The evolutionary advantages of playing victim

In general, people reward victimhood signaling. For example, one study found that participants reported greater willingness to donate to a GoFundMe page for a young woman in need of college tuition when she also mentioned her difficult upbringing, as compared to a control case in which no extra details of past suffering were provided. In many cases, such a result is morally desirable: We want people to help those who have suffered and who are in greater need. However, when it is known that people can attain benefits by projecting certain biographical information, opportunists may be incentivized to exaggerate or falsely signal their own troubles. Just as people may fake competence to attain status and benefits (e.g., by doping in sports, or using one’s smartphone during pub trivia), and fake morality to attain a good reputation (e.g., by behaving better in public contexts than in private situations), they may fake victimhood to get undeserved sympathy and compensation.

It’s also important to remember that many claims of victimhood are made to strangers online, especially through social media or fundraising sites. This can increase the reach and effectiveness of insincere claims because they are directed toward strangers who have no basis for investigating (or even entertaining) suspicions of fake victimhood, except on pain of appearing callous.

When a person knowingly wrongs someone in his or her family, circle of friends, community, or professional orbit, they often are willing to make amends, and so victims can often appeal directly to transgressors for recompense.