Research during the 1960s found that observers could be moved enough by an innocent victim’s suffering to derogate their character. However, recent research has produced inconsistent evidence for this effect. We conducted the first meta-analysis (k = 55) of the experimental literature on the victim derogation effect to test the hypothesis that it varies as a function of the emotional impactfulness of the context for observers. We found that studies which employed more impactful contexts (e.g., that were real and vivid) reported larger derogation effects. Emotional impact was, however, confounded by year of appearance, such that older studies reported larger effects and were more impactful. To disentangle the role of emotional impact, in two primary experiments we found that more impactful contexts increased the derogation of an innocent victim. Overall, the findings advance our theoretical understanding of the contexts in which observers are more likely to derogate an innocent victim.