Remembrance of Things Past: Victims

At Overcoming Bias today, report of a study finding that “when we are reminded of when others have victimized us, we are less able to see that we victimize others.”

Researchers reminded participants from the U.S. and Canada, and, separately, North American Jewish participants, of various attacks and atrocities, including, variously, the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Nazi atrocities in Poland during World War II, a deadly terrorist attack in Sri Lanka, and the genocide in Cambodia.

All the groups were less likely to perceive “the distress the [Iraq] war has caused many Iraqis, and less likely to feel collective responsibility” when they were reminded of an attack in which they felt themselves to be victims.

For U.S. participants, reminders of both the 9/11 attacks and the attack on Pearl Harbor caused participants to feel less guilt or responsibility for the distress of Iraqis than when reminded of the tragedy in Poland. The Jewish volunteers, on the other hand, felt “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.” Canadians showed no difference among the scenarios, none of which affected Canadians personally.

This, I think, is why resentment is so corrosive. Resentment — or re-sentiment — is our internal, ongoing way of reminding ourselves of our own victimhood, of refreshing the feeling of being the victim, which apparently tends to make us more insensitive to others’ victim status and less able to perceive our own role in perpetrating violence. But,  remembering times when we have felt victimised might also, perhaps, lead us to be more compassionate for victims of any sort, knowing what that experience feels like, realising that others suffer just as we do.

(Abstract of the study in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, June 2008)

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