"Backstabbing" redirects here. For coworker backstabbing, see Coworker backstabbing.

Betrayal (or backstabbing) is the breaking or violation of a presumptive contract, trust, or confidence that produces moral and psychological conflict within a relationship amongst individuals, between organizations or between individuals and organizations. Often betrayal is the act of supporting a rival group, or it is a complete break from previously decided upon or presumed norms by one party from the others. Someone who betrays others is commonly called a traitor or betrayer. Betrayal is also a commonly used literary element and is often associated with or used as a plot twist.



Roger L. Jackson, author of the article, The Sense and Sensibility of Betrayal: Discovering the Meaning of Treachery Through Jane Austen, writes that "there has been surprisingly little written about what we even mean by the term". In psychology, practitioners describe betrayal as the breaking of a social contract; however, critics of this approach claim that the term social contract does not accurately reflect the conditions and motivations for, and effects of, betrayal. Philosophers Judith Shklar and Peter Johnson, authors of The Ambiguities of Betrayal and Frames of Deceit respectively, contend that while no clear definition of betrayal is available, betrayal is more effectively understood through literature.[1]

AI researcher Selmer Bringsjord made betrayal the core of a storytelling program BRUTUS. In Artificial Intelligence and Literary Creativity: Inside the Mind of BRUTUS, a Storytelling Machine, betrayal is defined operationally in computer language as basically as knowingly thwarting another out of something that ought to occur.

Theoretical and practical needs

Jackson explains why a clear definition is needed:

Betrayal is both a "people" problem and a philosopher's problem. Philosophers should be able to clarify the concept of betrayal, compare and contrast it with other moral concepts, and critically assess betrayal situations. At the practical level people should be able to make honest sense of betrayal and also to temper its consequences: to handle it, not be assaulted by it. What we need is a conceptually clear account of betrayal that differentiates between genuine and merely perceived betrayal, and which also provides systematic guidance for the assessment of alleged betrayal in real life.

Ben-Yehuda's 2001 work ("Betrayals and Treason Violations of Trust and Loyalty" Westview Press) framed all forms of betrayals and treason under a unifying analytical framework using loyalty, trust and moral boundaries as explanatory tools.

Signature and consequences

An act of betrayal creates a signature constellation, in both its victims and its perpetrators, of negative behaviours, thoughts, and feelings. The interactions are complex. The victims exhibit anger and confusion, and demand atonement from the perpetrator; who in turn may experience guilt or shame, and exhibit remorse. If, after the perpetrator has exhibited remorse or apologized, the victim continues to express anger, this may in turn cause the perpetrator to become defensive, and angry in turn. Forgiveness of betrayal is exhibited by the victim foregoing the demands for atonement and retribution; and is only complete where the victim does not continue to remind the perpetrator of the act, to demand apologies, or to review the incident again and again.[2]

Betrayal trauma

The term, betrayal trauma, was first used by Jennifer Freyd ( to explain why a victim might repress harm by a person upon whom they rely for satisfaction of a need necessary for continued wellbeing. Substantially similar to the dissociative amnesia theory, the betrayal trauma theory (DePrince, 2005; DePrince & Freyd, 1999; Freyd, 1996, 1997; Freyd, DePrince & Zurbriggen, 2001) proposes that a social utility might cause an individual to undergo traumatic amnesia in favor of maintenance of a relationship perceived as needed for survival. Freyd suggested the degree to which the relationship is viewed as needed influences how events are processed and remembered. Unawareness and forgetting of abuse were substantially higher when the relationship between perpetrator and victim involved closeness, trust, or care-giving.

