In his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty psychologist Roy Baumeister refers to the way perpetrators and victims describe situations as including a magnitude gap. For the victim the incident is inexplicable at best or instigated by malice at worst, perhaps even pure evil. Baumeister, noting that what he calls "the myth of pure evil" is exceptionally popular in American popular imagination and discourse, warns us that this myth can create problems. One of these problems is in failing to account for the magnitude gap because what a victim will find harrowing and an experience they can't get over will be for a perpetrator, say, something that hasn't happened in roughly six years and was simply a temporarily awkward but necessary decision.
Baumeister, in chapter 2 of his book, states that though victims' stories must be heard they cannot be held as definitive in explaining the actions of perpetrators. Baumeister then notes, dryly, that unfortunately perpetrators tend to say very little. The imbalance between the perpetrator and victim testifying about a given incident is only made worse by the commonsensical observation that perpetrators have plenty of motive to lie or omit details so as to reduce their guilt and researchers (since the 1990s) have begun to realize that victims, too, have incentives to distort, omit, and even lie to make their stories more compelling.
Baumeister continues to note that in addition to the magnitude gap in which the perpetrator sees an act as much less big a deal than the victim, perpetrators and victims have considerably different perspectives on time. A victim often has a far more expanded sense of time, place and context for an incident than a perpetrator will. The two slogans most popular with perpetrators will be "It wasn't so bad" or "I couldn't help it" regarding the actual act and regarding the time frame it will be "It happened so far back you should be over it already." It becomes clear that while a victim will see an action as senseless or malicious a perpetrator will see all sorts of practical, even compelling reasons to have done something. Victims are more likely to discuss the consequences of an incident than a perpetrator will, who will instead be inclined to minimize the scope not only of the event itself but of possible consequences. What lives on in the memory of a victim swiftly becomes some prehistoric fossil in the mind of a perpetrator, who may not even remain basic things about the event if he or she considers them at all.
What victims often fail to account for, however, is that to perpetrators the actions make sense. Moreover, as Baumeister notes, victims are least likely to account for a common occurence, that the perpetrators often invoke victim status themselves in order to justify the things they do. This may be due to direct victim status invocation in the case of someone who kills a man for having harmed him or an honor-based victimization status for a fight "that man insulted me/my family so I had to harm him". It may also extend to group identification, such as in cases of crimes involving different races or other demographic groups in which one group becomes aggressive against another due to what may be called a collective ego threat. Someone has to be put in their place and know their place is subordinate.
In studies on aggression among young boys it has been discovered that the most violent and aggressive boys tend to interpret ego threats or physical threats where none were actually intended. These aggressive boys tended to interpret innocuous and even friendly conversations as competitions in which someone was perceived as attempting to dominate them .Abusive husbands, too, have been discovered to treat innocuous or ambiguous statements as personal attacks.
Excessive sensitivity to insults or challenges of status and competence have been discovered to be a common thread among abusive husbands. The engine for such activity, Baumeister proposes, is that the abusive husband will tend to have high but unstable self-esteem. His estimation of who he is and what he deserves is high but either does not correspond to reality at all or is questioned by outsiders. For instance, if a man rates himself as a 9 and other people rate him as a 7 or even a 5 he will tend to be in conflict with people often. If a man rates himself as a 9 and people generally rate him as a 9 he will be confident. Baumeister uses this example to note that when a man consistently rates himself and expects others to treat him as though he were a 9 or a 10 and his actual performance and competence falls short, say in the 6 level, he will constantly be battling others over what he believes is their grossly inaccurate assessment of his competence and status.
By way of defending perceived personal effronts it is possible for bullies and abusers to genuinely believe they are the victims as much or more than those they have abused. Baumeister notes, in a rather grim chapter 2 of his book, that research indicates that victims have been found to distort as much as perpetrators. Victims reshuffle events and form a narrative to make the offense seem as bad as possible while perpetrators, unsurprisingly, tell narratives in which the offense is minimized, non-existent, or even a necessary good. Baumeister notes that it is not safe to take the victim's story as objective truth (go to page 47 for that). He concludes, and an unhappy conclusion it is, that we cannot conclude that either perpetrator or victm narratives will be free of distortion, omission, and even deceit.
Baumeister spends some time explaining that perpetrators will tend to see themselves as more morally complex than victims will see them. They may see reasons that though what they did was bad, what they did was unavoidable or was for a better good than what the victim was standing for. And, of course, strangest of all may be how perpetrators can see themselves as victims even in cases where they have done horrific things.
Reference is made to a book by Peter Sichrovsky (Born Guilty: Children of Nazi families) who interviewed children of National Socialist war criminals and found that in many cases the war criminals and their children perceived that they were victimized by a ruthless set of people who would not appreciate that many of these war criminals were just following orders, didn't personally kill anyone, and were trying to loyally serve their country. As the war criminals saw it they LOST THE WAR and this meant that they were legitimately victims and this sense of victimhood, through daily interaction and the parent-child bond, was passed on as a part of the children's sense of identity.
Within the United States people on Death Row often describe themselves as victims of the schemes of the powerful and the clever and the well-connected even if they are on Death Row for having killed multiple times. John Wayne Gacy, for instance, actually described himself in terms of being a victim.
Perhaps the most challenging and unappealing observation Baumeister makes about observable perpetrator/victim narratives is that both parties may be unwilling to acknowledge mutual escalation of aggression as the engine of violence and aggression. He begins this discourse on page 52 in chapter 2. He notes that both the perpetrator and the victim may be to blame for how things go. Baumeister refers to an article by Leonard Berkowitz in 1978 in the Journal of Reserach in Crime and Delinquency, 15, pages 148-161. Berkowitz observed that in most cases both assailants involved in a fight would insist that they did not land the first blow even if it was observed who did land the first blow.
Baumeister then cites some landmark studies that discovered that the mutual aggression is the norm in domestic violence. In one study half the couples studied displayed mutual aggression and physical violence. The other half, it seems, did not have mutual violence but the aggressors were still frequently responding to what they perceived as aggressive behavior (which Baumeister later proposes derives from threatened egotism as he continues the subject later in his book).
One of the concluding observations the author makes in chapter 2 is to note that though it is popular and more appealing to see violence and aggression strictly in terms of innocent victims and guilty perpetrators the more we study our own violence from a social scientific perspective the more we begin to observe that mutuality of violence and aggression is the most plausible explanation for why we continually harm each other as a species. Most people become violent or aggressive when they feel threatened and do not just go around assaulting people for no reason. The reasons may be cruel, baseless and specious but people do things for reasons. Baumeister spends quite a bit of chapters 3-6 discussing those sorts of reasons.
Baumeister closes with a caution (in 1999 no less) that the American propensity to embrace a myth of pure evil within popular culture and a therapeutic culture was leading Americans to want to exonerate perpetrators if the perpetrators could adequately establish a plausible victimhood. Coming from a psychologist this must surely be considered a warning, no? Baumeister explained that as he was writing his book the Bobbitt trail made the news. There were four possible outcomes for the trial: he was guilty, she was guilty, they were both guilty, and neither were guilty.
Baumeister noted grimly at the end of chapter 2 of Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty that because the ruling was that neither were guilty it suggests American society as a whole was incapable of and even unwilling to see things beyond the category of good guys and bad guys and, worse, incapable of looking at a complex situation and coming to the conclusion that both sides can be seriously wrong. We want good guys and bad guys so much, perhaps, that if forced to consider that the parties involved are not as innocent as we want them to be then, well, we'd rather excuse everyone as victims or as misunderstood than to say they are all responsible for the mess they have made.