Survey hints at how families discuss suffering

· 3 min read

Survey hints at how families discuss suffering

Pocket Science: Exploring the 'What,' 'So what' and 'Now what' of Husker research
Child walking through refugee camp
A child walks through a refugee camp in Atmeh, Syria, where hundreds of thousands of Syrians have wound up after years of being displaced by war.

Welcome to Pocket Science: a glimpse at recent research from Husker scientists and engineers. For those who want to quickly learn the “What,” “So what” and “Now what” of Husker research.


Much of the world’s prejudice and discrimination takes aim at out-groups: those that don’t look, talk, behave or believe exactly as the group holding the biases. Those biases can especially manifest in the ways that a group responds to the suffering of an out-group, whether the trials of natural disasters or the tribulations of persecution and war.

Explanations for intergroup bias have ranged from the evolutionary to the social to the cognitive. But researchers have also begun examining the roots of compassion and empathy for out-groups, with some proposing that the ultimate in-group — family — can cultivate not just exclusionary attitudes but inclusive ones, too.

So what?

Nebraska’s Jordan Soliz and four Husker alumnae surveyed 541 participants from a U.S. university in hopes of better understanding how families communicate about out-group suffering. The team specifically asked participants to recall how, and how often, their parents or other family members shared thoughts on the matter.


Roughly 51% of respondents said their families rarely, if ever, discussed out-group suffering, which the researchers noted as an overlooked form of bias in itself — one that reflects a lack of care. The remaining 49% described memories that the team eventually condensed into four themes:

  • Rationalizing that suffering as the result of choosing to live in an area prone to natural disasters and/or tyranny; as divine intervention, whether in the form of retribution or a mysterious plan; or as a natural, unavoidable reality
  • Supporting the victims, either through prayer or the donation of tangible resources
  • Framing the events in terms of privilege — that is, how fortunate the family was not to be suffering
  • Emphasizing the family’s obligation to help, whether because it once faced similar misfortunes or because Americans have a unique responsibility to act

Those responses revealed the two-toned role of religious faith, the team said, which was cited both to animate and minimize the desire to assist an out-group in need. Messages that invoked a sense of obligation were similarly complex: Though that obligation can spur virtuous action, it can also stem from an American exceptionalism that gives rise to perceptions of authority over out-groups.

Now what?

Future studies should investigate whether the types of out-group messaging passed along by parents actually predict attitudes and action in adulthood, the team said. Given how few participants recalled family discussions about violence against U.S. minorities, researchers might also explore how the culpability of an in-group can curb dialogue on out-group suffering.

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