Earthquake and tsunami: When are people likely to blame victims?

A belief that the world is just can lead to both compassion and callousness

Posted Mar 18, 2011

What led the editors of a Malaysian newspaper to publish a cartoon of Ultraman (a Japanese superhero) running away from a large wave? What thought processes led the (now former) Aflac duck guy to make not one-- but several-- tasteless jokes about the unfolding human tragedy? The sheer variability in people's reactions to the suffering of others is an unending mystery to me. I suppose it's part of why I do what I do-- to see if there is a principled way of understanding, predicting -- perhaps changing -- the callousness that humans are sometimes capable of. Some people are clearly mean-spirited. However, I tend to be more interested in the dynamics that lead otherwise well-intentioned people to say or do callous things. 

I was struck in particular by the reactions of Cappie Pondexter, shooting guard for the New York Liberty, who suggested in several tweets that the Japanese people deserved this tragedy. Check out these tweets:

"What if God was tired of the way they treated their own people in there own country! Idk guys he makes no mistakes."

and...

"u just never knw! They did pearl harbor so u can't expect anything less."

Among the things that I found interesting about her apology was that it wasn't exactly an apology. It was almost an affirmation that what led to her comments was her belief that God punishes those who transgress.

Pondexter's tweets made me think of a very recent paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Mitchell Callan, Robbie Sutton, and Christina Dovale. In this study, the researchers had study participants read a (fake) news story about a man, David, who had been hit by a car as a pedestrian. Half of the participants learned that the man had previously cheated on his wife with a travel agent, and the other half learned that his only action with the travel agent was to buy a condo in Mexico.

See where I'm going? The results were clear: in the condition where David had been having an extramarital affair, participants were more likely to think that the man deserved the car accident, and that his car accident was actually the direct result of his having had the affair. Further, the results showed that people were even MORE likely to do this when they were under cognitive load-- in this case, when they were trying to remember another piece of unrelated information. Translated into real life, it suggests we are more likely to believe that people deserve the tragedies that befall them when we ourselves are busy, distracted, overwhelmed, or otherwise worried. And you can imagine how some of us might be distracted with concern for whether the radiation plume will reach North America by this evening.

You might recognize the phenomenon at work here: it's called the belief in a just world-- basically, the intuitive notion that people get what they deserve. Cheaters get run over, virtuous folks win the lottery or go to heaven. This belief is quite adaptive: it makes us feel like there is some logic or principled order to our existence, it reduces existential anxiety, it helps us set and keep our goals by assuring us that our long-term pursuits will be duly rewarded. Without a belief that your hard work will pay off, why bother training on the basketball court, studying for that exam, or trying to get ahead at work? 

The belief in a just world can also promote compassionate behavior. It can motivate you to be good to others, believing that these good deeds may be rewarded. But when terrible things happen to innocent people, this very same belief system can lead us to blame victims in unfair ways.

Our lesson? Don't help others out because of an expectation that the world is just. The tragedy in Japan underscores how fickle, how random our existence is. Donate to Unicef, the Red Cross, or Doctors Without Borders not because of an expectation that your deeds will be rewarded, but because people are in serious, dire need, and did not bring this tragedy unto themselves.

You can follow my posts through twitter or facebook.