By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
On October 1st, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concert attendees, injuring nearly 500 and killing 58. In response, the President offered condemnation and condolences, but said the event should not be politicized and offered no policy changes. Thirty days later, a man drove a rented truck through a crowded bike and pedestrian area, injuring a dozen and killing eight. In response, the President used executive power to further increase vetting of foreign immigrants, called for an end to diversity-based immigration, and intensified his emphasis on a Southern border wall. Then yesterday, a gunman killed at least 26 in a Texas church, and the President was back to the more general message: Americans should "stand strong," but no policy changes are needed. Why the difference? One explanation is that, in the first and third instances, the perpetrator was native-born and white, but in the second instance, the perpetrator was an immigrant from Uzbekistan.
No one, including the President, is going to consciously decide, "Well, the white shooters are more similar to me than the New York driver, therefore, despite the greater carnage, I will have a less-intense reaction to those cases." However, there is good social science to support the idea that this is exactly what is going on, at least in part. When it comes to evaluating both those who have done wrong and those who are the victims of that wrongdoing, our reactions will be strongly influenced by our empathy, which is in turn strongly determined by similarity. In other words, we are less punitive when the perpetrator is like us, and we are more punitive when the victim is unlike us. In this post, I'll share some recent research on this tendency and discuss the implications for legal persuasion.