Seth Goldman talks empathy, sympathy and pity in ‘Victim Paradox’ lecture Monday

By Rachel Walman

(The Victim Paradox Talk/ Daily Collegian Archives)
(The Victim Paradox Talk/ Daily Collegian Archives)

University of Massachusetts assistant professor Seth Goldman discussed intergroup contact and the theoretical stakes for empathy, sympathy and pity in his talk Monday afternoon, titled “The Victim Paradox” as part of the Center for Public Policy & Administration’s Colloquium Series.

Goldman holds a joint appointment in the department of communication and in the Commonwealth Honors College, and focused his talk on his current research, which looks into the effects of mass media and political communication on stereotyping and prejudice with respect to race and sexual orientation. He is one of the first people to investigate this in earnest.

He began his lecture with a question for his audience members to ponder.

“In the world of research on prejudice reduction, empathy is one of the big issues that people are interested in, and belief is potentially hugely important as a mechanism for efforts to reduce stereotyping and prejudice. But part of the problem is … what is empathy? It’s one of these concepts that is massively important to everyone who wants to use it and talk about it, but it’s very hard to define,” he said.

Goldman explained how he is attempting to break down and disentangle the definition of empathy, starting his argument with the concept of perspective taking. He said this is the idea of trying to imagine what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes and seeing the world through their eyes. He said this can also can be called sympathy, or, “feeling compassion for someone else who is going through a difficult situation.”

Empathy and sympathy, though they have general positive connotations, are often accompanied by the feeling or action of pity, according to Goldman. He is also investigating whether humans can empirically disentangle these three feelings.

His research regarding media in today’s world has led him to believe that people usually have greater exposure to people from different groups by means of media than they do in their daily lives.

Goldman decided to study anti-gay bullying, focusing on different types of media portrayal and the emotional effects they may have, after noticing the issues and questions about public opinion and media surrounding LGBT people and rights.

“(We can look at) changing attitudes. In this way we might understand why public acceptance has grown towards LGBT people over the last few decades,” he said. “Perhaps one mechanism among others is a growing sense of empathy or sympathy towards LGBT (people) in their lives and communities.”

Goldman’s study examined the effects of a “victim” narrative, a “hero” narrative and a “times have changed” narrative on heterosexual Americans’ attitudes towards gay people and gay rights, trying to disentangle the effects of and the nature of empathy. In particular, he was  attempting to see if the effects of these portrayals may depend upon the emotional reactions people have when being exposed to the different narratives.

Since there is still disagreement about what a positive portrayal of someone who identifies as LGBT is, Goldman is attempting to test the effects of differing stories and narratives, to find a solution to what makes a portrayal positive or not.

His independent variable was the extent of suffering that’s portrayed – the degree to which someone is portrayed as suffering and unable to control their situation. His dependent variable, on the other hand, was the extent to which people took on the perspective of the subject of the narrative.

For his research, 1,400 heterosexual American adults were tested, using data from Timeshare and the Experiments for the Social Sciences, a National Science Foundation funded organization.

His three different narratives concerned Ashley, a lesbian who was first portrayed as the victim, secondly as a hero and thirdly as a “normal” girl.

The results of the test were as Goldman had hypothesized: empathy, sympathy and pity increased, starting at its lowest in the “normal girl” narrative, moving up to the hero story and finally escalating with the victim narrative, validating Goldman’s belief that the more “victim” the portrayal is, the more people are inclined to be empathetic, sympathetic and pity them.

Other “victim” storylines (which represent real life cases) may involve HIV problems or rampant bullying, and are often thought of as deserving attention and raising awareness. But Goldman says that “good” portrayals may be simply seeing LGBT people as leading normal, productive lives, with nothing about their sexual orientation being portrayed as an extreme character trait.

He countered that idea with the argument that even that portrayal would not include the suffering and problems that are actually occurring.

Rachel Walman can be reached at [email protected]