Hensley (2009c)argued the theory as presented by Freyd described the biological, psychological, and sociological (Biopsychosocial)response to the insult, rather than the insult itself. Hensley (2006, 2009c) defines betrayal trauma as the biological, psychological, and/or sociological (biopsychosocial) harm caused by an actual or perceived violation of a psychological contract by person(s) upon which the victim relies for some aspect of his or her holistic wellbeing. Hensley (2009c) argues betrayal trauma is far more injurious than physical and other traumas in that it destabilizes the mental model, schemas, and psychological contracts the victim has established to see, understand, and respond to life events, leading to extreme biopsychosocial distress. It violates the victim's understanding of rules, roles, relationships, respect, morals, ethics, and values, which are the core tenents of the psychological contract. Return to equilibrium requires the individual to redefine one or more of these tenents.


Betrayal is the violation of an expressed or perceived trust by a person or persons with whom a person relies upon for some aspect of his or her life. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson conceptualized eight psycho-developmental stages through which a person evolves throughout his or her life from birth to death. Each stage presents the person with challenges necessary to develop attributes foundational to subsequent stages. While Erikson ascribed ages a person enters and exits each psychosocial stage, the exact ages continue to be the subject of controversy. However, the model continues to be accepted by multidisciplinary theorists, researchers, and practitioners as the foundation for understanding perception, cognition, and behavior occurring during a person’s lifespan.

Erikson conceptualized from birth to one year of age, the foundational basis of a person’s mental model, psychological contract(s), and interaction with his or her environment is formed. At birth, an infant’s ability to signal to others his or her needs is nascent. The infant resides at the most foundational layers of Maslow's hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1954) – the Physiological Layer. The emerging mind of the infant exists without the ability to reason. The infant is, however, endowed with one desire – the desire to survive. With the infant’s biological, psychological, and sociological self working as a Holon, or a system of systems, the child establishes / realizes his or her first post-natal conceptualization – crying brings forth an individual to satisfy inherent physiological needs – the need of food, water, and cleansing from urination and defecation. This conceptualization forms the core of the infant’s understanding of rules, roles, responsibilities, respect, morals, ethics, and values – the infant’s mental model (Johnson-Laird, 1983; Hensley, 2006). This interaction also forms the individual’s pivotal psychological contract (Hensley, 2006; 2009a; 2009b; 2009c) from which all subsequent psychological contracts are constructed. Through conditioned learning, the infant trusts when he or she cries, a person will come to satisfy his or her needs. If, however, the mother fails to come, or only comes intermittently, the infant learns to distrust. The infant carries forward the belief that people can be undependable, and unpredictable. Children of abusive or negligent parents are likely to view the world as dangerous and powerful or influential others are not to be trusted. It should be noted that adaptation to this conditioning are varied. This is sometimes held to cause attachment disorder.

Hensley (2006, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c) argued a person’s mental model, psychological contracts, and schemas are the result of conditioning in a gender role congruent environment. Persons evolve through Erikson’s first five stages – Hope, Will, Purpose, Competence, and Fidelity – in accordance with socioculturally acceptable gender role expectancies. The person perceives, understands, and responds to life experiences in accordance with gender role congruent rules, roles, responsibility, respect, morals, ethics, and values.

Emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2000), during which persons enter Erikson’s sixth stage – Love – sometimes presents men and women with a trust-based mental model, psychological contracts, and schemas with environments vastly different from positive childhood environments.


A prominent example of betrayal likely to evoke betrayal trauma in adolescents, bullying, is currently receiving international attention. On January 14, 2010, 15-year old Phoebe Prince hung herself after harassment at school. Alexis Pilkington, 17, took her own life on March 21, 2010 following taunts on social networking sites. On September 9, 2010, 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Greensburg, Indiana hung himself from barn rafters after female classmates harassed him for being gay. Eighteen-year-old Tyler Clementi of Rutgers University jumped off a bridge to his death on September 22, 2010 after a college roommate posted footage online of him having sex with another man in his dorm room. Two fellow students have been charged with invasion of privacy. Many teens are the victims of biopsychosocial torture by perpetrators operating with near impunity. On October 17, 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier hung herself three weeks before her 14th birthday following cyberbullying on a social networking site. Erikson’s 5th stage is particularly salient to these deaths in that during the 5th stage the person develops his or her sense of identity in relationship to his or her environment. Peers are inherently pivotal to navigating this stage. Dependent on this stage is the ego quality of fidelity—the ability to sustain loyalties freely pledged in spite of the inevitable contradictions and confusions of value systems.

