views updated


A powerful and destructive phenomenon wherein a person or group of people are blamed for whatever is wrong.

In ancient times, there were rituals of scapegoating. A tribe or person would literally sacrifice an animal to the gods, or send an animal into the desert declaring that that animal was carrying away the tribe's sins. In today's culture, psychology uses the term to discuss certain forms of victimization. A particular child of an alcoholic family can be deemed the scapegoat, for instance, and may be the object of a parent's abuse and the reason for seeking professional help. The child is "innocent," but receives the blame for the problems in the household. Historically, entire groups of people have been scapegoated. In Nazi Germany, Hitler and his army scapegoated the Jewish people. The Nazis declared the Jews to be the reason for their societal ills and further believed that if they eliminated the Jewish people, then their problems would be solved. Currently in America, there is scapegoating of lesbian and gay people. Some heterosexuals, often with strong religious ties, blame lesbian and gay people for the moral decay in America.

Why scapegoating occurs is rather complex. Scapegoating serves the need of the dominant social group to feel better about themselves. It relieves the group's responsibility for their own problems. The scapegoated person or group becomes the focus and the reason for the difficult life condition. It was easier for Hitler to blame the problems of German society on the Jews than it would have been for him to truly understand the complex socio-political changes that were happening at the time. Scapegoating also allows people to feel united when they join together to blame someone else. And when action is taken against the scapegoat, the dominant group can feel that they have accomplished something.

Scapegoating begins with devaluation, or putting someone else down. Then the scapegoated person or group is blamed as the cause of a problem. Once a victim has been blamed, they are then dehumanized so that it is easier to treat them with less compassion. For instance, in some circles, people with HIV/AIDS are often spoken of only as statistics, not as real people who need compassion and care.

In many scapegoating situations, the anger and aggression of the dominant person or group is displaced, or projected, onto the victim. Really the frustration lies within the person doing the scapegoating. Scapegoating never truly solves any problems, it merely deflects attention away from the person or group who most needs help.

Lara Lynn Lane

Further Reading

Allport, G.W. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1995.

Gilmore, Norbert, and Margaret A. Somerville. "Stigmatization, Scapegoating, and Discrimination in Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Overcoming 'Them' and 'Us'." Social Science and Medicine vol. 39, no. 9 (November 1994): 1339-358.

Hafsi, Mohamed. "Experimental Inquiry into the Psychodynamics of the Relationship between the Group's Dominant Basic Assumption Type and Scapegoating Phenomenon." Psychologica: An International Journal of Psychology in the Orient vol. 41, no. 4 (December 1998): 272-84.

Staub, Ervin. "Cultural-Societal Roots of Violence: The Examples of Genocidal Violence and of Contemporary Youth Violence in the U.S." American Psychologist vol. 51, no. 2 (February 1996): 117-32.

Further Information

The Scapegoat Society. Hindleap Corner, Priory Road, Forest Row, East Sussex, England RH18 5JF.