Reminders of human suffering in its many forms can be threatening to observers’ belief in justice. I describe studies showing that when third-party observers make meaning of others’ victimization, post-traumatic character growth and moral obligations to be prosocial emerge. That is, by finding benefits in having overcome past suffering, observers come to expect victims (and their descendants) to be more humanitarian in their treatment of other groups and to refrain from harming others. Because victims of violence and discrimination “know what suffering is,” they should be particularly supportive of other groups who are suffering. As a result, groups with a victimized past are held to a higher moral standard of conduct, which results in more negative evaluations if those expectations are violated. I conclude by addressing the social identity considerations that arise when victim groups, and perpetrator groups, make meaning of past suffering.
Nyla R. Branscombe is Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kansas since 1987. She received her BA (1980) and MA (1982) degrees in Canada, and Ph.D. (1986) from Purdue University. Her research has concentrated on the role that group memberships—and their associated identities—play in shaping people’s emotions, thoughts, and behavior. She has published more than 150 articles and chapters, co-authored several editions of an undergraduate Social Psychology textbook, and co-edited 5 scholarly volumes—Collective Guilt; Commemorating Brown; Rediscovering Social Identity; Handbook of Gender & Psychology; Psychology of Change. She has been recipient of numerous research prizes—most recently the Higuchi Research Achievement Award from the State of Kansas. She is also the proud recipient of the 2015 University of Kansas Graduate Research Mentor Award.