When Might Collective Suffering Lead to Reduced Empathy?

This piece, written by Nandini Dey, covers Anselm Hager, Krzysztof Krakowski, and Max Schaub’s new article “Ethnic Riots and Prosocial Behavior: Evidence from Kyrgyzstan.”

The effects of trauma are betrayed in multiple ways. The Hondurans and Syrians fleeing violence and civil war in their home countries and the migrant children who are separated from their families after crossing borders face not just the immediate uncertainty of their situations but also long-term psychological effects. Personal accounts and academic studies have both shown that such traumatic experiences may lead to increased empathy and compassion for fellow human beings who suffer similar circumstances. Most scholars hold the view that cases of collectively experienced trauma, such as civil wars or riots, are likely to increase cooperation within the opposing groups. Hager, Krakowski, and Schaub’s new study published in the American Political Science Review puts this view to the test. They study the aftermath of ethnic rioting in Kyrgyzstan and find, in fact, that the people that were targeted by the violence are much less likely to be cooperative, even within their own group.

What happened in Kyrgyzstan?

In June 2010, after a few incidents of scattered skirmishes, full-scale rioting erupted in the southern city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan and soon spread to other parts of the country. In a country where the ethnic majority is Kyrgyz, Osh—which is close to the border with Uzbekistan—is home primarily to Uzbeks, who were the target of this violence. The Kyrgyz perpetrators were heavily armed and used military-grade weapons, including AK-47s, sniper rifles, grenades, and even armored personnel carriers (APCs). There was looting, gun violence, and murder. Human Rights Watch reported at least 356 deaths, but suggested that the figure was probably higher. In the end, almost 74 per cent of those killed were ethnic Uzbeks. Despite these violent attacks, most Uzbeks, fearing loss of their citizenship and property, stayed on in their former neighborhoods in Osh.

Events such as the riots in Osh harden the already bitter feelings between ethnic communities. But how do they affect feelings of empathy, solidarity, and cooperation within the clashing groups? Hager, Krakowski, and Schaub went to Osh to study the links between ethnic riots and what they call “prosocial behavior”—behavior aimed at helping other people and the larger society. Such behavior may take the form of either cooperation or altruism. Seven years after the riots, the researchers surveyed 1,100 Osh residents, including Uzbeks who lived in the directly targeted areas and those who lived in neighborhoods that were not immediately affected. They found, first, that cooperation between the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz declined in the aftermath of the riots. This was not surprising. As the same time, the researchers expected to find that Uzbek residents would have greater empathy for and solidarity towards fellow members of their community. They found, however, that Uzbek residents from the directly affected areas were less likely to be cooperative even with other Uzbek individuals.

Why might victims be unwilling to cooperate?

Surely, ethnic-riots that explicitly targeted the Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan should have had the effect of bringing the community together to oppose their common enemy? But, as Hager, Krakowski, and Schaub discovered, this didn’t happen. To understand why, they used qualitative methodology such as interviews with residents and local sources to converge on two reasons for reduced cooperation between Uzbeks in the aftermath of the Osh riots.

The first was disappointment: Uzbek victims in the directly affected areas felt betrayed that fellow Uzbeks in neighboring areas did not show up to support them against the Kyrgyz rioters. The researchers found that not only did victimized Uzbeks feel let down, but that they also felt an urge to punish those who failed to support them. In addition, they felt let down by Uzbek community leaders, resulting in apathy towards community leadership in general.

The second reason for reduced cooperation was suspicion: those Uzbeks who were affected questioned why they, rather than others, were targeted. Victimization directly resulted in the erosion of trust within the Uzbek community in Osh. That trust remains broken to this day.

What does this mean for victimized populations?

Hager, Krakowski, and Schaub’s research adds to existing work on ethnic violence and community cooperation. Importantly, because they conducted their study seven years after the violence in Osh, their results show that riots can affect cooperative behavior in the long term even though riots themselves do not usually last long. It is true that these findings might not leave one feeling optimistic, particularly if we think about the futures of migrant children and people fleeing violence in different parts of the world. However, the authors point out that the results are worth bearing in mind while designing, for example, reconciliation programs that might need to focus on relationships both across and within conflicting groups while addressing communal rifts. Not just this, but increased awareness of the complex effects of trauma will go a long way in designing effective policies to address communal disharmony.