During Erikson’s 5th or 6th psycho-developmental stage, emerging male and female adults become prey for persons with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Narcissists are initially extremely attentive, flattering, and charismatic. Highly adept at enticing persons with naiveté, victims often find themselves feeling helpless and betrayed. Victims of narcissists often present a variety emotional complaints including insomnia, weight loss or gain, depression, anxiety, and phobias. Some victims report feelings of overwhelming despair, emptiness, loneliness, or doom. Some victims express suicidal ideation.

Hersey and Buhl (1990) discuss the betrayal associated with date rape. The authors assert characteristics similar to males with NPD – disregard space and boundaries, are aggressive and angry, and express little empathy for the needs of others. They are also highly charismatic in social environments. Perpetrators will typically isolate victims from others, especially friends, family, and their support system. Many rape victims suffer from betrayal trauma. Symptoms include loss of appetite, sleep disturbance, nightmares, extreme phobias, preoccupation with the rape, anxiety about leaving the home and being with other people, inability to concentrate on studies or work, and sexual dysfunction.

The economic downturn of the during the first decade of the 21st century resulted in persons entering gender role incongruent environments, such as women in combat. Hensley (2006, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c) argues feminine gender role congruent personality and ways of coping, through which many females and some males view, understand, and respond to life events, are often ineffective in coping with a gender role incongruent environment. Hensley (2006, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c) argues, as female service members who have been conditioned as traditional females are presented with combat-related events, they experience stress-evoking cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) resulting from dual gender role expectancies or gender role incongruence. This cognitive dissonance and post-event reflection in the post-event or post-deployment gender role congruent environment can potentially result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Combat and non-combat life events that deviate from predeployment expectancies can also result in betrayal trauma.


Jennifer Freyd (1994, 1996) first defined the term "betrayal trauma" as a venue for describing the biopsychosocial utility in preserving a relationship with powerful or influential person, upon whom the victim depends for some aspect of his or her life, by repressing, forgetting, or minimizing physical, mental, or emotional harm. Freyd, Klest, Allard (2005) and others have researched extensively the phenomenon of dissociation resulting from physical and psychological harm by powerful and influential others.

As a plausible explanation of the actions of the defendants in the Abu Ghraib Detention Facility Courts Martials, Alan Hensley (2004) provided the Area Defense Counsel with a defense strategy constructed upon Freyd’s argument. Hensley argued many of the defendants repressed conditioned rules, roles, responsibility, respect, morals, ethics, and values learned prior to deployment in favor of following the interrogation techniques of aggressive role models as a venue for survival. Freyd asserted awareness of the betrayal is not a prerequisite for betrayal trauma or concomitant repression or minimization to occur. Hensley (2004) argued persons in a gender role incongruent environment faced with exigent circumstances possibly also repress, forget, minimize, or rely upon biologically based coping strategies when conditioned coping strategies are seen by the victim as being ineffectual. The Stanford prison experiment (Musen & Zimbardo, 1991) greatly supported this argument.

General Karpinski stated during the Court Martial of Lynndie England that England’s motivations were indisputably the consequence of reliance upon, and infatuation with, Army Reservist Specialist Charles Graner. Graner was sentenced to 10 years confinement for his involvement in the detainee abuse. Several earlier events pointed to predisposition for his behavior. His former wife, Stacy Dean, was granted at least three protection orders. The first protection order was granted in 1997. Graner had pulled Dean out of bed by her hair, dragged her down the hall, and attempted to push her down the steps. Graner had also been accused of mistreating prisoners at the State Correctional Facility in Greene County, Pennsylvania where he was employed as a guard in 1998. The defendant serving the longest sentence for the Abu Ghraib, then, had a lengthy history of anger and abuse. Hensley (2004) argued other soldiers convicted of abuse considered Graner as a powerful and influential role model because of his experience in the correctional system. The other defendants were, however, betrayed and many, especially Lynndie England, continue to suffer from betrayal trauma.

