Is there a way to save victim-minded individuals?
I came up with this question yesterday morning, March 25, 2014, when I went to a seminar on “The Psychology of Justice Sensitivity and Cross-Cultural Differences” by German researcher Simona Maltese at De La Salle University. I almost didn’t go because I wasn’t that interested in the topic and I had a meeting for CnetPSR, this psychosocial response group I’m a part of, that very same morning. But since my fellow grad student friends invited me to go, I took a chance and I’m glad I did.
Basically, Maltese’s talk focused on how certain personality traits affect our perception of justice. She divided personality into four types according to justice sensitivity: there’s victim-sensitivity, perpetrator sensitivity, observant-sensitivity, and beneficiary sensitivity. The idea is that your leaning towards one of these personality types affects how you take situations in which justice arises as a prominent theme. If I were a victim-sensitive person for example, I would always be looking out for cues that I’m being exploited. So I would respond according to my notion of being a “victim” by fortifying myself against exploitative situations or by being mistrustful of people, etc. They’re primarily “antisocial and egoistic,” according to a study by researchers in the University of Koblenz-Landau. They also score high on jealousy and neuroticism.
Think of victim-sensitives as that friend of yours who always says, “Why me? Life is unfair. I’m always the one being targeted at work, etc.” (side note: I actually do have a friend who’s like this and it makes me crazy when she keeps on whining as if there’s nothing that can be done about the situation. I love her, but I sometimes have to shut off my brain when she goes on one of her rants.)
Being beneficiary-sensitive means being aware of how exploitative situations might benefit you in some way, arousing feelings of guilt or shame. Observant-sensitives, on the other hand, have high moral standards which makes them cooperative. Finally, perpetrator-sensitives who perceive themselves as persons who contribute to injustice might get feelings of guilt.
What really interested me about Maltese’s talk is the assertion that victim-sensitives are less likely to engage in pro-social behaviors such as donating and volunteering for a worthy cause because they have low levels of “existential guilt.” If you have high-levels of existential guilt, you are more aware of your effects on the world you live in and people you live with and it may lead you to engage more in pro-social behavior. But for victim-sensitives, being more neurotic and self-centered, life doesn’t work that way.
In the open forum, I asked Maltese if heightening the emotion of “existential guilt” would be enough to get people to engage in pro-social behavior, regardless of their victim-sensitivity personality type. I was thinking along the lines of a psychological intervention using Applied Social Psychology. She answered yes, there have been studies linking existential guilt with prosocial behavior in general. But she added that it’s generally difficult for victim-sensitives to experience existential guilt.
This makes me wonder if the reverse would apply: could getting victim-sensitives to engage in pro-social behavior lead them to experience existential guilt and then possibly save them from their own victim-sensitivity? Why couldn’t a reverse causality intervention work in this case? Although we generally believe in psychology that personality is difficult (if not impossible) to change, we also believe that good psychological interventions work.
I’m thinking of emailing Maltese my idea for such a program and getting her response. Who knows? If she ends up agreeing, the program might work for my friend. Maybe if I take her along one of our humanitarian missions, something would click.
Gollwitzer, M., Rothmund, T., Pfeiffer, A. & Ensenbach, C. (2009). Why and When Justice Sensitivity Leads to Pro- and Antisocial Behavior. Journal of Research in Personality, 43(6), 999-1005.