggests that people experience negative emotions when they feel as though they are treated relatively poorly for illegitimate reasons. For example, a person may be satisfied with his or her salary until the person learns that a colleague whose work is not great but who is friends with the boss gets a raise. Now the person is relatively deprived and may resent the colleague for the person’s lower salary.

Some researchers have specified some conditions in which scapegoating against a particular group is most likely to occur. For example, the scapegoated group tends to be one of relatively low power.

Otherwise, the group would be able to stamp out the opposition brought from the masses. The scapegoated group also tends to be a group that is somehow recognizable as distinct from the ingroup (the group to which one belongs), so that group members can be easily identified and associated with the undesired situation.

Finally, the scapegoat tends to pose a real threat to the ingroup, intentionally or unintentionally. For example, lynchings against Blacks rose dramatically when the economic prospects for Whites began to drop off. African Americans were perceived as a greater threat to the increasingly scarce jobs and opportunities and so were punished in brutally tragic ways. In a land of plenty or when a group is kept completely under wraps, that group poses no threat and therefore does not present the opportunity to serve as a scapegoat.

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