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Sunday, April 10, 2022

The habituation fallacy: Disaster victims who are repeatedly victimized are assumed to suffer less, and they are helped less

Hanna Zagefka
European Journal of Social Psychology
First published: 09 February 2022


This paper tests the effects of lay beliefs that disaster victims who have been victimized by other events in the past will cope better with a new adverse event than first-time victims. It is shown that believing that disaster victims can get habituated to suffering reduces helping intentions towards victims of repeated adversity, because repeatedly victimized victims are perceived to be less traumatized by a new adverse event. In other words, those who buy into habituation beliefs will impute less trauma and suffering to repeated victims compared to first-time victims, and they will therefore feel less inclined to help those repeatedly victimized victims. This was demonstrated in a series of six studies, two of which were preregistered (total N = 1,010). Studies 1, 2 and 3 showed that beliefs that disaster victims become habituated to pain do indeed exist among lay people. Such beliefs are factually inaccurate, because repeated exposure to severe adversity makes it harder, not easier, for disaster victims to cope with a new negative event. Therefore, we call this belief the ‘habituation fallacy’. Studies 2, 3 and 4 demonstrated an indirect negative effect of a belief in the ‘habituation fallacy’ on ‘helping intentions’, via lesser ‘trauma’ ascribed to victims who had previously been victimized. Studies 5 and 6 demonstrated that a belief in the ‘habituation fallacy’ causally affects trauma ascribed to, and helping intentions towards, repeatedly victimized victims, but not first-time victims. The habituation fallacy can potentially explain reluctance to donate to humanitarian causes in those geographical areas that frequently fall prey to disasters.

From the General Discussion

Taken together, these studies show a tendency to believe in the habituation fallacy. That is, they might believe that victims who have previously suffered are less affected by new adversity than victims who are first-time sufferers. Buy-in to the habituation fallacy means that victims of repeated adversity are assumed to suffer less, and that they are consequently helped less. Consistent evidence for this was found across
six studies, two of which were preregistered.

These results are important and add to the extant literature in significant ways.  Many factors have been discussed as driving disaster giving (see e.g., Albayrak, Aydemir, & Gleibs, 2021; Bekkers & Wiepking, 2011; Berman et al., 2018; Bloom, 2017; Cuddy et al., 2007; Dickert et al., 2011; Evangelidis & Van den Bergh, 2013; Hsee et al., 2013; Kogut, 2011; Kogut et al., 2015; van Leeuwen & Täuber, 2012; Zagefka & James, 2015).  Significant perceived suffering caused by an event is clearly a powerful factor that propels donors into action. However, although lay beliefs about disasters have been studied, lay beliefs about suffering by the victims have been neglected so far. Moreover, although clearly some areas of the world are visited more frequently by disasters than others, the potential effects of this on helping decisions have not previously been studied.

The present paper therefore addresses an important gap, by linking lay beliefs about disasters to both perceived previous victimization and perceived suffering of the victims.  Clearly, helping decisions are driven by emotional and often biased factors (Bloom, 2017), and this contribution sheds light on an important mechanism that is both affective and potentially biased in nature, thereby advancing our understanding of donor motivations (Chapman et al., 2020).