Overcoming Pain

Why people experience chronic pain, and the power they have to de-intensify it

The Japan Earthquake and Charitable Giving: Aftershocks of Atoms and Asiaphobia

It’s okay, Bono is here.

So, what is it about Asia that elicits so many feelings, ranging from a relatively benign indifference to an all-out feeling of glee that Japan deserves that which has been visited upon it.

A similar question was raised by the media last year, at the time of the Pakistan flooding which left many dead, and many more homeless. There just was not the same amount of giving that had been seen in the aftermath of other disasters. The answer, it appears, might well be blowing in with that radiation cloud that just drifted overhead.

Recent research published in the "European Journal of Social Psychology" suggests that old devil bias is at work once again. Individuals are more prone to open their wallets when a crisis results from a natural disaster rather than human activity such as a war. Such decisions are driven by the perception that the victims of natural disasters should not be blamed for their plight, and that such victims are more motivated to help themselves.

In other words we pick and choose the suffering who shall reap the benefits of our generosity. As the researchers concluded: "People perceive victims of humanly caused events in more negative terms, even when there is no information available about the victims' blameworthiness", which amounts to a "systemic bias against people suffering from humanly caused disasters".

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The authors describe this particular diverting of charity as the Just World Hypothesis, a curious tenet indeed; an assertion that mankind is inclined to view the world as basically fair and orderly. It follows that in order to maintain such a belief "potential donors are motivated to blame the victims when given the slightest chance". Of course, suffering is suffering one might retort; but the potential donors, with all the warped noblesse oblige they can muster, will "try to construe suffering as just whenever possible".

In the case of Japan, perhaps an excuse can be finessed because the man-made boogeyman of nuclear power has overshadowed the natural disaster borne of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami; no matter that there would have been no nuclear disaster without the preceding natural cataclysmic events. But why expend energy in an attempt to apply logic to bias?

However, perhaps there is another explanation for the sympathy gap between the international response to the earthquake in Haiti in January of 2010 and the donations that followed last summer's massive floods in Pakistan, where to this day millions of people remain stranded on the floodplain. Researchers at the Brookings Institution found that contributions per affected person were approximately $157 for Haiti two weeks after the temblor, but only about $15 per affected Pakistani. Some of this disparity may be attributed to the differences in media coverage, with over 3,000 stories on Haiti within 10 days of the earthquake, whereas the Pakistani floods only elicited about one-third such stories.

The obvious implication is that the media and donors view Pakistani lives as having a different value when compared to the population of Haiti; perhaps this is because Pakistan is viewed as a safe haven for terrorists. Bottom line, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: "We note often an image deficit with regards to Pakistan among Western public opinion".

Finally, is racial bias, based perhaps on economic jealousy, a factor in the perception of recipient worthiness when potential donors are considering a contribution to Japan? After all, twenty years ago the Japanese were seen by many as poised to take over the world. And their automobiles have resulted in the loss of many jobs in Detroit. (Recall that Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American murdered by a Chrysler worker was unfortunate enough to be assumed to be a Japanese-the worse case scenario of the they-all-look-alike problems many Americans have with the Asian race. One cannot help but think that the converse is at work today, with potential donors perhaps confusing Japanese with Chinese, the latest Asian peoples poised to take over the world.) Researchers from Dartmouth College and Carnegie Mellon University did find that racial discrimination that operates via racially biased worthiness perceptions is consistent with evidence that opposition to welfare is determined to a large extent by racially biased attitudes about the worthiness of black welfare recipients.

I understand Bono is planning on recording a relief album for the Japanese Red Cross. Perhaps there is still hope in the world.

 

 

Mark Borigini, M.D., is a board-certified rheumatologist who has devoted his career to treating illnesses that cause chronic pain and disability.

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