Members of aggrieved ethnic groups regularly organize rituals aimed at reminding the world of the injustices their people have suffered. Remembrances of the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and other massive tragedies serve as eloquent proclamations that the pain persists, as the wounds of the past have yet to heal.
But what if these reminders simply breed more prejudice?
That's the suspicion of some social psychologists, who have studied the "blame the victim" mentality familiar to so many people who have suffered individual tragedies. According to one well-founded theory, exposure to suffering makes it challenging to sustain the comforting belief we live in a fundamentally just world. Thus the sight of a homeless person produces feelings of irritation rather than empathy.
This distressing dynamic also occurs on a group level, producing the phenomenon known as secondary anti-Semitism. That's the conclusion of a provocative new paper by Roland Imhoff and Rainer Banse of the University of Bonn's Department of Social and Legal Psychology.
Their research, just published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests each reminder of the atrocities of World War II "evokes aversive feelings of guilt and thus increases a defensive anti-Semitism" among Germans. This type of backlash has long been suspected, but Imhoff and Banse are the first to provide empirical evidence of its existence.
The researchers gathered 62 first-year psychology students from their university and assessed their levels of implicit and explicit anti-Semitism. Among other techniques, they asked the participants to fill out a 29-item questionnaire in which they responded to such statements as "Jews have too much influence on public opinion."
Three months later, the students gathered again for a formal testing session. To begin, they read a text about German atrocities inflicted on Jews at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Half read a version that concluded the tragedy "has no direct implications for Jews today," while the others read an alternate version that stated "even today, Jews suffer because of secondary traumatization." They were then instructed to again fill out the same questionnaire they completed three months earlier.
Half of the participants had electrodes attached to their ring and middle fingers, which they were told were attached to a lie detector. According to the researchers, the belief their honest feelings would emerge provided a strong incentive to tell the truth, even if their gut responses were socially unacceptable.
Among those who didn't wear the devices — and presumably felt freer to fib — the description of ongoing suffering among Jews decreased anti-Semitic attitudes. The socially correct response of increased empathy for the victim prevailed. But among those wearing the "lie detectors," the reminder of ongoing suffering significantly increased anti-Semitic attitudes.
Intriguingly, among those who read about ongoing suffering, 40 percent said afterwards they did not recall that specific piece of information. This finding "is in line with the notion that forgetting is an alternative coping mechanism," the researchers write.
"Our results have important implications for the choice of strategies to overcome prejudice and discrimination," Imhoff and Banse conclude. "Although it may appear logical to emphasize victim suffering, our findings caution against such an approach. The data suggests it may be counterproductive in many settings."
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