The scapegoat theory explains a phenomenon that is quite widespread at social and individual level: the tendency to look for culprits who carry our mistakes and frustrations. The scapegoat is a person or group who is blamed, despite being innocent, to relieve someone else of their responsibility.
It is a social and psychological phenomenon that has been replicated over the centuries in different cultures and continues to occur daily in our lives. In fact, all of us could, at some point, become someone’s scapegoat. Or we could make someone our scapegoat.
As the psychologist Gardner Lindzey demonstrated in a series of experiments conducted in the 1950s, “Individuals high in minority group prejudice did not show a significantly greater tendency toward displacement of aggression following frustration than those low in minority group prejudice”. That means that the phenomenon of the scapegoat affects all of us.
The double psychological function of the scapegoat
Pointing the finger at someone to make them a scapegoat meets two psychological needs. Above all, it serves to minimize feelings of guilt for the responsibility that we have before a negative result, helping us to maintain a positive self-image. Second, it helps us maintain the perceived control by processing a clear explanation for an otherwise inexplicable negative result, as revealed by a study at the University of Kansas.
In other words, the scapegoat becomes a reservoir for our frustrations by playing a leading role in the narrative that we invent to exonerate ourselves. Thus we protect our ego and maintain a certain sense of control and self-efficacy. We tell ourselves that if things go wrong, the fault is not ours but someone else’s. And we build a story that supports it.
This mechanism occurs below the threshold of our consciousness through displacement. Displacement is a psychological mechanism through which we transfer the uncomfortable feelings we experience, such as anger, frustration, guilt, shame, insecurity or envy, to another person or group, often more vulnerable and with few weapons to defend themselves that can destroy the narrative we have invented to exonerate ourselves.
Through displacement, the scapegoats become the reservoir of those negative feelings that the individual, group or society does not want to accept as their own. This process allows the person or society to download the most negative and unacceptable psychological content, which is replaced by a consoling sense of reaffirmation and moralistic indignation against the chosen scapegoat.
Thus the scapegoat becomes a way to explain failure or bad actions, while preserving the positive image of ourselves. If a person does not get a job, for example, he or she can blame the person who got it, accusing him or her without proof of having accessed that position only because he or she belongs to a minority group. So we don’t even have to consider the possibility that he or she didn’t have the knowledge or skills necessary for the job.
The scapegoat saves his or her ego, but it is likely that that person begins to feed an inordinate and largely irrational hatred towards certain groups that, according to his or her narrative, are playing dirty and are guilty of most of his or her misfortunes. And is that the creation of a villain necessarily implies the appearance of a hero, although both figures are fictitious.
In fact, according to the scapegoat theory, it’s not unusual for the villains themselves to need a bigger villain to blame. In times of uncertainty and crisis, this phenomenon is amplified. At such times, political, religious, or community leaders can cynically exploit that long-standing and ingrained impulse to seek scapegoats in other collectives to divert attention from their own inadequacies and mistakes in order to evade their legitimate burden of guilt and responsibility.
Envy, Frustration and Anger: The Triad That Leads to Scapegoating
An interesting theory of the scapegoat that tries to explain this phenomenon within the framework of Social Psychology refers to a very human quality: envy. According to the philosopher René Girard, we have a tendency to imitate the others, but there comes a point where that imitation erases the differences between people, causing us to become more similar and desire the same things. We want to achieve that same success and enjoy the same lifestyle.
That similarity in our objectives and goals leads us to fight for the same and leads to rivalries. Then is established a kind of Hobbesian war of all against all. Envy towards those who have what we have not been able to achieve and mimetic rivalries, are going to gradually accumulating in society, and the level of tension increases until a turning point occurs.
At that moment, order and reason can quickly give way to chaos and violence. In fact, these rivalries end up threatening the very existence of groups and societies, so it is essential to overcome these internal struggles. Girard believes that at this point violence and anger are resolved with a smaller dose of violence exerted on an individual or group.
To quell this “mass madness”, which represents a genuine existential threat to society, a vulnerable person or group is singled out to become the scapegoat and act as a sink for all negative feelings. Suddenly, the people who were fighting each other, join forces against that common enemy, who embodies the source of all their evils.
In this process, former enemies become friends as they have a common adversary on which to channel all their frustrations and anger. However, for the punishment of that scapegoat to really atone for society’s guilt and reassure it, he or she cannot be seen as an innocent individual or group. The victim must become an evil and monstrous creature who violated some implicit or explicit prohibition and who, therefore, deserves to be punished.
Thus, people and communities deceive themselves, building a narrative in which the victim is guilty of the crisis and the problems that afflict them. Thus, having displaced all dissatisfactions and frustrations on that scapegoat, it is also believed that his sacrifice will restore peace and resolve all conflicts.
As a result, the scapegoat ends up being condemned, expelled, or isolated. Then the social order is reestablished. But the cycle begins again because individuals continue to deceive themselves, do not develop self-determination and critical thinking but continue to wish the same as others, which will inevitably lead to another witch hunt.
Marie Antoinette of Austria is the perfect example of a scapegoat as when she married the then heir to the throne, Louis XVI of France, the country had already been on the brink of bankruptcy due to the reckless spending of Louis XV. However, the people chose the young foreign princess as the target of their growing anger and it did not take long for them to sacrifice her to appease the mobs.
According to this social theory of the scapegoat, victims not only serve as psychological relief for a group of people, but also have the function of masking the real problem and acting as a barrier to avoid detecting the real culprits. This means that, deep down, the phenomenon of the scapegoat is the expression of a society that does not reflect on itself, that does not recognize its responsibilities and mistakes but prefers to remain trapped in an authentic samsara in the search for new culprits that will allow to atone its sins.
Richardson, F. C. & Manglos, N. D. (2013) Reciprocity and Rivalry: A Critical Introduction to Mimetic Scapegoat Theory. Pastoral Psychology; 62: 423–436.
Rothschild, Z. et. Al. (2012) A dual-motive model of scapegoating: Displacing blame to reduce guilt or increase control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 102(6): 1148-1163.
Frear, G. (1991) René Girard on Mimesis, Scapegoats, and Ethics. The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics; 12: 115-133.
Lindzey, G. (1950) An experimental examination of the scapegoat theory of prejudice. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology; 45(2): 296–309.