Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston in August 2017, forcing tens of thousands of people out of their homes and stranding others on roofs and porches. Millions watched the disaster unfold on their television screens, but one group sprang into action. The “Cajun Navy” — boat owners from Louisiana, many of whom had endured the ravages of Hurricane Katrina — hitched all manner of watercraft (bass boats, air boats) to their vehicles, drove to Texas and set about rescuing thousands of residents. The informal group, which coordinates using social media, has also traveled to North Carolina and Florida to help flood victims.
Why do some people feel compassion, and act, when they hear about mass human suffering, while others put the distress out of their minds and go back to their daily business? The question has long drawn the attention of psychologists and philosophers, not to mention activists looking for ways to get people off their sofas (or to open their wallets) when tragedy strikes — or when governments commit unethical acts.
But as a method for increasing compassion, empathy-through-adversity is a highly unsatisfying solution, since it means that the way to warm people’s hearts is to make them suffer first. Fortunately, shared pain, by itself, isn’t what makes the difference, according to new research from my lab led by Daniel Lim. More specifically, people who have undergone adversity have a greater sense of efficacy when it comes to helping others. Through their own harsh experiences, they’ve come to believe that even small acts of kindness have an impact on those in need. “The best way you can thank somebody for helping you is to go help somebody else,” an engineer and Cajun Navy member named Ben Theriot told the New York Times during Harvey.
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