You might think that amongst those who have suffered, compassion for those in a similar situation is higher. And indeed, in at least some situations this appears to be true. But, it seems, for rich people who came out of poverty, it is not true. Rich people who grew up poor are less likely to have empathy for the poor. They are more likely to attribute poverty to internal factors, less likely to think that it is hard to improve one’s socioeconomic position, and less likely to support redistribution.
So what is going on? Why doesn’t suffering always teach compassion, as we would expect it to?
Part of the answer may lie in how much we are exposed to suffering. We often use our own emotional reaction to something to gauge how someone else may react. If we enjoyed a film or laughed at a joke, we expect others to as well. If a loud noise makes us jump, we expect others to jump too. What makes this phenomenon interesting is that it continues when we have become numbed, desensitised or even deadened – given up – in response to a persistent stimuli. That is, instead of expecting other people to feel how we did when we were first exposed to a good joke or loud noise, we expect them to respond as we did after we were deadened to it. We’re bored of the joke, so we don’t share it. We’re deadened to the loud noise, so we aren’t bothered about other people being exposed to it.
The result is that overexposure to a negative situation – over-exposure to poverty, over-exposure to abuse – can result in us becoming emotionally deadened. And then we become less bothered about other people being exposed to such things.
This phenomenon may lie behind the attitude that any suffering I endured as a child, you should be happy to endure too. If I grew up with chilblains and bronchitis and ice on the insides of my windows then you have nothing to complain about. Ignore the fact that many people did not, in fact, grow up with such experiences because they died before they were old enough to have ‘grown up’; and ignore the fact that the rather callous attitude suggests that whilst you personally might have survived, it didn’t do you any good as a person.
Success at something can also make us hard-hearted towards those who struggle. According to one study, the lack of compassion shown towards people who are struggling from people who endured an event is “driven by the tendency for those who previously endured the distressing event to view the event as less difficult to overcome”. People who have been bullied or unemployed can show less compassion for people who are struggling with the same situation (and more favour to those who have come out the other side), compared to people who have never experienced or are currently experiencing that event. Matching this, some of the studies on empathy that reported a positive impact were looking at people still in, or who had only recently come out of, a challenging situation (e.g. recent childbirth, or recent electric shocks). Perhaps the immediacy of an event helps to elevate compassion, whereas an event that was longer ago leads to a decrease in compassion.
It may be that, at least in the cultures where these studies were carried out, the ‘tough love’ approach is feeding in here. The ‘tough love’ approach suggests that hardship develops good character, and does so so well that it is better to leave people in hardship than to remove or help them and thus damage their character. In fact, hardship is so good for us that we should even deliberately impose it on people – especially children, who need to learn that life isn’t fair and you can’t always get what you want; and the poor and unemployed, who need to learn that you should work hard for little pay and no future hope. It says that what is good about hardship is the individual struggle to get out of it and better oneself; that getting oneself out of hardship is a sign of good character as opposed to good luck or the help of others; and that failing to do so is a sign of bad character and that what you need is more hardship (whether bullying, poverty or something else). It fails to consider the precise mechanism at work, such as whether what helps us develop character in hardship is the support of older, experienced people guiding us through it to come out safely – and with our kindness and compassion intact – on the other side.
Maybe the reason that some people respond with ‘tough love’ is because it is what they received themselves. I know in myself that I have a tendency towards copying the behaviour that I learn from others. When people have been gentle and gracious to me in my mistakes and errors, I am encouraged and enabled to be similarly gentle and gracious towards others. When people have been kind when I have been argumentative, I learn to be kind to others when they disagree with me. But when the only behaviour I have seen has been harsh and punitive, I find it much harder to respond instinctively with kindness and gentleness, even when I want to. And when I have been actively taught to be unkind in response to a behaviour from someone else, then I am capable of causing much harm, because I think I’m doing the right thing.
Then there is our psychological bias towards self-congratulation for anything that goes well in our lives, and dismissal of anything that goes wrong. In psychology (at least when I was studying it, some 15 years ago), this is called ‘attribution bias’: systematic errors that we make when trying to explain our own or others’ behaviours. It has been suggested that one reason we do this is because we are looking for stable properties of the world in order that we may feel that we have a degree of control. If we know what happens when we do X or Y, then we can avoid bad outcomes and ensure good outcomes. Another reason is to boost our self-esteem: to believe that we are a capable person, we have to believe that failure is due to external factors. And the more someone attacks us as an inferior or defective person, the more we want to defend ourselves by pointing to externalities as the cause of our struggles.
Studies suggest that we have a tendency to over-emphasise personal factors and under-emphasise situational factors. Thus if someone is successful, we tend to over-emphasise good things about them such as intelligence, natural ability, or hard work. We place less emphasis on their situation, such as being born to wealthy parents, having genetically good health, or having had a good teacher at school. Equally, if someone is unsuccessful then we attribute that to personal factors as well: they’re lazy, or ignorant, or have a bad work ethic. We tend not to consider things like the quality of their teachers, or whether they grew up in poverty in a deprived area, or the availability of fulfilling jobs with career progression in their area.
All of this may help to explain a phenomenon that I see in many professionals: an attitude of negativity and blame towards the very people they presumably went into that profession to help. I see it in doctors, whose views of their patients can be shocking to anyone who has previously trusted doctors to actually care about them. I see it in benefit assessors, who are actively taught to disbelieve the self-report of a sick or disabled person, and to try to find discrepancies that they can widen into reasons to refuse support. I see it in jobcentre workers, when they talk about how good they are at spotting cheats and layabouts, yet believe also that the ranks of jobseekers are full of such layabouts (presumably ones they haven’t spotted, or they’d have been sanctioned so many times that they wouldn’t bother claiming benefits anymore; though that raises questions over the ability to actually spot such people correctly, as opposed to punishing people who are trying their hardest).
