Research & Insights

Why Some People Don’t Give

People are less likely to feel compassion for others if they believe that lending a hand will be emotionally taxing.

In fact, research suggests that when individuals feel that coming to someone’s aid will be more exhausting than rewarding, they dehumanize people in need and blame them for bringing problems, like drug addiction, for example, on themselves.

Social psychologist Dr. C. Daryl Cameron and his colleagues found that some people will dehumanize others – deny that they have mental states, such as pain, fear, and the capacity for intelligent thought – to avoid the emotional costs of helping them.

These findings come from two experiments that were published in the September 2015  journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Both experiments asked participants to read a scenario about a fictional homeless person, Harold Mitchell, who is in need of help and is eligible for aid through a volunteer program, “Friends-In-Need.”

In the first experiment, some participants read that Harold was suffering from an uncontrollable illness, while others read that he was suffering from drug addiction. Additionally, some participants read that Harold was in intense physical and emotional pain on a daily basis, while others read that his pain was only mild.

After reading the story, participants answered a series of questions about Harold and their reaction to his situation.

They were asked, “How emotionally exhausting and draining do you think it would be to help Harold?,” “To what extent is Harold suffering?” and “How much compassion do you think you will feel for Harold?”

To measure their compassion, participants completed a survey, responding to statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

The researchers found that participants who read that Harold was a drug addict thought helping him  would be more exhausting than those who read that he was uncontrollably ill. Interestingly, these differences were only found in participants who scored higher in compassion.

Furthermore, participants who believed that helping Harold would be emotionally draining were more likely to dehumanize him by ranking him as having less self-control and emotions.

A second experiment used a similar set-up, discussing Harold’s troubles. After reading about him, participants were told that they would watch a video about his life. Some participants read that the video would be “emotionally exhausting and tiring” while others were told that it would be “inspiring and rewarding.”

Again, participants who were primed to anticipate more exhaustion were more likely to dehumanize Harold than those who anticipated a rewarding experience. This was especially true among participants who were told that Harold was a drug addict.

“If people anticipate that helping a stigmatized target [such as a drug addict] will be emotionally exhausting, they defensively dehumanize to avoid this cost,” the researchers explain.

Rather than assuming that people dehumanize those who need help because they lack compassion, these findings suggest people may be protecting themselves from the emotional costs of taking action.

Social Psychological and Personality Science

Daryl Cameron, University of Iowa
Lasana T. Harris, University College, London
Keith Payne, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Posted: January 20, 2016
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