Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Mar 01, 2018

Empowering Group Victims of Injustice Through Empathy

by Sarah Williams
Illustration of man running

In the aftermath of intergroup injustice, apologies from the perpetrator groups are commonplace, but taking the next step, and ensuring that the victims are empowered, can be overlooked. How might we ensure that victimized groups receive more support than a simple apology? In the Group Processes and Intergroup Relations preconference, Michael Wohl from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, suggests that one route may be empathetic collective angst.

Wohl and colleagues have found that autonomy is a fundamental collective need, one that is denied when certain groups are victimized by others. This lack of collective power - for example, an inability to sustain a group’s culture, or determine its own destiny - leads to a sense of personal disempowerment, which in turn diminishes one’s psychological well-being.

The collective disempowerment of a group can also result in collective angst: a type of existential crisis shared among group members, due to fears about their own status and continued existence. This can also lead to actions that enhance the power of the group, such as taking social or political action against groups that are perpetuating this loss of power. In this way, victim groups are able to protect their own futures.

When reconciliation occurs between a perpetrator and a victim group, it can serve the needs of both groups. For victims, reconciliation can fulfill a need for empowerment, while for perpetrators, reconciliation can act as a way to achieve moral redemption. The “staircase model” proposes that victims and perpetrators follow a series of steps to achieve reconciliation and have both group needs met. First, the perpetrator group accepts collective guilt for their actions against the victim group. Next, both groups set a shared account of the history of their groups, and then discuss reparations. The perpetrators issue an apology, and then both groups engage in post-apology activity in order to empower the victimized group. A common problem, however, is that the perpetrator group often sees the apology, which restores their own morality, as the final step in this process, and foregoes the post-apology stage of reconciliation, “turning the page” on past injustice, but not solving ongoing problems.

Collective angst is not limited to victim groups, however. Wohl and colleagues have found evidence of empathetic collective angst - the feeling of concern for another group’s future vitality and persistence. Furthermore, empathetic collective angst may be one mechanism that promotes taking this final step on the staircase to reconciliation.

In three studies, they examined victim group’s power-enhancing actions (such as barring non-Indigenous people from Indigenous lands in parts of Canada, or widespread action against the Dakota Access Pipeline). They found that framing these actions as a response to an existential group threat, versus a non-existential threat, increases empathetic collective angst among the perpetrator group. This, in turn, leads to greater levels of support for those actions. Most notably, this is true even when these power-enhancing actions may be detrimental to the perpetrator group itself. Thus, presenting victimized groups as facing an existential group threat may be one way to increase continued post-apology engagement for those in perpetrator groups.


Writtten by: Sarah L. Williams, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Preconference: Group Processes and Intergroup Relations

Speakers: See Complete list of speakers.


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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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