The Psychology of Scapegoating

Credit: excellentpastor.com

Derridian deconstruction teaches us definitions have as much to do with what we leave out as what we put in, and as group members we not only accentuate our similarity to fellow members but our differences from non-members too. We all know the unifying power of a common enemy, and in telling ourselves we are more like each other and less like others than we really are, we maintain a high level of group cohesion by positioning ourselves against the common Other. The downside of course is that emphasizing our similarities leads to oversimplification of both the group’s identity and our own. This is known as depersonalization, a process by which we stereotype ourselves as being typical members of the group, leading us to behave in ways we stereotypically associate with that group.

For example if I think of myself as a prison guard then I’m probably going to act in ways consistent with my perception of how a prison guard typically acts. Thus we see how peer pressure consolidates group identity by policing non-conformity, and how individually articulated uniformity blurs personality. Why then do we do it? One reason, noted above, is to avoid social rejection. This doesn’t simply mean a fear of being picked last in gym class or ignored by an attractive stranger in a bar. Social rejection includes a variety of exclusionary tactics, even physically aggressive ones like bullying. However another motivation is self-esteem, since belonging to a shared identity allows us to rejoice in the achievements of fellow members through avenues such as sport fandom, school pride and patriotism.

But if we are with our peers when they triumph then it follows we are with them when they fail, so we must force transgressors from the group, correct their behavior or openly dissociate from them to prevent the moral stain from spreading. This is especially important when transgressions are not in fact transgressions but, as Siirala suggests, expressions of social norms. Therefore society makes examples of individuals in order to purge itself of collective guilt. And this is nothing new. Having our sins collectively cleansed by an innocent, or one innocent of our collective failings, is a practice that runs all the way back to animal sacrifice. Indeed the word “scapegoat” itself comes from Leviticus 16 where Aaron lays the sins of the people upon a goat and lets it escape into the wilderness.


David Volodzko is a former university lecturer and a writer for The Diplomat.

This is an excerpt from Doctor Matt Taylor and the Psychology of Scapegoating, the Rosetta mission project scientist who sparked outrage after wearing a shirt in public featuring images of a gun-toting woman in leather.