Why do they take such negative attitudes? Well, firstly, it may be because they lack experience themselves. Doctors rarely have chronic illness, let alone severe chronic illness (they wouldn’t be able to work if they did), so they don’t know what it feels like. When they imagine how their patient feels about X or Y, they do it from their own position as a healthy adult with money and stability, not from the position of someone who is exhausted and ill and probably poor and in a precarious position. When benefit assessors view claimants, they do it from the perspective, again, of a healthy adult with money and stability who can’t even begin to imagine why grating cheese for a microwaved potato might be too hard, or how spending 30 seconds on a rowing machine at its lowest resistance level might be worthwhile. When Jobcentre staff dismiss the people coming to them for help, they do it from the position of someone in a secure job with career opportunity and the potential to easily change job, not from the position of someone with no work skills beyond their willingness to work sickeningly hard, but their health is already damaged because of how hard they’ve been expected to work in low-pay, bad condition, no-future jobs.
And when these professionals do have experience, it is usually past not current experience (by necessity, for some of them – you can’t be employed and currently experiencing unemployment). And, according to the research, having past experience of something can make you less sympathetic to anyone currently going through, or struggling with, that experience. Perhaps being further away from the experience makes you forgetful of the depth of suffering (I know it took several bouts of depression before I could remember enough, in my good times, of what it felt like in the bad times to have proper sympathy for those still in depression). Perhaps the bias towards attributing good to oneself (such as the good of coming out of an episode of bullying or unemployment) makes us neglectful of the level of good fortune or help from others that created that good, and biases us towards believing that it was our own good character or behaviour that brought the success. And conversely, anyone still in that negative situation must be there because of their own bad character or behaviour.
Maybe also this condemnation of those who are suffering can be a form of self-protection in a world where you can’t help everyone. When your options for helping are severely constrained, such that you can only help a small number of people, then you have to come up with reasons for not helping the many for whom you don’t have resources. If your job is to allocate housing, for example, then how do you cope with the sheer amount of need relative to the supply of housing? Maybe one way is to strike off a large number of people for any possible reason, so that you don’t have to feel guilty or distressed about your lack of ability to help. When you have too many people waiting for a joint replacement, maybe writing off those who are overweight – even though the joint replacement would be key to enabling weight loss, and the lack of a replacement may have been a major contributing factor to weight gain – enables you to feel in control of the waiting list, and as though you are making a meaningful difference to the level of demand. When you have too many patients queueing up in your GP waiting room, maybe dismissing a whole load of them as malingerers justifies you only half-listening and insisting that the appointment only covers ‘one’ issue (even if that ‘one issue’ is merely one symptom of a much wider systemic condition).
Once could ask, of course, whether the reason professionals stigmatise many of the people they are meant to help is because these people are genuinely undeserving. Genuinely malingerers, lazy, or workshy, whose misfortune in life is entirely their own fault. The problem with this account is that, when you actually go and talk to people – even people who may have been pointed out to you as the best example that that practitioner knows of a lazy, underserving person – then what you hear is, yes, some faults, but mostly a lot of hard work, aspiration and striving in the face of relentless poverty and lack of opportunity. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have done a lot of work on this from the perspective of unemployed people, whilst the Spartacus Network did a lot with people with chronic illness, many of whom have been regularly called ‘malingerers’ and ‘fakers’. In my own experience working with young jobless men, it would have been easy to cherry-pick statements that expressed negativity towards work (more specifically, the local sausage factory and the trap that it represented). But it would have been disingenuous to do so. These were young men who wanted to be police officers or sound engineers, or who informally repaired friends’ and neighbours’ smartphones, laptops and tablets. They had aspiration. What they lacked was opportunity.
It is hard to keep your heart open to everyone in need. Indeed, I don’t even know if it’s possible. I think that if I tried to do it, I would never stop crying. There is so much suffering amongst my people, and so much blame and stigma directed at us from the people who are meant to help us. I try instead to remember that for most people most of the time, there is enough good in life for it to be worth living. And to remember that, like the boy throwing starfish back into the sea, I might only make a difference to one person, and that might seem meaningless in the face of the huge demand, but to that one person it is meaningful.
 Koo HJ, Piff PK and Shariff AF (2022) If I Could Do It, So Can They: Among the Rich, Those With Humbler Origins are Less Sensitive to the Difficulties of the Poor. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Doi:10.1177/19485506221098921  Campbell T., O’Brien E., Van Boven L., Schwarz N., Ubel P. (2014). Too much experience: A desensitization bias in emotional perspective taking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 272–285. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035148  Ruttan, R. L., McDonnell, M.-H., & Nordgren, L. F. (2015). Having “been there” doesn’t mean I care: When prior experience reduces compassion for emotional distress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(4), 610–622. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000012  Ruttan, R. L., McDonnell, M.-H., & Nordgren, L. F. (2015). Having “been there” doesn’t mean I care: When prior experience reduces compassion for emotional distress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(4), 610–622. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000012  Hodges S. D., Kiel K. J., Kramer A. D., Veach D., Villanueva B. R. (2010). Giving birth to empathy: The effects of similar experience on empathic accuracy, empathic concern, and perceived empathy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(3), 398–409. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167209350326  Batson C. D., Sympson S. C., Hindman J. L., Decruz P., Todd R. M., Weeks J. L., Jennings G., Burns C. T. (1996). “I’ve been there, too”: Effect on empathy of prior experience with a need. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(5), 474–482.  See, e.g., Shildrick et al (2012) Are ‘Cultures of Worklessness’ Passed Down the Generations? Joseph Rowntree Foundation MacDonald and Marsh (2005) Disconnected Youth? Growing up in Britain’s Poor Neighbourhood. Palgrave