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We Feel For the Ill, But Not For the Unemployed

Who do you feel more sorry for: somebody who is sick, or somebody who is unemployed?

A new study finds we have much less sympathy for the unemployed, and this attitude has been hard-wired into our human brains over thousands of years!

Illness and unemployment represent two big risks humans face on a daily basis, but our societies handle the ramifications of these risks very differently. Healthcare costs tend to spiral out of control, while unemployment benefits tend to be tightly controlled when we're in free fall.


Political science researchers at Denmark's Aarhus University looked to the United States, Denmark and Japan to analyze our "implicit intuitions" regarding unemployment benefits versus healthcare benefits. The researchers conclude that the human condition shaped over centuries has conditioned us to view ill people as being unlucky in life. From the press release:

"For millions of years, a need for health care reflected accidents such as broken legs or random infections. Evolution could therefore have built our psychology to think about illnesses in this way, as something we have no control over. People everywhere seem to have this deep-seated intuition that ill people are unfortunate and deserve to be helped," [researcher] Michael Bang Petersen explains.

But somebody who has lost a job? Well, we tend to think they weren't unlucky in an uncertain global economy so much as they did it to themselves. It's their own fault.

How we view the entire concept of unemployment may relate to its very origins. Unemployment, the researchers remind us, is still a relatively new concept that arose during the Industrial Revolution, which is generally thought to have lasted from 1760 to 1840, depending on which historian you ask. Perhaps our brains simply haven't had nearly as much time to place unemployment in the same "unlucky" league as illness? And what does this study indicate about our perceptions of risk, as well as our sense of control over life's uncertainties?

In the meantime, we can test this theory by asking ourselves how we reacted on a gut level to a friend who announced they were sick compared to another friend who announced they were unemployed. Was there a fundamental difference in our reaction, and how "unlucky" we viewed them to be? If we see a big difference, then it may go back centuries.

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  1. I love your blog! Seems to not be too many blogs about workplace politics like this! Please consider following my blog as well for professional and personal motivation!

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