Eleven United States Army Soldiers and five officers were disciplined for the Abu Ghraib Detention Facility detainee abuses. Commanding Officer, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski and many of the defendants argued the abuses were in keeping with orders by higher authority. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others argued no such orders were issued. A 232-page report released the Senate in May 2005, however, supported the assertions that the interrogation techniques were, in fact, authorized by members of the Bush Administration's Office of the Attorney General. Despite this revelation, none of the disciplinary actions of the soldiers or officers has been rescinded.

Hensley (2006) also asserts the biopsychosocial distress associated with betrayal trauma is responsible for the death of Army Specialist Alyssa Peterson, 27. On Sept. 15, 2003, Peterson, 27, an Arabic-speaking Human Intelligence (HUMINT) Collector and devout Mormon, died of self-inflicted injuries at Tal-Afar Air Base. During the Article 32 investigation that followed her death, coworkers asserted Peterson vehemently objected to the aggressive interrogation practices used on the detainees. The investigation also revealed Peterson had been repeatedly reprimanded for her inability to become more aggressive.


Betrayal at any stage of the socio-developmental cycle results in extreme biopsychosocial distress far beyond the event itself. It disrupts the person’s established mental model by which he or she views, understands, and responds to his or her environment and life events, destabilizes the co-occurring psychological contracts by which one trusts, and negates important aspects of viable strategies by which the person copes with life events. Planful problem-solving coping strategies often become non-viable, resulting in activation of primitive biologically based, amygdala-driven coping mechanisms that are often long-term maladaptive (Hensley, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c).

The United States Army is investigating numerous adverse issues in the 10th year of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In October 2010, an internal investigation ordered by Army Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli found a growing number of soldiers are engaging in such high-risk behavior as alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, homicide and suicide, drunken driving, and motorcycle street racing. Military Sexual Trauma (MST) of military females reaches nearly 30 percent. Some military males are also subjected to MST. Several occurrences of MST go unreported. Hensley (2006) argues many victims fail to report MST in order to preserve interpersonal relationships necessary for survival in an exigent environment. Such MST may be forgotten, repressed, or minimized until the relationship is no longer needed or no longer viable (e.g. post-deployment). Post-deployment allegations of MST occurring deployment are often dismissed for lack of evidence or due to statute of limitations. Hensley (2006) argues, unfortunately, recall is often not plausible until many months after deployment (typically three months). Consequently, extreme biopsychosocial distress associated with betrayal – betrayal trauma – is likely to occur during this timeframe. Ignoring or minimizing the significance of the event and failure to prosecute perpetrators further adds to the feelings of betrayal. A prominent example of this argument is Suzanne Swift, who was court-martialed for desertion after she refused to redeploy with persons who had victimized her during a previous deployment.

Political betrayal

Most adults living in western democracies place trust in the state of which they are a citizen. If this trust is betrayed, at its worst, the individual can suffer psychological betrayal trauma. Betrayal trauma has symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder,[3] although the element of amnesia and dissociation is likely to be greater.

The key difference between traditional post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and betrayal trauma is that the former is historically seen as being caused primarily by fear, whereas betrayal trauma is a response to extreme anger. Fear and anger are the two sides to the fight-flight response, and as such are our strongest and most basic psychological emotions.

Pure political betrayal trauma can be caused by situations such as wrongful arrest and conviction by the legal system of a western democracy; or by discrimination, bullying or other serious mistreatment by a state institution or powerful figure within the state.

