Why you should never trust someone who uses virtuous victim signaling
Have you been duped by virtuous victim signaling? Find out what it is, and why Machiavellian narcissists, MLM reps and some business coaches are so fond of using it.
There’s something that’s been bothering me for a while now. I have noticed in the past few years that it’s become common for some business coaches to frequently post about bad things that happen to them – or more specifically, people who have hurt them in some way.
It might be an outright claim of being bullied, or a more vague social media post or email describing some slight or offence, however small.
It’s such a common tactic today that when I was researching this article on narcissists I tried to search for this phenomenon to see if there was any psychological explanation for it. But I didn’t know how to describe it, so came up empty handed.
Then, recently I came across this tweet that addressed exactly what I was struggling to put a name to:
The tweet references this research: Signaling virtuous victimhood as indicators of Dark Triad personalities, by Ekin Ok, Yi Qian, Brendan Strejcek, and Karl Aquino.
The introduction to the research says that the three studies within the research show that “individuals with Dark Triad traits — Machiavellianism, Narcissism, Psychopathy — more frequently signal virtuous victimhood”. And that “a specific dimension of Machiavellianism — amoral manipulation — and a form of narcissism that reflects a person’s belief in their superior prosociality predict more frequent virtuous victim signaling”.
In other words, Machiavellian narcissists are more likely to use virtuous victim signaling. In this article we explore what virtuous victim signaling is, and how it’s used in business (specifically business coaching and MLMs) to emotionally manipulate people and earn money from them as a result.
Before we continue, we want to make it very clear that we are not talking about REAL victimhood in this article. Virtuous victim signaling is a manipulative strategy and very different to speaking your truth and seeking justice.
What is virtuous victim signaling?
So what is virtuous victim signaling? Virtuous victim signalling uses two powerful strategies: victim signaling and virtue signaling.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, virtue signaling is defined as “an attempt to show other people that you are a good person, for example by expressing opinions that will be acceptable to them, especially on social media.”
Victim signalling, meanwhile, is explained here by Psychreg:
“It’s that thing where somebody writes a lengthy message about what an absolutely awful time they are having for no reason whatsoever of their own. In fact, they are totally blameless, the victims of circumstance and some other person’s heartless behaviour and though they are somehow bravely managing to struggle on, they really feel like giving up. If they ever do accept some culpability for the situation, it will usually be along the lines that they were foolish enough to attempt to nurture, support or help somebody else who cruelly rejected them or abused their sincere attempts to assist. This, of course, hugely enhances their victim status.”
Victim signaling posts rarely actually name the offender, and sometimes omit to give any real, tangible details, when pressed by sympathetic responders. This is sometimes known as vaguebooking.
Alone, each type of signaling is irritating enough. But when combined they can be used as a powerful tool to emotionally manipulate others and encourage them to behave in ways that serve the poster:
“… victim signaling is maximally effective at initiating resource transfers when it is coupled with virtue signaling, defined as symbolic demonstrations that can lead observers to make favorable inferences about the signaler’s moral character. We hypothesize that the presentation of a dual signal of virtuous victimhood can induce those who perceive the signal to offer more social and economic resources to the signaler than the presentation of only one of the signals.”
This means that when you combine portraying yourself as a victim (victim signaling) with a demonstration of your moral superiority (virtue signaling) you find it easier to get what you want from others (resource transfers).
So why does it work so powerfully? Because your victimhood lowers people’s cynicism and triggers their natural desire to defend and support a victim, while your proclamation of virtue increases their trust:
“…the vigilance and skepticism that observers might ordinarily apply when deciding to transfer their resources to a victim signaler, particularly one who is a stranger, can be overcome by signs of virtue.”
Unfortunately though, the people who use this tactic probably aren’t trustworthy at all, according to the research.
How victim signaling and virtue signaling work together
Here’s an example of how victim signaling and virtue signaling work together, and why the combination of the two is so powerful.
As human beings we’re predisposed to feel sympathy for victims, and want to help them achieve justice or retribution. But not all victims are equal. We’re more likely to want to help (or ‘transfer resources’ to) a someone we consider a ‘good’ or worthy victim.
For example, consider which GoFundMe you would be more inclined to donate to:
- A fundraiser for a charity worker who has been knocked down by a car.
- A fundraiser for a thief running away from a burglary who has been knocked down by a car.
Both injuries are the same – so from one viewpoint they are ‘equal’ victims. But one victim would be considered more worthy of help than another, due to their virtue. As the research put it: “…perceived morality and victimhood of the target individually contributed to willingness to help and deservingness perceptions.”
Being a virtuous victim can even encourage people to overcome any usual precautions and go out of their way to help, even if they don’t know the victim: “…the vigilance and skepticism that observers might ordinarily apply when deciding to transfer their resources to a victim signaler, particularly one who is a stranger, can be overcome by signs of virtue.”
