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Negativity Dominance and Victim Neglect


The natural world is abound with asymmetries – from asymmetries in the fundamental physical forces to the left-right asymmetry ubiquitous in biological lifeforms. One such asymmetry that is found in all intelligent lifeforms on this planet and plays a central role in the evolutionary fitness and success of an organism is negativity dominance i.e. the asymmetrical wiring of the brains of humans and animals are such that negative stimuli and expectations are prioritized over positive ones. Negativity dominance grants crucial survival advantage to the organism by shaving off a few hundredths of a second from the time needed to detect a predator or threat. For example, in the visual processing circuitry of the brain, a superfast neural channel exists that feeds directly into amygdala (the part of the brain that processes emotions) bypassing the visual cortex that supports the conscious experience of “seeing”. Studies indicate that the threat and danger alarms of the brain are activated via this mechanism even before we consciously recognize the threat. But no comparably rapid mechanism for detecting positive stimuli has been detected.

Negativity dominance is so salient in our perception and cognition, that its manifestations can be observed over a wide and diverse range of behaviour. Perhaps the most well-known manifestation comes from the economic domain, in the form of ‘loss aversion’ i.e. the drive to more strongly avoid losses than achieve gains. For instance, in a bet with equal chances of winning and losing, the winning amount must at least be around twice the losing amount, otherwise most people find the bet too risky. In the social domain, bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones. John Gottman, a well-known marital relations expert, estimated that a stable relationship requires that good interactions outnumber bad interactions by at least 5 to 1. Even more striking, yet intuitively consistent, is the fact that a friendship that may take years to develop can be ruined by a single action.

Negativity dominance manifests in our sense of justice and fairness as well. For example, in legal decisions, restoring losses is given far more weightage than compensating for foregone gains. Moreover, we tend to punish meanness more strongly than reward generosity. Indeed, negativity dominance in our sense of justice may be so strong that it might actually hurt victims’ interests. A study recently published in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests that punishment restores people’s sense of justice to such a degree that it leads individuals to neglect the victims’ needs. The researchers presented around 400 individuals with varying scenarios regarding crime perpetrators and victims, and surveyed them to examine the correlation between the intensity or quantum of punishment and their desire to compensate the victim, and vice versa. For example, in one of the studies, participants were presented with a case of stabbing and robbing a stranger. The offender was apprehended eventually, but he had already spent the $100 he had stolen from the victim. The participants of the study were randomly presented four scenarios of the punishment that the offender received, varying from probation to 25 years in prison. The researchers observed that the more punishment the perpetrator received, the less likely the participants were to recommend that the victim be compensated. However, varying the victim’s compensation amounts did not significantly affect participants’ punishment recommendations. Furthermore, participants more strongly believed that justice had been restored when the perpetrator had been punished, rather than when the victim had been compensated.

The asymmetry between punishment and victim compensation in restoring justice leads to justice being seen in a very narrow sense – merely as retribution. This can be seen most starkly in cases of sexual violence, wherein victim mistreatment is rampant across sections of society and the criminal justice system, and even when sympathies lie strongly with the victim, public attention and outcry is usually limited to punishment to the perpetrator. Indeed, rape shield laws and rape victim identity protection statutes in most countries around the world stand testimony to the fact that the law often has to step in to protect the victim’s interests, not just from the perpetrator, but also from the society and the system itself. Rape victims are often accused of “asking for it” by “wearing revealing clothes” or “being too friendly with guys”, and are even stigmatized in some cultures. In face of such mistreatment, victims often require psychological counseling, social support, and so on, for rehabilitation and relief, which the justice system so often fails to deliver. On the other hand, the recent shocking case of public castration of a man caught attacking a girl in an alleyway in Ganganagar, Rajasthan, by a vigilante lynch mob, demonstrates the extraordinary motivation of people to punish the perpetrators of crime, not hesitating even to take law into their own hands. Public standards of morality are often suspended in this zeal to restore justice, and it is not uncommon to hear ludicrous demands such as public hanging and public castration for perpetrators of violent crimes.

Adequate mechanisms for rehabilitation of victims are lacking in our criminal justice system, and this aspect continues to be neglected in public imagination, while demands for stricter laws and punishments for perpetrators gain momentum after every public outrage over a crime. This asymmetry needs to be deliberately countered by sensitizing the stakeholders of our justice system to the plight of victims as well as to their own biases that lead them to neglect victims’ interests. Empathy-promoting nudges are required to be incorporated in our legal processes, so that victim compensation receives appropriate weightage in pronouncement of justice.

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