In practice, however, it is likely that most people with symptoms of psychological trauma have elements of both fear based PTSD and anger based betrayal trauma, not one or the other. Certainly in the most serious cases of PTSD there is an element of both. For instance, the fact that a soldier is sent to war by the state is an important element in the reasons for war being a major cause of PTSD. In cases where soldiers are horrified by the actions or orders of their commanding officers, or where they are victims of friendly fire, their PTSD is likely to be worse because of the element of betrayal will be that much greater. Similarly, one of the most psychologically traumatising events in history, the Holocaust, is almost certainly so serious a case because the element of state betrayal is as great as the element of fear trauma.

Double cross

Double cross is a phrase meaning to deceive by double-dealing.[4]


The phrase originates from the use of the word cross in the sense of foul play; deliberate collusion to lose a contest of some kind.

It has also been suggested that the term was inspired by the practice of 18th-century British thief taker and criminal Jonathan Wild, who kept a ledger of his transactions and is said to have placed two crosses by the names of persons who had cheated him in some way. This folk etymology is almost certainly incorrect, but there is documentary evidence that the term did exist in the 19th century.

More recently, the phrase was used to refer to either of two possible situations:

  1. A competitor participating in the fix who has agreed to throw their game instead competes as usual, against the original intention of their collaborators - one "cross" against another.
  2. Two opposing parties are approached, urging them to throw the game and back the other. Both parties lose out, and the perpetrators benefit by backing a third, winning party.

This use has passed into common parlance, so that, for example, in World War II, British Military Intelligence used the Double Cross System to release captured Nazis back to Germany bearing false information.

(To 'cross swords' was a term for a duel where two drawn swords made an X. So to cross someone was to take a sparring position against them.)

See also


Bibliography for references

  • Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55,5, 469-480.
  • Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Freyd, J. J. (1994). Betrayal-trauma: Traumatic amnesia as an adaptive response to childhood abuse. Ethics & Behavior, 4, 307-329.
  • Freyd, J. J. (1996). Betrayal trauma: The logic of forgetting childhood abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Freyd, J. J ., Klest, B., & Allard, C. B. (2005) Betrayal trauma: Relationship to physical health, psychological distress, and a written disclosure intervention. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 6(3), 83-104.
  • Hensley, A. L. (2004). Why good people go bad: A psychoanalytic and behavioral assessment of the Abu Ghraib Detention Facility staff. An unpublished courts-martial defense strategy presented to the Area Defense Counsel in Washington DC on December 10, 2004.
  • Hensley, A. L. (2006). Contracts don't always begin on the dotted line: Psychological contracts and PTSD in female service members in Iraq. Retrieved October 10, 2010 from
  • Hensley, A. L. (2007). Why good people go bad: A case study of the Abu Ghraib Courts-Martials. In G. W. Dougherty, Proceedings of the 5th annual proceedings of the Rocky Mountain Region Disaster Mental Health Conference. Ann Arbor, MI: Loving Healing Press.
  • Hensley, A. L. (2009a). Gender, personality, and coping: Unraveling gender in military post-deployment wellbeing (preliminary results). In G. Dougherty (Ed.). Return to equilibrium: Proceedings of the 7th Rocky Mountain Region Disaster Mental Health Conference (pp. 105-148). Ann Arbor, MI: Loving Healing Press.
  • Hensley, A. L. (2009b). Gender, personality and coping: Unraveling gender in military post-deployment physical and mental wellness. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest UMI.
  • Hensley, A. L. (2009c). Betrayal trauma: Insidious purveyor of PTSD. In G. Dougherty (Ed.). Return to equilibrium: Proceedings of the 7th Rocky Mountain Region Disaster Mental Health Conference (pp. 105-148). Ann Arbor, MI: Loving Healing Press.
  • Hersey, B. & Buhl, M.(January/February 1990). The Betrayal of Date Rape. InView.
  • Jackson, R. L. (2000). "The Sense and Sensibility of Betrayal: Discovering the Meaning of Treachery through Jane Austen" (PDF). Humanitas (National Humanities Institute) XIII (2): 72–89. 
  • Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1983). Mental Models: Towards a Cognitive Science of Language, Inference, and Consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.
  • McNulty, F. (1980). The burning bed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Musen, K. & Zimbardo, P. G. (1991). Quiet rage: The Stanford prison study. Videorecording. Stanford, CA: Psychology Dept., Stanford University.
  • Reis, H. T.; Rusbult, C. E. (2004). Close relationships: key readings. Psychology Press. ISBN 9780863775963. 

