MANHATTAN, Kan. - When terrible things happen, it's natural for people to turn their attention to the problems, evaluate the situations and figure out what needs to be done in order to make things better.
"For me, an area of moral clarity is: you're in front of someone who's suffering and you have the tools at your disposal to alleviate that suffering or even eradicate it, and you act." - Paul Farmer
Not everyone reacts with the same amount of compassion or willingness to help. In some situations, some people are repulsed or made uneasy by the pain and suffering of others. People can turn away and avoid involvement or the feelings of uneasiness by blaming or fearing the victims.
Did biases towards the victims prevent effective life-saving responses to the Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans? Could the same thing happen in Haiti? Under what circumstances do people sometimes blame and criticize victims, deeming them unworthy of help?
When assessing the amount of help someone needs, people's perceptions can be skewed by their racial biases, according to a recent Kansas State University study.
In both New Orleans, and this week in Haiti, the media and the rescuers are talking about the need for 'security' to prevent riots, although no riots have been observed. The emphasis on preventative security measures seems to be causing most of the supplies to be sequestered at the airport in the Haitian capital. Rescuers are remaining huddled together there rather than immediately distributing the first aid, food and water.
Fears of security kept the police from reaching New Orleanians stranded at the Convention Center too. By gunpoint, even one county sheriff in Louisiana stopped unarmed, hungry and beleaguered families from crossing a bridge and leaving that city. That sheriff justified his actions to by claiming that the thirsty refugees could be dangerous.
According to news coverage at the time, the police in New Orleans were more focused on preventing looting than on getting help to the stranded citizens.
Could a similar perception of the Haitian victims slow rescuers, stopping them from leaving the guarded airport compound in Port-au-Prince in time to save lives?
Donald Saucier, K-State associate professor of psychology, and psychology graduate students Sara Smith, Topeka, and Jessica McManus, Maineville, Ohio, surveyed undergraduate students a year after Hurricane Katrina to examine their perceptions of the hurricane victims and the helping response.
The researchers created a questionnaire that evaluated the participants' perceptions of Hurricane Katrina victims. The questionnaire evaluated whom the participants perceived to be the victims based on measures like gender, race and socioeconomic status.
The results showed that participants generally thought people impacted by Hurricane Katrina were black and lower class.
"What we wanted to do was see how perceptions of victims of Hurricane Katrina would interact with things like racism," Saucier said. "We wanted to look at how much the participants felt that the victims may have been to blame for their own situation in Katrina."
The researchers measured differences in the participants, including their levels of conservatism, empathy and racism.
The findings showed that when recalling victims of Hurricane Katrina, participants who were less racist thought the victims did not receive adequate help from the government. Participants who were more racist thought the victims received adequate government assistance and were at fault for their situation.
The survey also asked questions that measured whether the participants thought the victims had enough time to evacuate and whether they had enough resources to get out before the hurricane hit.
"We asked the participants to make personality attributions about individuals, such as whether they thought the victims were lazy, stupid, sinful or unlucky," Saucier said.
"If they said they were lazy, stupid or sinful, they were putting more blame on the victims for the situation. If they said they were unlucky, they took away the blame."
The results suggest that perceptions of the victims and the Hurricane Katrina situation depended on the participants' individual differences, including their levels of racism. Negative perceptions and placing blame on the victims were generally associated with the participants' perceptions that the situation was less of an emergency and that the victims needed less help.
Although the findings can't fix what happened to the victims, the study helps show how people interpret the situation.
The researchers study the effects of group membership, and groups can be categorized in various ways, including by gender, race and socioeconomic status.
"Since I do not believe that there should be different recommendations for people living in the Bronx and people living in Manhattan, I am uncomfortable making different recommendations for my patients in Boston and in Haiti." - Paul Farmer
William Ryan, in his book Blaming the Victim, critiqued Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 work The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (aka the Moynihan Report). Moynihan's book summarized his own theories about ghetto formation and intergenerational poverty. Ryan's critique cast the Moynihan theories as subtle, and not so subtle, attempts to divert responsibility for poverty from social structural factors to the behaviors and cultural patterns of the poor.
Why do people diminish victims' rights to justice? Some have theorized that many people believe in a 'just world.' The 'just world' belief involves the rationale that the people who are injured only receiving their 'just' due.
Sometimes, people who believe that the world has to be fair may find it hard or impossible to accept a situation in which a person is unfairly and badly hurt, unless the victim has done 'something' to deserve his or her fate. This may be a reason why people believe that rape victims 'asked for' their assaults or people unable to escape an oncoming hurricane are 'just lazy.'
Other theories posit that people distance themselves from those that are injured or harmed as an way of meeting their own needs to protect their own sense of invulnerability. In other words, if the potential victim avoids the behaviors of the past victims then they themselves will remain safe and feel less vulnerable - or so they may feel compelled to believe.
Human beings have a natural tendency to pre-judge people who are different. That prejudgement, or prejudice, may begin harmlessly as a way of deciphering and understanding the world. If you meet three purple people and they all speak Spanish, then would you be prejudice if, after that, you believe that all purple people speak Spanish? Perhaps not, unless your prejudice causes you to withhold care or community services to those people that you assumed were unrelated to you and, therefore, undeserving of your compassion.
Studies also show there are specific factors that cause someone to help a member of their own group more than others. In helping situations, discrimination is often expressed by not giving help to those of a different group than the helper.
"Rather than doing something bad, the person who chooses not to help the out-group member fails to do something good," Saucier said.
"I think this illustrates the complexity of how prejudice is expressed in contemporary society despite the social norms that usually serve to suppress the expression of prejudice."
Saucier said discrimination is often expressed only when other factors are present that would justify the action and rationalize it as something other than an expression of prejudice.
Factors that contribute to the justification of not helping someone include the time it would take to help; the risk, effort, difficulty and financial cost involved; the distance between the potential helper and the person needing help; the level of emergency and the ambiguity of the helping situation.
The researchers said the Hurricane Katrina situation had several elements that studies show trigger acts of discrimination, such as a high cost of help, a high level of emergency and a large amount of time and effort required to help.
"Shuttling back and forth between what is possible and what is likely to occur is instructive and a lot of what shapes our sentiment." - Paul Farmer
"We want to examine how the perception of someone that you're going to be helping is going to affect your perception of how much help they need and how much help you'll want to give," Saucier said.
Though it's unlikely that the Kansas researchers can fix the beliefs and attitudes that lead to discrimination, more KSU studies are now underway to try to change the behavior that is expressed when related to discrimination.
The KSU researchers are exploring other helping situations and how other group memberships affect the helping response.
Images depict Haitian civilians receiving assistance in a camp set up outside the airport by the ethnically diverse Brazilian Army in Port-au-Prince, in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Photographs were produced by Agência Brasil, a public Brazilian news agency.