The Limit of Human Compassion

Humans are by default moved when they are presented with a vivid picture of a person’s suffering, whether it is in words or pictures. You see the picture of a homeless, starving orphan and you are moved to tears, eager and willing to donate to seeing that child have a better life. If you were a celebrity, perhaps you’ll travel to an East African country dealing with a famine and be moved so much that you decide to adopt an orphan or two and make sure they get the best life has to offer. You feel good because you have made a difference, you have saved a life.

What happens when we move from the single story to the bigger picture?

Years of research have proven that apathy steadily replaces compassion as we move from the vivid picture of a single person’s suffering to that of many, whether its tens, hundreds, thousands, or millions of people. Why is this so? Why do we go numb when we learn that 65.3 million people have been rendered homeless but we will go the extra mile to see that a single person is saved from suffering? We find the answers in an interview where Brian Resnick spoke to Paul Slovic who is a psychologist at the University of Oregon.

Psychic numbing and the other side of the coin

Psychic numbing refers to the aforementioned phenomenon where apathy increases with the number of people suffering. The opposite of psychic numbing is the singularity effect, where a single life is highly valued.

It’s the same even when the number rises from one to two

In one of Slovic’s experiments, it was found that there was a reduction in donations and empathy towards children when the number increased from one child to two. Explaining why this happens, Slovic said that it lies in the human ability or desire to make an emotional connection. It is easier for us to attend closely to one person than it is to attend to two.

Slovic gave examples of research that had been conducted to further understanding of the issue. Results of those studies prove that people are more willing to take action only when they are faced with an extremely vivid picture illustrating the enormous effect a crisis has on a single life, even when they have been reminded every day of the dire situation with figures indicating the suffering of millions.

A solution?

It was discovered that this period of action or awakening has an expiry date as it would only last about a month before people go back to their normal state. By understanding how it works, journalists and others at play can inspire people to take action to address a massive problem by presenting them with a single story and then providing outlets for that heightened awareness, so much can be done before the apathy returns. This could be in form of prompting people to donate or vote/protest for a policy to be signed into law.




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