The Psychology of Betrayal

Editor-in-Chief
Graduate Division

Stories of sexual assault are rampant in the news today. From Hollywood producers and radio hosts to politicians and news reporters, it is clear that no field is immune to violations of trust.

The chain of events may seem clear for those who have not experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. A betrayal occurs, a victim reports that betrayal, and the perpetrator is punished. However, these betrayals and their underlying psychology are far more complex.

On Nov. 6, Dr. Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, visited UCSF to present her extensive research aimed at understanding how trauma impacts mental and physical health, behavior, and society.

According to Freyd, the ability to evaluate another person’s level of trustworthiness or tendency for betrayal is a necessary survival mechanism.

When empowered, an individual can more easily recognize these traits and respond by either confronting or withdrawing from the perpetrator.

This situation is made far more complicated when a dependent relationship exists: for example, if a child experiences betrayal by a caregiver.

In addition to the abuse there is a second level of trauma for the victim as it is a person they depend on for survival who has violated their trust and well-being. Freyd refers to this second level of trauma as “betrayal trauma.”

Because the child depends on this caregiver, confronting or withdrawing from this person threatens this necessary relationship.

In this instance the dependent person may exhibit “betrayal blindness,” which Freyd defines as an unawareness or forgetting of betrayal to ensure that the dependent relationship is preserved.

The impacts of trauma are intricate, creating both moral and psychological conflicts, and are unevenly distributed across the population.

In a 2006 study comparing 433 women and 304 men, Freyd found that women reported higher frequencies of traumatic events (specifically sexual abuse and assaults) perpetrated by someone close to them.

In an independent cohort of 833 individuals, Freyd found that lower socioeconomic status and ethnicity predicted greater exposure to trauma and associated mental health symptoms, such as depression and anxiety.

Moreover, research by Jennifer Berdahl and Celia Moore investigating patterns of harassment at five different organizations found that minority men are harassed at higher rates than white men. Furthermore, women are harassed at higher rates than men and minority women are harassed at higher rates than all other investigated groups.

Thus individuals who are systemically oppressed, and especially those who exist at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression, are at the greatest risk of experiencing betrayal trauma.

Like individuals, institutions, and those who represent them, can also provoke betrayal trauma.

For example, a graduate student is dependent on the Principal Investigator of a lab for mentorship, letters of recommendation, and resources. If the student experiences abuse by their PI, confronting or withdrawing from them may seem impossible. Doing so could hurt the graduate student’s career, so instead they may turn a blind eye to protect themselves and their future.

While this scenario may sound unlikely or shocking to some, Freyd’s research tells a different story.

From a campus-wide sexual violence survey conducted at the University of Oregon, Freyd and colleagues found that while female undergraduates experience more overall sexual harassment and violence, female graduate students experience more sexual or gender-based harassment perpetrated by university faculty or staff members.

Of the approximately 124 female graduate students that reported this type of harassment, only seven informed the university.

Reporting harassment is important for promoting policy changes and awareness, yet non-disclosure is surprisingly common.

While students may disclose a trauma or harassment to family members and close friends, they often don’t feel safe disclosing to the institution where the harassment occurred.

Non-disclosure seems like a more endurable option compared to the risk of reporting and being met with a negative response.

For example, a victim’s experience may be dismissed (“I doubt that happened”), there may be denial of the perpetrator’s behavior (“Are you sure they meant it that way? It sounds harmless to me”), the victim may be attacked by the person they are disclosing to (“Based on what you were wearing it seems like you were asking for it”), or the role of victim and offender may be reversed (“You’re horrible for accusing an upstanding member of our society!”).

Freyd refers to these responses collectively as DARVO (which stands for deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender).

DARVO is an effective strategy for perpetrators because it can increase doubt about a victim’s credibility and is associated with victim self-blame.

When DARVO occurs at the institutional level, this failure to respond supportively to the victim can lead to new betrayal and further trauma for the victim.

Freyd further explained that mandatory reporting policies in place at many institutions are harmful to victims.

According to Freyd, the first thing you should do to support a survivor of trauma is to help them regain a sense of control. Taking information given to you by a victim and passing it on to other sources diminishes the victim’s control, which further promotes non-disclosure.

Instead of required reporting, Freyd asserts that “required supporting” by the institution and survivor-directed reporting better serves victims.

Individuals and institutions also must become better listeners, and with the proper training Freyd believes this is possible.

Indeed in a 2011 study she found that studying a list of compassionate listening tips for just 10 minutes could enhance supportive listening and help people become better responders to individuals disclosing trauma.

Despite the troubling story much of Freyd’s research told, her talk ended on an optimistic note with 10 ways institutions can better support victims.

These “10 Principles of institutional Courage” are:

  1. Comply with laws and go beyond mere compliance

  2. Respond well to victim disclosures

  3. Bear witness, be accountable, apologized

  4. Cherish the whistle blower

  5. Engage in self-study

  6. Conduct anonymous surveys

  7. Make sure policy is trauma-informed

  8. Be transparent about data and policy

  9. Research and educate

  10. Commit resources to 1-9

For more information about Freyd and her research visit her website Freyd Dynamics Lab.