You hurting me is worse than me hurting you

July 11, 2007 at 1:17 am 3 comments

Shankar Vedantam’s column in the Washington Post on Monday contained a discussion of the research of social psychologist Roy Baumeister. According to the article, Baumeister conducted a study in which he asked participants to identify an instance in which they had done something that hurt or harmed another person, along with an instance in which someone else had done something to hurt or harm the participant.

Interestingly, the answers to both questions were similar: the ways in which participants had harmed others and the ways in which they had themselves been harmed both involved familiar acts of betrayal, lies, small unkindnesses.

However, the participants in the study invariably perceived the hurtful actions done to them to be worse than the harmful actions they did to others. The participants consistently perceived that the hurtful acts they had done to others were justified or could not have been prevented. But when the participants were the recipients of those same hurtful actions, they perceived that the person harming them was not justified or could have prevented the harm.

Generalizing from the study, then, people are all prone to the same hurtful behaviors, but we consistently perceive our own behavior as justified and the other guy’s as unjustified. The action in both instances might be the same, but it’s much worse when another person does it to us than when we do it to someone else.

This phenomenon, if indeed it holds true, nicely explains how we can perceive many ills and wrongs in the world yet find it so easy to think of ourselves as “basically good people.”

It perhaps also explains why Christians who begin to deeply examine their own hearts frequently report coming to a profound sense of their own sinfulness and unworthiness, even while the rest of the world thinks they are being foolishly pessimistic. Are such self-examiners indeed foolish, or are they simply getting a grasp on the objective reality of their own poor conduct—and of the fact that “all [truly] have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”? (Rom. 3:23).


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Faith before reason? Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stephen  |  July 12, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    A bit of both, I tend to think.

    In my view, consciences are faulty in one of two ways: either they are not sensitive enough, or they are too sensitive. Some people struggle with debilitating guilt over relatively small sins; others feel no remorse for enormous offences.

    I assume that people with overly sensitive consciences are more open to the Gospel than people with hardened consciences. I don’t have any data to support that, but it makes intuitive sense.

    I completely agree that all have sinned and salvation is by grace. That’s important, and I don’t mean to diminish it by what follows.

    But my experience is, a lot of Christians are so preoccupied with the state of their own soul (introspection) that they neglect the real needs of others, whether inside or outside of the church community (ministry, mission).

    The constant emphasis of some churches on what miserable worms we all are tends to lead to navel gazing. That’s a problem: it doesn’t lead to Christian maturity and it may bring Christ into disrepute (because we fail to demonstrate the love that’s supposed to be our defining characteristic).

  • 2. Stephen  |  July 12, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    btw —

    I find that your blog is taking longer and longer to load these days, and sometimes it times out. That’s why you’ve received multiple comments from me on a few occasions: I try to publish a comment and minutes (literally) go by with nothing happening. So I republish the comment only to find that it went through the first time, but the page never reloaded.

    I don’t know if this is a problem with something on your blog or the server where it’s hosted. Maybe you could look into it with someone knowledgeable about these things.

  • 3. Jamie  |  July 13, 2007 at 1:08 am

    Stephen, I think you’re right that the emphasis on human sinfulness can lead to navel-gazing, but I suppose I’ve been spending more time recently around the “basically good” crowd than around the “what awful worms we are” crowd. My post reflects that, I guess. But your point is well taken.

    Re my blog:


    I don’t know why it’s gotten so much worse, but I’ve noticed the same problem. I’ve been unhappy with my blog for a long time, because not only has it gotten awfully slow, but the formatting of the sidebar hasn’t been right for months (in IE at least; it’s fine in Firefox/Safari).

    Much as I hate to move, I think I’m going to end up going that route. I’ve been experimenting with WordPress, so I’m hoping there will be some changes around here shortly. Thanks for bearing with me.


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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