When Victims Feel Most Victimised

When Victims Feel Most Victimised.

The world teems with people who are mistreated both as individuals and in groups. But how we react to such misery often takes a strange, irrational course. Consider a person who would contribute $10 to help an impoverished child. Now, suppose that person is asked to help 10 such children. Will the donor give $100? Just the opposite: The most common response, studies have found, is to give less than $10. Why does the suffering of one person affect us more than that of many? Research suggests that a single victim more readily engages our empathy: “Wow, I’d feel terrible if I were in his shoes.” It’s easier than imagining being in their shoes.

A recent study gives this psychological dynamic an interesting twist by looking at how victims themselves think of such situations. Does it make a difference to them if they see their suffering in terms of “why me?” as opposed to “why us?” It turns out that it does, and the pattern neatly tracks the limits of our own empathy toward victims. The paper, “A Sorrow Shared Is a Sorrow Halved,” was published last year in the journal Frontiers in Psychology by Daffie Konis of Tel Aviv University and colleagues.

Ms. Konis, a doctoral student, and her fellow researchers gave 81 volunteers a personality test and an intelligence test. Volunteers were then told deceptively that they had scored way below average on the intelligence test. Later, volunteers were informed about the deception in one of two ways. Half were told that they, along with all the participants in the experiment, had been deceived. The other half were told that they alone had been deceived, and that they had been chosen based on the score that they had received on that personality test taken earlier. The researchers then asked participants to rate how negative they felt about the lie. Participants who had been told that the whole group was victimised found the deception less upsetting than the individuals who were told that they had been singled out.

Why should that be? It wasn’t as if members of the first group were able to share their unhappiness with each other, thus lessening the effect of the deception. There was no “misery loves company” camaraderie to mitigate the deception rating. The results echo the well-established finding that compassion for individuals always exceeds compassion for groups. When considering a victimised group rather than an individual, people not only give less but report feeling less distress. And after donating money to a group, they report less of a boost in positive feelings, with less activation of brain regions associated with reward.

Lessened empathy for a group, studies have shown, is based in part on donors speculating that the misfortune must have been the victims’ own fault. I would argue, in addition, that large numbers of the needy remind us of our own insignificance as specks in the universe, trying in vain to make a difference. It turns our concerns inward. I would also suggest that the new study’s results can be explained in large measure by one particular feature of the experiment: the fact that the researchers told individuals that their performance on the personality test had led to their victimisation, rather than being chosen at random. Telling a person that he was targeted because of the sort of person he is aches the most. It makes him complicit in his own victimhood: “Oh, that’s the answer to ‘why me.’ It has always been me and always will be.”

Credit: Robert M. Sapolsky for The Wall Street Journal 19 May 2017