Do Our Brains Think Some People Deserve to Suffer?

By Kat Saxton, Laura Saslow, Jason Marsh | July 9, 2010 | 0 comments

Summaries of new research on the limits of empathy, the educational benefits of optimism, and the stress of caregiving.

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* This new Greater Good section, Research Digests, offers short summaries of recent studies on happiness, compassion, altruism, and more. Quick to read, easy to digest—we review the research so you don’t have to!


Why We Don’t Empathize with Everyone

"The Blame Game: The Effect of Responsibility and Social Stigma on Empathy for Pain"

Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Vol 22(5), May 2010, pp. 985-997

Are we less likely to feel another person’s pain when we think he somehow deserves to suffer? In this study, researchers observed the brain activity of participants watching videos of people in pain. The participants were told that some of these people had contracted HIV/AIDS due to IV drug use, others had contracted it through a blood transfusion, and others were completely healthy. The brain scans, and the participants’ own ratings of their feelings of empathy, showed that they were significantly more sensitive to the pain of the blood transfusion group members, and they were less sensitive to the pain of the IV drug group than of the healthy group. According to the researchers, these results suggest that our feelings of empathy for others may depend on the extent to which we believe they’re responsible for their suffering. —Jason Marsh

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Optimism and College Retention

"Optimism and College Retention: Mediated by Motivation, Performance, and Adjustment."

Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Volume 39(8), August 2009, 1887-1912.

When optimists set goals, they tend to imagine positive outcomes, persist until achieving their goals, and actively manage their sources of stress. Not surprisingly, then, this study found that optimistic college students were less likely to drop out of college than pessimists because they were more motivated and less distressed at college. —Laura Saslow

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Social Support and Caregiver Burdern in Taiwan

"Social Support and Caregiving Circumstances as Predictors of Caregiver Burden in Taiwan"

Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics. Vol 48(3), May 2009, 419-424.

Researchers asked people in Taiwan who were caring for an ill or incapable family member about their family circumstances and how it affected their stress levels and experiences of caregiving. Caring for ill or incapable family members was most burdensome when caregivers had more dysfunctional families and lower levels of social support; in fact, having a dysfunctional family was the best predictor of whether a caregiver would have a negative, stressful experience caring for their loved one. The researchers suggest that health professionals should try to identify those caregivers who will have the least supportive families, then develop family-based programs to help them. —Kat Saxton

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How to Promote Emotional Well-Being after a Brain Injury

"Predicting Emotional Well-Being Following Traumatic Brain Injury: A Test of Mediated and Moderated Models"

Social Science & Medicine. Vol 69, September 2009, 947-954.

The stress of a brain injury can lead to emotional difficulties. However, this study found that having self-esteem, family support, and financial stability predicted emotional health during recovery. Emotional well-being shortly after the injury was most important in predicting long-term well-being, suggesting the importance of interventions and family support immediately following a traumatic brain injury. —Kat Saxton

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