So by both portraying yourself as a victim and conveying your virtue as a “social influence tactic”, you are more likely to motivate people to feel sorry for you, trust you and take action in your favour – even if they don’t know you.
We’re also predisposed to want to ‘reward’ someone who has experienced something bad but remained positive and virtuous:
“…someone who remains a good person despite experiencing bad things is more likely to spark a desire in observers to reward the person for their persistent virtue because it positively disconfirms expectations about the normative relationship between the value of a person and the value of their outcomes.”
But when used consciously for personal gain, the research claims that virtuous victim signaling indicates a less than desirable character: “…those who frequently emit virtuous victim signals are more likely to exhibit behaviors and cognitions that are similar to those reported among people who have Dark Triad personalities.”
And worryingly, “the characteristics of people who have Dark Triad profiles (Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy) are self-promotion, emotional callousness, duplicity, and tendency to take advantage of others.” So the eventual outcome of the your good deed is unlikely to be favourable to you.
Virtuous victim signaling can be used to shut down critics
The research also observes that claiming victim status makes it easier to manipulate people into giving you what you want and even behaving badly by “conferring moral immunity upon the claimant”. It continues:
“Moral immunity shields the alleged victim from criticism about the means they might use to satisfy their demands. In other words, victim status can morally justify the use of deceit, intimidation, or even violence by alleged victims to achieve their goals.”
When you claim victim status people are also much less likely to hold you to blame, and will even excuse transgressions such as “the appropriation of private property or the infliction of pain upon others, that might otherwise bring condemnation or rebuke.”
In other words, claiming to be a victim (and a virtuous one at that) is a ‘get out of jail free card’ that enables you to behave in morally substandard ways, and get away with it.
And not only does it prevent your victims from criticising you, but the people you have duped into thinking you’re a good person can easily be mobilised to defend you without question when you are justifiably held to account by others.
So if you do believe you have been duped by someone using virtuous victim signaling, you’re highly unlikely to gain sympathy or justice, and are even likely to be bullied further if you speak out.
How do business coaches use virtuous victim signaling?
As I mentioned at the start, I’ve noticed some business coaches using virtuous victim signaling for a while now; long before I even recognised it was a known tactic.
I first spotted business coaches using it as a way to draw attention to themselves and defeat or silence critics. Or to deflect attention away from complaints by unhappy customers – much as politicians will manipulate the news to try to bury a story.
After writing the article the six-figure business con I received many messages from people who believed they had been conned by business coaches, and I realised that the same names that kept cropping up were the coaches who used this particular tactic.
I then started to notice smaller coaches who had taken courses and training programmes run by the bigger coaches use the same strategy. Sometimes overtly – “I have been bullied” – and sometimes more subtly – “I feel upset; someone has been mean to me.” And not just once; the people who used this tactic were posting these sentiments regularly.
At that time I didn’t have access to the research this article is based on, but I had a hunch these posts were a business tactic. And not one that felt honest or ethical.
My instinct was that these posts were used to lower people’s defences and build trust and sympathy with the coach – and make it easier to manipulate them. And that’s exactly what the research bears out:
“… the virtuous victimhood signal is an effective mechanism for persuading others to part with their resources in a way that benefits the signaler.”
Business coaches use posts and claims like these to position themselves as a virtuous victim to make money. This strategy is used most successfully by people who have honed the “ability to display superficial charm and highly developed impression management skills.”
To me this isn’t marketing; it’s emotional manipulation.
Examples of virtuous victim signaling
So what does virtuous victim signaling actually look like? How can you recognise it and protect yourself from falling for it? Here’s an example of the type of virtuous victim signaling post you may see:
I recently wrote a Facebook post calling out bullying. I have just found out it was shared in a private group and people were saying the most horrible things about me in it. The leader of the group even lied and claimed I had sent her a rude message. I don’t understand how people can do something like this – I would never tear another woman down.
Here’s another more subtle, but just as troubling, example of virtuous victim signaling:
“You can’t talk about money.” Yes that is just what I was told the other day by someone who decided to give me unsolicited business advice! But guess what? There’s no cookie cutter approach to business, and I believe that it’s inspiring for other women to talk about money. We live in a world where we are judging ourselves by others’ standards, but rather than criticise each other, why not celebrate our differences and lift each other up?
They said I couldn’t do it. They said I was ‘too quiet’, ‘didn’t have enough experience’ and even ‘didn’t deserve it’. But I proved them wrong! I didn’t let the doubters stop me, and ploughed on with my mission to serve you and make the world a better, more sparkly place.
Why can’t people just be nice? I’ve been crying all day after receiving another nasty message from someone. You never know what battles people are fighting. Has no one learned from Caroline Flack? #bekind
All these examples share two things in common: an external ‘enemy’ who is victimising them, and the moral high ground. They are rising above such negativity/would never do anything so horrible/proved them wrong and put them in their place, etc.
