Scapegoat Theory

Scapegoat Theory refers to the tendency to blame individuals or groups for negative events, often to redirect frustration or anger from the true cause. It involves assigning unfair blame, projecting insecurities, and can lead to prejudice and social division. Understanding this theory is crucial for addressing conflicts and promoting empathy in society.


The Scapegoat Theory is a psychological and sociological concept that explains the tendency of individuals or groups to assign blame and hold others responsible for the problems and challenges within a society or community. It operates on the premise that when people face frustration, stress, or difficulties, they often seek to alleviate their discomfort by identifying a target or scapegoat to blame. This scapegoat is usually a person or group who is different in some way, making them an easy target for blame and prejudice.

Key Characteristics of the Scapegoat Theory:

Key Characteristics

  1. Blame and Projection: The theory posits that individuals and groups tend to project their frustrations, anger, or fears onto a scapegoat, attributing blame for their problems to this external target.
  2. Prejudice and Stereotyping: Scapegoating often involves the perpetuation of stereotypes and prejudices against the identified scapegoat group, reinforcing negative perceptions.
  3. Psychological Relief: Assigning blame to a scapegoat provides a sense of psychological relief for individuals, as it allows them to externalize their problems and temporarily alleviate their distress.
  4. Social and Historical Context: Scapegoating is influenced by the social and historical context of a society, including economic, political, and cultural factors.
  5. Group Dynamics: Scapegoating can be a collective process, with groups or communities identifying a common scapegoat to redirect blame and frustration.
  6. Negative Consequences: Scapegoating can lead to discrimination, prejudice, and social injustice, as well as the stigmatization and marginalization of the scapegoat group.

Benefits of Understanding Scapegoat Theory

Understanding and addressing the Scapegoat Theory can provide several significant benefits in various contexts:

  1. Social Awareness: Awareness of the Scapegoat Theory allows individuals and communities to recognize the dynamics of blame and prejudice and their potentially harmful consequences.
  2. Conflict Resolution: Identifying scapegoating behaviors can aid in conflict resolution and reconciliation efforts by addressing underlying sources of tension and frustration.
  3. Promotion of Empathy: Recognizing the impact of scapegoating can promote empathy and understanding, encouraging individuals to challenge their biases and prejudices.
  4. Social Justice: By addressing scapegoating and the systemic discrimination it can perpetuate, societies can work toward greater social justice and equality.
  5. Crisis Management: Understanding how scapegoating can emerge during times of crisis or uncertainty can help organizations and leaders manage public opinion and minimize the negative effects of scapegoating.

Challenges in Addressing Scapegoat Theory

While addressing the Scapegoat Theory is essential, it comes with certain challenges:

  1. Psychological Complexity: The psychological processes behind scapegoating are complex and deeply ingrained, making it challenging to change attitudes and behaviors.
  2. Cultural and Historical Factors: Scapegoating behaviors are often rooted in cultural and historical factors, requiring comprehensive societal change to address.
  3. Groupthink: Scapegoating can be a collective process driven by groupthink, making it difficult for individuals to resist or challenge prevailing beliefs.
  4. Political Manipulation: Scapegoating can be exploited for political purposes, as leaders may use scapegoats to divert attention from their own failures or gain support.
  5. Media Influence: Media can play a significant role in perpetuating scapegoating behaviors by reinforcing stereotypes and biases.

Use Cases and Examples

To better understand how the Scapegoat Theory is applied in practical scenarios, let’s explore some real-world use cases and examples:

1. Historical Prejudice and Discrimination

Throughout history, various groups have been scapegoated and subjected to prejudice and discrimination. For example:

Example: The Jewish population in Europe was historically scapegoated for various societal problems, including economic hardships and political unrest. This scapegoating contributed to centuries of discrimination and persecution.

2. Economic Downturns

During economic recessions or downturns, individuals and groups may be unfairly blamed for economic challenges:

Example: Immigrant communities have often been scapegoated during economic crises, with some people blaming them for job losses and economic instability, even when evidence suggests otherwise.

3. Political Scapegoating

Political leaders may use scapegoating to divert attention from their own failures or consolidate power:

Example: In times of political turmoil, leaders may blame minority groups or opposition parties for societal problems to rally support and distract from governance issues.

4. Racial and Ethnic Scapegoating

Racial and ethnic groups have frequently been targets of scapegoating and prejudice:

Example: Chinese immigrants in the United States were scapegoated during the late 19th century and subjected to discriminatory policies, including the Chinese Exclusion Act, due to perceived economic competition and cultural differences.

5. Modern Social Issues

Contemporary social issues can also involve scapegoating:

Example: During debates about public healthcare, some individuals may scapegoat immigrants or specific racial or ethnic groups by falsely attributing the rising costs of healthcare to them.

6. Social Media and Online Scapegoating

Scapegoating behaviors have extended to online platforms and social media:

Example: In online communities, individuals or groups may be unfairly blamed for various issues, and online harassment campaigns can emerge as a form of scapegoating.

