Group Seeks to Lessen Katrina's Mental Blow In the days and weeks following Hurricane Katrina's rampage through the Gulf Coast and the flooding that followed, survivors and evacuees have been placed under extraordinary mental and physical strain. A group of psychologists are trying to ease the recovery from the catastrophe.

Group Seeks to Lessen Katrina's Mental Blow

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Why do people give to charities after major disasters? That question has been studied by psychologists who look at the relationship between emotion and decision-making. What they've found over the years is that sadness can be a strong motivator. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.


For the millions of us not displaced by Katrina, the disaster has left us little to fear. Our houses and families are safe. There's no storm threatening us. Psychologists say this bodes well for fund raising and volunteerism. If we were all fearful, many of us would withdraw, retreat to safety. Instead, those of us watching from afar feel empathy.

Mr. TORY HIGGINS (Psychologist, Columbia University): When you're experiencing other people's sadness, then the response is an eager response.

AUBREY: To do something to help. Tory Higgins is a psychologist at Columbia University. He says within this outpouring of sadness, there's also individual variability.

Mr. HIGGINS: Different people are naturally more responsive and more empathic.

AUBREY: So empathy does not uniformly translate into action. Some people jump right in. Others hesitate. Debra Small of the University of Pennsylvania studies what influences these reactions. Her research shows that the stronger the connections between the victims and the helpers, the more generosity.

Ms. DEBRA SMALL (University of Pennsylvania): We've conducted some interesting studies showing that people who--known someone who was a victim of a particular misfortune are particularly sympathetic toward other victims of that same misfortune.

AUBREY: So people who have lost someone to AIDS will support AIDS causes, or those touched by Alzheimer's support that cause. Small says this phenomenon may explain the broad support for Katrina victims. If you didn't have friends or family in New Orleans or along the Gulf Coast, perhaps you feel connected by having survived another coastal storm. Gerald Clore teaches psychology at the University of Virginia. He says there's another important component, and that's watching how your peers are responding.

Mr. GERALD CLORE (University of Virginia): One of the things that happens is when we see other people helping, especially people like us, we want to help.

AUBREY: Clore says he, himself, sat by without acting for a few days until the effects of Katrina spilled into his college town.

Mr. CLORE: It was when I got e-mail in my local community, saying, `Some people are coming to school here from Tulane University. Can you give furniture? Can you help? Some people are moving to our community. Can you help?' that I realized, `Oh, my goodness, I have to be involved.'

AUBREY: Clore says what social scientists have documented repeatedly is that people are not consistent in their acts of sympathy. One situation can leave them cold and indifferent while another prompts them to action. Clore says a person's upbringing seems to play a role. He points to a study conducted in the 1980s, surveying people who'd witnessed the treatment of Jews during World War II. The people in the study characterized themselves as either bystanders who did nothing or as helpers who tried to shelter or rescue Jews. And they explained what they were taught as children.

Mr. CLORE: One of the interesting differences was the kind of moral upbringing they had. The bystanders learned moral lessons, but they were about kind of obligations to family and community and church and country.

AUBREY: Whereas the helpers reported being taught as children that they should help any person in need, the sort of Good Samaritan lesson. Clore says it's a reminder that when it comes to sympathetic action, sometimes it needs to be taught. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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