I would like to take this opportunity to revisit the topic of my last entry, but from a different vantage point. Last time I reported on the horrific natural disaster that befell the people along the northeast coast of Japan. Much of my report was centered on the idea that natural disasters might lead us to spontaneously affiliate with others on a species level, which seems plausible given the Internet buzz of bloggers and commentators responding to the story. When I wrote that story, I didn’t really talk about the mechanism responsible for the link between natural disaster and spontaneous human-in-group affiliation (I said you would have to wait for the manuscript). While I would normally like to keep interested parties in suspense, I stumbled on a new study just released that might inform our understanding how this phenomenon might occur.
Zagefka et al. (2011) conducted a study that examined donating behavior. Specifically, they look at whether willingness to donate to disaster relief differs depending on the type of disaster (i.e., natural disasters, like the one that rocked Japan vs. human-caused disasters, like under-aged Bangladeshi girls being whipped to death for being raped because of barbaric religious scruples). Interestingly, across four studies they found that people were far more will to donate to help victims of both real-life disasters and fictitious disasters if they where seen as naturally caused than if they were seen as human caused. Apparently, the driving mechanism was that victims were seen as less blameworthy. While I might question whether victims of human caused disasters are always to blame, when suffering is caused at the hands of humans, blame is certainly a player in determining how we will react to those victims.
I think the idea of perception of blame is a very interesting candidate for a causal mechanism allowing us to spontaneously connect to other humans at the in-group level. If one were to compare the reaction the Japanese disaster and the religious killing of an under-aged rape victim (see link below) it is clear that blame is much more prevalently assigned by the commentators in the second case than by those in the first. It seems that when there are people, institutions and belief systems to blame (victims and perpetrators alike), people disregard their human connections and maintain their more concrete group affiliations.