Describing the ideal victim: A linguistic analysis of victim descriptions


In 1986, Nils Christie proposed that the ideal victim is worthy of sympathy because he or she possesses specific characteristics. Since that time, numerous social scientists have used his ideal victim construct to guide their research. However, few empirical studies have explored whether laypersons use the ideal victim construct to guide their thinking about victims. This study collected and analyzed victim descriptions to empirically explore how people conceptualize victims. Participants were asked to describe either legitimate or illegitimate victims. Then, linguistic analyses were conducted on these descriptions. Legitimate victim descriptions closely aligned with Christie’s ideal victim construct, focusing on concepts such as innocence, vulnerability, experiencing harm, and helplessness. Sympathy-laden language was used in legitimate victim descriptions. Illegitimate victims were described as individuals who failed to be true victims or as phonies. This study provides insight into how laypeople think about victims and provides data-driven support for the ideal victim construct.

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    It should be noted that the respective mean values, standard deviations, and zero-order and partial correlations within and between the MFQ-30, GBJWS, and the political affiliation questionnaires were consistent with previous research (e.g., Graham et al. 2011; Jost 2006; Lipkus 1991). These results are available upon request.

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    Based on visual analysis of the text, it appears this word was often used to describe undocumented immigrants.


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Correspondence to Jerome A. Lewis.

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Lewis, J.A., Hamilton, J.C. & Elmore, J.D. Describing the ideal victim: A linguistic analysis of victim descriptions. Curr Psychol (2019).

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  • Ideal victim
  • Linguistic analysis
  • Moral values
  • Legitimacy
  • LIWC