Do victims contribute to their own abuse?

Over the last decade, an emerging body of research on workplace aggression has started to examine whether victims possess a common set of target characteristics.  This is clearly a controversial question because it implies that victims may be, at least in part, to blame for their mistreatment.

Findings have shown that victims often possess angry or anxious personality traits, such as neuroticism and negative affectivity.  In other words, people who are predisposed to be self-entitled or to exhibit negative emotions (e.g., angry, anxious, pessimistic) are more likely than those who do not possess these traits to report that they have experienced workplace aggression.

But wait a minute? Does that mean these individuals are more likely to be victims? Not necessarily.

There are at least three explanations for this reported relationship. The first is that they are indeed more likely to be mistreated. After all, most of us don’t like to be around angry, anxious, self-entitled people. So after a while, we become irritable and rude to such individuals, or we may just avoid them altogether which can result in social ostracism.  Alternatively, given the negative disposition of these people, it is equally likely that they are just more sensitive than others to uncivil behavior. That is, though all of us experience a similar level of rude behavior, those with negative dispositions may be more likely to notice it. A final explanation may be that those with  these negative dispositions are more likely to perceive aggression where there is none. Angry and neurotic personalities often lead people to be suspicious and paranoid; therefore, these individuals may not need to experience mistreatment in order to perceive it.

A soon to be published study by Carson, Thau, Aquino, and Barclay starts to disentangle these explanations. They experimentally manipulated people’s motivation to uncover negative information, and they found that those who were more motivated to uncover information that was relationship threatening (e.g., to find out whether others are talking behind their back), were more likely than those who were not motivated to uncover such information to perceive ambiguous behaviour as sinister.  For example, these individuals were more likely to perceive a group of people laughing (and then stopping when they arrive) to be laughing at them than those who were not motivated to uncover relationship-threatening information.

The above study implies that explanation number 3 may account for the relationship between target traits, and reports of victimization. That is, victims who possess these traits may be more likely than those who don’t to perceive victimization where there is none. Even more interesting, the above researchers further looked at whether people who are motivated to look for relationship-threatening information end up being victimized. They found that people who possessed this negative characteristic were more likely to be rejected or excluded by others. This finding is consistent with the explanation that those who possess certain personality traits not only perceive ambiguous situations to be aggressive, but are also more likely to be mistreated. It seems likely that their motivation to uncover relationship-threatening information leads them to engage in unfounded information-seeking behaviors, that ultimately angers those around them enough to react aggressively.

So it seems that certain personality traits may lead to more victimization.

This finding highlights the need for more research on how targets contribute to their own mistreatment. Without a complete understanding of these relationships, we won’t know the true extent of the problem (i.e., are they at higher risk or do they just perceive more aggression?) and therefore organizations are unable to address the problem.

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