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Toward Understanding Compassionate, Non-Blaming Responses to Social Outgroups

September 5, 2013
Photo Credit: Homeless vs. Passerby by Naushad UzZaman (, all rights reserved. See

By Michael Gill (Lehigh University), Michael Andreychik (Fairfield University), and Phillip Getty (Lehigh University)

When will an observer respond in a compassionate, non-blaming manner to a poverty-stricken or violence-prone social outgroup? Most research downplays the possibility of such responses, emphasizing instead a prepotent tendency for people to blame outgroups (Allport, 1954; Jost & Banaji, 1994). People blame outgroups by attributing their poverty, violence, and so on, to ostensible character deficiencies (e.g., they are lazy; they are less-than-human). Although such blaming is clearly widespread and pernicious, it seems equally clear that people sometimes respond to “potentially blameworthy” outgroups in a compassionate, non-blaming manner. We are interested in the psychology of such compassion.

We suggest that this compassion has its roots in the types of explanations observers generate regarding the outgroup: Why are they poor? Why are they violent? The likelihood of compassion increases when the observer answers these questions with external explanations. External explanations focus on outgroup history, especially how historical forces external to the group have “pushed” the group on to a negative trajectory. For example, an observer might learn that an outgroup was oppressed for many decades and conclude that this past oppression explains current potentially blameworthy features.

Are external explanations per se sufficient to generate compassion? No (Andreychik & Gill, 2009). For this reason, we believe it is important to understand why they generate compassion and, based on this, when they will succeed or fail to do so. These issues are the focus of an article we recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Gill, Andreychik, & Getty, 2013).

At the heart of our model is the notion of perceived suffering. Specifically, we propose that external explanations generate compassion because they increase the sense that the outgroup has suffered. Observers can recognize that historical forces strong enough to push a group on to a bad trajectory would likely also have a profound effect on their inner lives, creating feelings such as, say, fear, humiliation, hopelessness, and so on. These perceptions of suffering, in turn, are the proximal cause of compassion (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010).

Our focus on perceived suffering distinguishes our work from models that emphasize perceived control as the primary determinant of blame versus compassion (see Weiner, 2006, for a review). One goal of Gill et al. (2013), then, was to highlight the importance of perceived suffering and how it can operate independently of perceived control. Specifically, we asked: Can external explanations increase perceived suffering and thereby generate compassion even when an outgroup is thought to have had substantial—albeit unexercised—control over its own trajectory?

Studies 1 and 2 of Gill et al. (2013) examined these issues. In Study 1, White participants reported their acceptance of external explanations regarding African Americans (e.g., The history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination faced by African Americans has surely contributed to any current economic and social problems they are facing.). We also measured compassion (e.g., I feel compassion for African Americans). These two variables were, as expected, positively related. But, why?

To answer this question, we measured perceived suffering (e.g., African Americans have experienced suffering and frustration as a result of their experiences in the United States). Using complex statistical procedures, we found evidence that external explanations generated compassion because they increased perceptions of suffering. We also measured perceived control (e.g., By utilizing their powers of self-determination and personal control over the past few centuries, African Americans could have improved the outcomes and status of their group). The measure revealed that the relation between external explanations and perceived suffering was equally strong across all levels of perceived control, as was the relation between perceived suffering and compassion. Thus, external explanations can generate compassion by increasing perceived suffering regardless of the extent to which observers believe that the outgroup “could have done better via their own efforts.”

In Study 2, we tested these ideas in a very different context using an experimental method. All participants learned about terrorist violence committed by Chechen militants as part of an ongoing conflict with Russia. Some participants learned nothing more, whereas others received external explanations. Specifically, they learned how the Chechen people have been oppressed by Russia for decades. Importantly, perceived control was unaffected by the presence versus absence of external explanatory information (terrorism is an entirely controllable activity). Nevertheless, compassion was higher in the external explanations condition and, once again, this compassion was generated based on perceived suffering by Chechens (compassion here meant opposition to a violent Russian response toward the Chechens).

After finding this evidence for an important role of perceived suffering—independent of perceived control—we wondered: What factors might increase or decrease the extent to which external explanations generate compassion via increased perceptions of suffering?

We have identified two factors (in Studies 2, 3, and 4). First, depth of cognitive processing is crucial. If the observer’s cognitive processing is shallow—either because he is generally not a deep thinker or because we have him multi-task during our study—external explanations do not increase perceptions of suffering very much at all. On the other hand, if the observer’s cognitive processing is deep—either because she is generally a deep thinker or because she is able to devote full attention to our study materials—then external explanations sharply increase perceptions of suffering. Thus, it takes cognitive effort to “see” or appreciate the suffering engendered by external explanations. Second, one’s sense of social identity is crucial, too. Specifically, if one construes ingroup/outgroup relations in competitive terms, then perceived suffering by the outgroup barely generates any compassion at all. On the other hand, if one construes the ingroup and the outgroup as members of a single society in which all groups should interact cooperatively, then perceived suffering by the outgroup sharply increases compassion.

So, now we can answer: When will an observer respond in a compassionate, non-blaming manner to a poverty-stricken or violence-prone social outgroup? Our answer is that compassion begins with external explanations. These external explanations must be “helped along,” however, if they are to generate compassion. Specifically, observers must think deeply about the human implications of external explanations: Suffering. Finally, observers must “expand their circle” (Singer,1981) of social identification before the suffering of an outgroup will generate compassion in them. Of course, getting people to accept external explanations, to think deeply, and to expand their circle is no easy task. On the other hand, it is a very important task for those concerned with building a compassionate world.

Author Information

GillMichael Gill is associate professor of psychology at Lehigh University. He studies why people have blaming versus compassionate responses toward individuals or groups who are thought to be “falling short” in some way. Mediumbox

AndreychikMichael Andreychik is assistant professor of psychology at Fairfield University. His research focuses on understanding factors that can propel groups and individuals away from social strife and psychological suffering and toward more positive functioning.Mediumbox

GettyPhillip Getty is a Ph.D. candidate in social psychology at Lehigh University. He is interested in the behavioral and emotional consequences of holding negative beliefs about individuals, groups, and humanity as a whole.


Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Oxford: Addison-Wesley.

Andreychik, M. R., & Gill, M. J. (2009). Ingroup identity moderates the impact of social explanations on intergroup attitudes: External explanations are not inherently prosocial. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(12), 1632-1645. doi:10.1177/0146167209345285

Gill, M. J., Andreychik, M. R., & Getty, P. D. (2013). More than a lack of control: External explanations can evoke compassion for outgroups by increasing perceptions of suffering (independent of perceived control). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(1), 73-87.

Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 136(3), 35-374.

Jost, J. T., & Banaji, M. R. (1994). The role of stereotyping in system-justification and the production of false consciousness. British Journal of Social Psychology, 33(1), 1-27.

Singer, P. (1981). The expanding circle. Oxford: Clarendon Press Oxford.

Weiner, B. (2006). Social motivation, justice, and the moral emotions: An attributional approach Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Photo Credit: Homeless vs. Passerby by Naushad UzZaman (, all rights reserved. See

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