Guiltless Victims

When we are reminded of when others have victimized us, we are less able to see that we victimize others:

Wohl and Branscombe randomly divided [US] volunteers into groups. One group was reminded of the terrorist attacks, while another was told about Nazi atrocities in Poland during World War II. A third group was reminded of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. … Volunteers reminded about the Sept. 11 attacks were less likely to perceive the distress the [Iraq] war has caused many Iraqis, and less likely to feel collective responsibility, compared with volunteers told about the tragedy in Poland. … it makes no difference whether you remind them about the Sept. 11 attacks or about Pearl Harbor. …

The psychologists re-ran the experiment with Canadian volunteers. Two groups heard reminders of the Sept. 11 attacks and Pearl Harbor, while a third heard about a deadly terrorist attack in Sri Lanka.  None of these tragedies affected Canadians personally. Wohl and Branscombe found no differences among the groups in whether they felt distress on behalf of Iraqis, or a sense of collective guilt.  … The psychologists similarly found that Jewish volunteers in North America feel reduced guilt and responsibility for Israeli actions that cause suffering among Palestinians when they are first reminded about the Holocaust, compared with when they are reminded about the genocide in Cambodia.

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  • Bertrand Russell wrote about this fallacy in “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed”, in the collection “Unpopular Essays”.

  • Abigail

    A BBC radio report suggests that this may be relevant, now, in Cyprus. If Greek Cypriots are reminded of Turkish atrocities against Greek Cypriots, can they realise that everyone loses because of violence, and the remedy is to come together with Turkish Cypriots who wish for peace? The BBC suggests that they can.

  • Sociology Graduate Student

    I wonder what we would learn if we repeated the experiment but substituted natural disasters for some/all of the events they used, e.g. hurricane Katrina instead of September 11.

  • I have noticed — with one friend especially — that if she is reminded of something that is painful or anxiety-producing like her own economic insecurity, she loses the capacity to be helpful to me. The times when this effect is most noticeable is after I have said to her, “I spent 2 hours yesterday focused on your needs, now I’d like you to spend an hour on something I need, namely, la la la.” Then 15 minutes into the hour, something reminds her of an unmet need of her own, which causes her anxiety or pain, after which it is darn hard for me to bring her focus back to my need.

  • Not a lot of comments here, so I’ll just note that this seems like really basic and important research – it’s easy to talk about the flaws of victim politics, but this shows it right up front.