Another thing they all have in common is that they really do tug at your heart strings – or would do if they were true. Who wants someone else to be bullied? And don’t we all want to lift others up and be kind? It’s hard to disagree with their sentiment, or criticise the post, because that would make YOU a horrible person.
MLM reps love to use virtuous victim signaling
Business coaches aren’t the only ones to use virtuous victim signaling. It’s long been popular with the MLM industry.
MLM reps love to claim they are the victim of jealous bullies and trolls. Some go as far as actually instigating a fight with someone, whereas others simply vaguebook about the ‘abuse’ they are receiving elsewhere.
Here’s are two examples from a repeat offender, someone high up in an MLM who frequently lies:
To be clear: we would never condone bullying. And these posts appear, to an innocent observer, to be entirely genuine. But the woman who wrote them claims to be bullied (always by a nameless ‘group’ of people) on a regular basis, and makes classic use of virtuous victim signaling. In the second post she even connects the ‘bullying’ to nearly dying in a car crash decades before.
Of course, posts like these elicit an avalanche of horrified and supportive comments from people in her downline. People she wants to trust her, and continue to keep paying money into the MLM company (so she can secure her bonuses).
And that is the point with virtuous victim signaling in MLMs. MLM reps want to deflect attention from their own dubious morals and gain the trust of people who are useful to them. It also makes it very difficult for anyone who sees through their lies to openly confront them – they know they’ll simply be labeled a bully and be subject to the anger of the reps’ followers.
Not everyone using virtuous victim signaling is a Machiavellian narcissist
It’s important to point out that not everyone using virtuous victim signaling is a Machiavellian narcissist. We’ve seen people using this strategy innocently, either because they’ve been taught to as a marketing tool, or because they have observed it working well for others and come to believe that it’s what you need to do if you want to succeed.
If you are in the latter group, we encourage you to not succumb to such a transparently manipulative strategy. Instead, sell yourself and what you do honestly, without gimmicks. Identify a need people have and demonstrate, over time, how you can help them meet that need.
Yes, honest marketing takes longer, but it’s longer lasting and far more satisfying than luring someone in using emotion and manipulation. You’ll end up with a happier customer base of the right people, and a healthier business in the long run.
What should you do if you are a target of virtuous victim signaling?
It’s bad enough falling victim to the emotional manipulations of someone using virtuous victim signaling. But what if you are the target of it?
A few years ago I came onto the radar of someone who has built her profile on the back of this tactic. Out off the blue, this business coach posted a social media rant naming me as a bully and attributing false quotes to me. She even messaged me (we had never had any contact) and asked me to respond to her accusations.
I did as I would generally recommend anyone respond to this kind of blatant but empty attempt at bullying and intimidation: ignore it. Responding to false accusations indicates you may believe they have merit. And joining the argument simply prolongs it. Anyone with common sense who knows you should be able to see the accusations for what they are.
And if someone does fall for the virtuous victim signaling used against you? They either don’t know you, or aren’t someone worth worrying about.
Used in this way virtuous victim signaling is actually a bullying tactic in itself. So if you notice someone you are thinking of working with or hiring using it, then think twice. In our opinion it’s a big red flag.
We are NOT talking about real victimhood
I just want to clarify one thing before concluding this article. We are not talking about genuine victimhood, where people have been subjected to prejudice and real bullying. That does happen and it should be called out.
Indeed, the researchers behind the study caution us against assuming everyone who talks about a bad experience is Machiavellian. They make it clear that “victim signaling can yield many positive personal and social outcomes, such as helping people heal and raising awareness about the conditions that lead to victimization.”
They go on to state:
“…we do not refute the claim that there are individuals who emit the virtuous victim signal because they experience legitimate harm and also conduct themselves in decent and laudable ways. We strongly caution against this interpretation of our findings and the uncritical categorization of people as being good or bad depending on whether or not they publicly communicate their suffering or misfortune.”
Rather the research “focuses on a different set of questions associated with victim signaling, including an examination of its functionality as a social influence tactic, how its effectiveness can be maximized by combining it with a virtue signal, who is likely to emit this dual signal, and whether the frequency of signaling virtuous victimhood can predict certain behaviors and judgments.”
Talking about a negative experience that needs to be shared and can be used to seek justice for yourself and empower others is important. But continually sharing examples of your own victimhood, paired with virtue signaling, can be problematic, especially if it leads to people trusting you and even paying you money.
And particularly if it leaves a wake of defrauded and traumatised people in your wake, who are further bullied when they try to speak out.
So before you blindly take the word of someone claiming to have been bullied or otherwise victimised, especially if they virtue signal while sharing the experience, consider whether they may have ulterior motives in winning your sympathy and trust – particularly if they often share similar experiences.
It could be that their sad tale is just a manipulative marketing ploy.
Photo by Becca Tapert