Scapegoat Theory: Key Highlights

  • Scapegoat Theory: Scapegoat theory describes the phenomenon of blaming individuals or groups for negative events as a way to redirect frustration or anger from the actual cause.
  • Attribution: Instead of identifying the true source of a problem, scapegoating involves assigning blame to a convenient target.
  • Prejudice: Scapegoating often leads to negative beliefs and attitudes towards the blamed individual or group.
  • Social Projection: Individuals may project their own fears, insecurities, or negative qualities onto the scapegoat.
  • Use Cases: Scapegoating can occur in conflicts between social or ethnic groups, in politics to deflect criticism, and during economic hardships to blame marginalized groups.
  • Catharsis: Blaming a scapegoat provides temporary relief by releasing frustration or anger.
  • Group Cohesion: Scapegoating can strengthen group solidarity and identity as members unite against a common target.
  • Protection of Self-Esteem: Blaming others helps individuals protect their self-esteem by avoiding personal responsibility.
  • Unjust Blame: Scapegoating results in unfair blame that can harm the targeted individuals or groups.
  • Lack of Resolution: Focusing on a scapegoat prevents addressing the root causes of problems, hindering true resolution.
  • Social Division: Scapegoating contributes to social divisions and perpetuates prejudice against the blamed groups.
  • Examples: Historically, ethnic minorities and immigrants have been scapegoated during times of social unrest or economic difficulties. Political opponents may also be scapegoated for personal gain.
  • Addressing Scapegoating: Recognizing and addressing scapegoating is important for promoting empathy, resolving conflicts, and addressing underlying issues.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Lindy Effect

The Lindy Effect is a theory about the ageing of non-perishable things, like technology or ideas. Popularized by author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the Lindy Effect states that non-perishable things like technology age – linearly – in reverse. Therefore, the older an idea or a technology, the same will be its life expectancy.


Antifragility was first coined as a term by author, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragility is a characteristic of systems that thrive as a result of stressors, volatility, and randomness. Therefore, Antifragile is the opposite of fragile. Where a fragile thing breaks up to volatility; a robust thing resists volatility. An antifragile thing gets stronger from volatility (provided the level of stressors and randomness doesn’t pass a certain threshold).

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart’s Law is named after British monetary policy theorist and economist Charles Goodhart. Speaking at a conference in Sydney in 1975, Goodhart said that “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years. This observation was made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 and it become a guiding principle for the semiconductor industry and has had far-reaching implications for technology as a whole.

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation as a term was first described by Clayton M. Christensen, an American academic and business consultant whom The Economist called “the most influential management thinker of his time.” Disruptive innovation describes the process by which a product or service takes hold at the bottom of a market and eventually displaces established competitors, products, firms, or alliances.

Value Migration

Value migration was first described by author Adrian Slywotzky in his 1996 book Value Migration – How to Think Several Moves Ahead of the Competition. Value migration is the transferal of value-creating forces from outdated business models to something better able to satisfy consumer demands.

Bye-Now Effect

The bye-now effect describes the tendency for consumers to think of the word “buy” when they read the word “bye”. In a study that tracked diners at a name-your-own-price restaurant, each diner was asked to read one of two phrases before ordering their meal. The first phrase, “so long”, resulted in diners paying an average of $32 per meal. But when diners recited the phrase “bye bye” before ordering, the average price per meal rose to $45.


Groupthink occurs when well-intentioned individuals make non-optimal or irrational decisions based on a belief that dissent is impossible or on a motivation to conform. Groupthink occurs when members of a group reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the alternatives and their consequences.


A stereotype is a fixed and over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people. These beliefs are based on the false assumption that certain characteristics are common to every individual residing in that group. Many stereotypes have a long and sometimes controversial history and are a direct consequence of various political, social, or economic events. Stereotyping is the process of making assumptions about a person or group of people based on various attributes, including gender, race, religion, or physical traits.

Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Murphy’s Law was named after aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy. During his time working at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949, Murphy cursed a technician who had improperly wired an electrical component and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences was first mentioned by British philosopher John Locke when writing to parliament about the unintended effects of interest rate rises. However, it was popularized in 1936 by American sociologist Robert K. Merton who looked at unexpected, unanticipated, and unintended consequences and their impact on society.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution error is a bias people display when judging the behavior of others. The tendency is to over-emphasize personal characteristics and under-emphasize environmental and situational factors.

Outcome Bias

Outcome bias describes a tendency to evaluate a decision based on its outcome and not on the process by which the decision was reached. In other words, the quality of a decision is only determined once the outcome is known. Outcome bias occurs when a decision is based on the outcome of previous events without regard for how those events developed.

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is the tendency for people to perceive past events as more predictable than they actually were. The result of a presidential election, for example, seems more obvious when the winner is announced. The same can also be said for the avid sports fan who predicted the correct outcome of a match regardless of whether their team won or lost. Hindsight bias, therefore, is the tendency for an individual to convince themselves that they accurately predicted an event before it happened.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

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