Further reading

  • Robin Marie Kowalski (2009). "Betrayal". In Harry T. Reis, Susan Sprecher, and Susan K. Sprecher. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. 1. SAGE. pp. 174–176. ISBN 9781412958462. 
  • James Allen Grady (2008). "Betrayal". In Yudit Kornberg Greenberg. Encyclopedia of love in world religions. 1. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781851099801. 
  • Freyd, Jennifer J. (2008). "Betrayal trauma". In G. Reyes, J.D. Elhai, and J.D.Ford. Encyclopedia of Psychological Trauma. New York: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 76. 
  • Nachman Ben-Yehuda (2001). Betrayal and treason: violations of trust and loyalty. Crime & society. Westview Press. ISBN 9780813397764. 
  • Gilbert Reyes, Jon D. Elhai, and Julian D. Ford (2008). "Betrayal trauma". The Encyclopedia of Psychological Trauma. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 9780470447482. 
  • Alan L. Hensley (2009). "Betrayal Trauma: Insidious Purveyor of PTSD". In George W. Doherty. Return to Equilibrium: The Proceedings of the 7th Rocky Mountain Region Disaster Mental Health Conference. Loving Healing Press. ISBN 9781932690866. 
  • Malin Åkerström (1991). Betrayal and betrayers: the sociology of treachery. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 9780887383588. 
  • Warren H. Jones, Laurie Couch, and Susan Scott (1997). "Trust and Betrayal". In Robert Hogan, John A. Johnson, and Stephen R. Briggs. Handbook of personality psychology. Gulf Professional Publishing. ISBN 9780121346461. 

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  • betrayal — [n1] exhibition of disloyalty deception, dishonesty, double crossing, double dealing, duplicity, falseness, giveaway, Judas kiss*, let down, perfidy, sellout, treachery, treason, trickery, unfaithfulness; concept 633 Ant. faithfulness, loyalty,… …   New thesaurus

  • Betrayal — Be*tray al . The act or the result of betraying. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • betrayal — index bad faith, bad repute, disloyalty, infidelity, treason Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • betrayal — (n.) 1816; from BETRAY (Cf. betray) + AL (Cf. al) (2). Earlier in the same sense were betrayment (1540s), betraying (late 14c.) …   Etymology dictionary

  • betrayal — noun ADJECTIVE ▪ personal ▪ ultimate ▪ His defection to the other side was the ultimate betrayal. VERB + BETRAYAL ▪ regard sth as, see sth as …   Collocations dictionary

  • Betrayal — Filmdaten Deutscher Titel Betrayal – Der Tod ist ihr Geschäft Originaltitel Betrayal …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • betrayal — UK [bɪˈtreɪəl] / US noun [countable/uncountable] Word forms betrayal : singular betrayal plural betrayals 1) an act of betraying someone or something betrayal of: a betrayal of long held principles 2) the fact of being betrayed It was hard to… …   English dictionary

  • betrayal — be|tray|al [bıˈtreıəl] n [U and C] when you betray your country, friends, or someone who trusts you betrayal of ▪ a ruthless betrayal of their election pledges ▪ She felt a great sense of betrayal …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • betrayal — be|tray|al [ bı treıəl ] noun count or uncount 1. ) an act of betraying someone or something: betrayal of: a betrayal of long held principles 2. ) the fact of being betrayed: It was hard to avoid a sense of betrayal …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • betrayal — [[t]bɪtre͟ɪəl[/t]] betrayals N VAR: oft N of n A betrayal is an action which betrays someone or something, or the fact of being betrayed. She felt that what she had done was a betrayal of Patrick... He acknowledged the sense of betrayal by civil… …   English dictionary

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