The Double Standard of Adversity

Psychological study is deeply rooted in humans’ ability to empathize with those around them. In a recent column, I discussed studies done on the forgiveness centers of the brain, which appear to be in the more evolved, less primal, sections. The studies suggest that empathy, required for forgiveness, has evolved as a mechanism for self-preservation.

This leads to some provocative questions. First, is empathy conditional? And second, are people who have experienced adversity more or less likely to empathize with others?

New research by Daniel Lim and David DeSteno tested whether the level of adversity a person experienced had an effect on the level of compassion and empathy shown toward others who were facing adversity.

People who have gone through adversity will understand the ordeals experienced by those around them and offer support. This was proven in two tests conducted by Lim and DeSteno. In the first, subjects filled out an online questionnaire asking what types of adversity they had experienced and how empathetic they thought they were. At the end of the test, they were offered the chance to donate part of their earnings for the test to the Red Cross to support other victims. Those who reported to have faced the most severe adversities donated the most money. The second study was conducted in a lab, during which participants were required to solve a series of difficult word problems. In the same room, an actor playing a fellow participant was instructed to struggle with the problem, either because of illness or other inability to complete the work. Test subjects were assessed on their willingness to help their fellow participant, as well as the length to which they would go to assist (in some cases, completing the work for them). Similar to the first study, those who had undergone the greatest hardships offered the most help. In doing so, Lim and DeSteno assessed that the act was purely compassionate, as it required the subjects to take on more work for themselves.

However, is all assistance purely compassionate?

Helping others through adversity can also be a coping strategy; you are not entirely helpless if you can still help others. This proves, either to yourself or to others, resilience, which can help you cope with your own trauma. It also bonds you to a community when the trauma itself can be isolating. Since having strong social bonds is also one of the top predictors of psychological well-being, enhancing those bonds is in your own self-interest. Therefore, there is a personal benefit to assisting others in times of distress, especially if you have been distressed as well.

This refers back to the research on forgiveness, which suggests humans have evolved to feel empathy as a means of self-preservation.

However, in a different experiment, researchers tested the levels of empathy that victims felt toward other victims of the same adversity. Their findings were surprising. People were less likely to show compassion toward those who had undergone the same trauma. The findings indicated that people like to diminish the levels of their trauma as a means of preservation and do not wish to relive especially traumatic events. But also there is the other case that people like to stand out in their suffering, that their trauma offers them a distinction and greater sympathy, and sharing that distinction lessens the pity received from others. In either case, the double-standard holds: the greater the adversity experienced, the greater the empathy shown for others except when the adversity is the same.

Can there be such a thing as selfish compassion?

Clearly, we are a species that values compassion. We operate as social creatures, and how we interact with others affects our well-being. This may not always be a completely selfless tradeoff; however, if it makes us feel better as well as those around us, then our “society” will continue to function, whether or not the compassion is entirely selfless. Compassion and empathy are coping strategies, and if healing others helps us heal as well, then the act may be self-serving but not purely selfish.

If you are grappling with adversity and want to know more about how to cope with trauma, contact me at or visit my website