Self-Other Judgments and Perceived Vulnerability to Victimization

Authors: Linda S. Perloff, University of Illinois at Chicago; Barbara K. Fetzer, University of Illinois at Chicago

Publication: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Year: 1986

Focus Area: Profile, Prevention

Relevance: People who haven’t been defrauded may think that other people are more vulnerable to fraud than they are. Prevention programs need to overcome “illusions of unique invulnerability” to instill a realistic sense of vulnerability in potential victims.

SCL summary: This study tackles “the conditions under which people’s judgments of others’ vulnerability differ from judgments of their own vulnerability.” People who have not experienced a negative life event (i.e. illness, crime) tend to think that other people are more vulnerable to misfortune than they are. This tendency, called downward comparison, is consistent across a number of different potential negative events.

  • When subjects compared themselves to “average” people, they thought that they were less vulnerable than the “average” others.
  • However, when directed to compare themselves to a specific person (i.e. a friend or parent), the magnitude of downward comparison decreased. Subjects continued to rate their own vulnerability similarly to the first part of the study, but thought that their friend or parent would be less vulnerable than average people would be.
  • The change in downward comparison did not happen because subjects saw themselves to be more vulnerable. Instead, they saw their specific target person’s vulnerability as closer to their own.
  • When people are given a vague target (i.e. the average person) they are more likely to make downward comparisons. In these situations, people choose a real or imagined person who fits within the vague category and tend to choose a person who they see as vulnerable. In other words, when someone is asked to imagine a friend who is vulnerable to heart attack, they are influenced by the question and will tend to choose a person who is at risk, rather than any other of their friends who may not be at risk.

Abstract (from the authors): People who have not been victimized by negative life events tend to perceive themselves as less vulnerable than others (i.e., as “uniquely invulnerable”) to victimization. We examined the conditions under which people’s judgments of others’ vulnerability differ from judgments of their own vulnerability. In Study 1, subjects saw vague comparison targets (either the “average person” or the “average college student”) as more vulnerable than themselves to 10 negative events. In contrast, subjects perceived a specific target (their closest friend, sibling, or same-sex parent) as equally invulnerable as themselves. In Study 2, subjects who were instructed to consider a vague, abstract target (either the “average college student” or “one of your friends”) made downward comparisons, choosing a real or hypothetical other who was especially vulnerable to a particular event. On the other hand, subjects who were instructed to consider a specific, concrete target (their closest friend) perceived no self-other differences in risk status. We concluded that when given the opportunity, subjects actively engage in downward comparisons, thereby seeing themselves as relatively invulnerable. Whereas vague targets facilitate downward comparisons, specific targets make such comparisons more difficult. Both cognitive and motivational mechanisms underlying such downward comparisons are discussed.

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