What Is Scapegoating?

what is scapegoating?Understanding why scapegoating exists in group life is an important step in aiding both the victim and perpetrator.

Scapegoating is above all a group process. Anthropologists tell us that scapegoating is one of humanity’s most ancient rituals. Its origins are in child and animal sacrifice; it is manifested through genocide and mass slaughters, such as the Holocaust, but also through traumatic abuse within distressed families, in schoolyards and work settings.

We commonly experience scapegoating as bullying, hazing, sexism, racism, and ageism.

Scapegoating is as old humankind, and it can be at the root of great social evils, but it also has the potential for helping individuals and groups transform in new and creative ways. Many of our most renown prophets and leaders are the product of extreme scapegoating — Nelson Mandela, for example — just as subgroups who are victimized may become the source of great creativity and inspiration, such as America’s native population.

By definition, the scapegoat is a person or people “made to bear the anxious blame for others.” The scapegoated individual or subgroup is seen as a threat to the comfort and the successful functioning of the group as a whole and therefore must be eliminated. Whether the perceived threat is true or not is incidental: scapegoating is more about feelings than truth. As far as the group is concerned, the scapegoat is the sacrifice needed to ensure survival.

Group Survival

Scapegoating relies on the natural insecurities of both the group and its individual members, but it is not intrinsically negative. All groups, all people want to survive and thrive. Scapegoating is about the grouping of like-minded people guarding against what they believe is the intrusion of rogue elements that will be a detriment, not a contribution. Simply put, what they can’t accept, they scapegoat.

Almost anything can set the scapegoating process off: classmates or workmates who are smarter or too successful, the perception that a workplace colleague is receiving special privileges because of race or gender, refugees who put stress on the economic system, groups whose religious beliefs run counter to another’s. For the scapegoating group, these differences are felt to be profound threats to survival, and that puts those who are scapegoated at extreme risk.

To function successfully and comfortably, all groups set limits on how much diversity and change they can accept. Thus scapegoating may represent the group’s push toward its own wholeness — just as being a scapegoat may support an individual’s movement away from a group that is, in fact, limiting his or her development.

But without understanding and modifying the scapegoating process, its casualties will continue to be a major issue in society: Bullying, hazing, sexism, racism, and ageism are classic examples of scapegoating gone awry, and all can and are being modified through education, a better understanding of how scapegoating arises, and through greater acceptance and tolerance of its victims.

The Victims

Scapegoating has led to violence against and the degradation of groups of people. Genocide in the Sudan, “ethnic cleansing” in Croatia, the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, apartheid in South Africa, lynchings in the American South, honor killings of women in the Middle East and Southeast Asia — all are specific to scapegoating. History can be visualized as one long timeline of scapegoating. Wars are fought and won and ideologies cemented by the creation of stereotypical scapegoats — visual representations that put a face on the enemy for public consumption.

Almost all scapegoating is traumatic psychologically as well as physically. Bullied children are more susceptible to depression and suicide. Adolescents have died in fraternity hazing and more have committed suicide afterwards. Tragically, too,  scapegoats who survive are often left with a need to seek revenge, which leads to violence and another round of scapegoating against the abusers.

Scapegoating can represent the darkest side of the human condition, and to lessen its grip requires self-examination — and the concomitant acceptance of change, what can be called positive scapegoating.  Change is evolutionary, and people and groups do change; moreover, scapegoating can be recognized and addressed — the Civil Rights movement is one example — and the scapegoats often become our leaders in this effort.


There are many stories of successful men and women who rebounded from childhood scapegoating to become our popular idols, among them the late Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs, Olympic star Michael Phelps, Oprah Winfrey, and Lady Gaga. Former President Bill Clinton was bullied in high school for being a “fat band boy.”

What they have in common is that they recognized what was happening to them and found the support to keep going. Clinton writes in his memoir, “My Life,” that he didn’t give in to the taunts. “I had learned that I could take a hit and that there’s more than one way to stand against aggression.” Phelps poured himself into his talent, with his coach noting, “Michael is the motivation machine — bad moods, good moods, he channels everything for gain.” Both men ran into ethical difficulties shaped by the intensity of their need to excel and achieve.

Not everyone has the inner fortitude and talent of a Clinton or Phelps, but more and more of us have access to professional help, particularly in the schools and workplace, where strides are being made in curtailing bullying, abuse, and other forms of scapegoating through education, policy, and legal reform.

Just talking about scapegoating, however, doesn’t make the pain go away. Simply forgiving the scapegoaters and understanding their behavior doesn’t heal the inner wound. Courageous action from all parties can be equally important for change and healing. We must accept and understand that scapegoating exists within and emerges from our group — that we are all a part of the scapegoating process.