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Compassion collapse: Human empathy shrinks in the face of mass suffering

First word

I DEARLY hope that this finding of social scientists is mistaken, or is perhaps just a false conclusion or fake news.

Because the Sulawesi earthquake-tsunami has happened to our close neighbor and Malay ethnic kin in Indonesia, I have instinctively monitored with interest and concern the progress of relief and recovery in Sulawesi.

It seems as though the Indonesians have sustained a disaster as terrible and devastating as the one which we Filipinos bore during the onslaught of supertyphoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in November 2013.

I’ve been reading with fascination and dismay an article in Atlantic this week, “Indonesia’s tsunami and the problem of human empathy.” It was written by Jamil Zaki, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory.

Appeal for international help

The natural disaster that struck Sulawesi has been reported to the world through round-the-clock reports. A 7.5-magnitude earthquake rocked the sea floor off the coast of Indonesia on September 29. The quake triggered a tsunami that has devastated much of Palu, a city of 350.000 people. The confirmed death count has soared to more than 2,000 and continues to rise. At this writing, an estimated 70,000 people have been displaced, with dwindling water supplies, in desperate need of help that might not arrive in time.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has called for international help to deal with the twin blows of earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi.

He has authorized the government’s head of investment Tom Lebong to accept international help for urgent disaster-response, as dozens of aid agencies and NGOs lined up to provide life-saving assistance, and as the government struggled to come to terms with the sheer scale of the disaster.

What is worrisome now is whether international help will pour into Sulawesi in proportion to the scale of the catastrophe.

Quirk in human empathy

It is in this light that Zaki’s observations are acutely pertinent. Zaki contends that as the death toll keeps rising in Indonesia, the compassion of faraway observers will not keep pace.

He wrote: “For decades, social scientists have been documenting a troubling quirk in human empathy: People tend to care more about the suffering of single individuals, and less about the pain of many people. Such ‘compassion collapse’ is morally backwards—dozens or hundreds of people, by definition, can lose more, fear more, and hurt more than any one of us; human concern should scale with the amount of pain in front of us. Instead, it dries up.”

Compassion collapse

Instead of fixing on the idea of a quirk of empathy, Zaki switches to the term “compassion collapse.” He believes there is a psychological problem involved here.

The rest of his article probes the phenomenon of compassion collapse and its consequences.

In what follows, I quote freely from Zaki ‘s article. It is compelling and deserves further study.

“Compassion collapse may seem like just a lack of feeling, but its consequences extend further. It affects how and when people choose to help one another.

“In 2015, a three-year-old Syrian refugee named Alan Kurdi, along with his brother and mother, drowned as his family tried to cross from Turkey to Greece along a narrow strait in the Mediterranean Sea. Images of his small body on the shore spread around the world. The tragedy, and his father’s anguish, moved millions of viewers, and donations to refugee-aid organizations poured in.

“Within days, and for a variety of other reasons, Angela Merkel made the fateful decision to open German borders to refugees. But within weeks, most people moved on, and the money stopped. Anti-migration politicians gained popularity across Europe; borders tightened again.

“Millions of refugees, tens of thousands of children among them, continued to suffer. But their numbers, unlike a single vivid tragedy, left the world cold. Biases like this pop up in laboratory experiments as well. Across a number of studies, people donate more money to charity after learning about one person, as compared to many people, in need.”

Two reasons for compassion collapse

Compassion collapse is a dramatic psychological problem, but where does it come from? Researchers offer two competing answers to the question.

Some suggest that people simply can’t care about others at a level warranted by a natural or man-made disaster. To some degree, this is built into the way humans feel emotions. The first $100 a restaurant makes is worth as much as the 100th $100, but it feels better to the owner. As good things pile up, the goodness of each individual thing is diluted. The same goes for suffering: As it compounds, people’s minds habituate, and the weight of additional pain wears off.

A second group of psychologists argue that compassion—and, by extension, its collapse—is a choice. Sure, our feelings are more easily triggered by some cues than others, but we also have world-beating imaginations. A novel does not scream or cry; it silently displays the stories of people who don’t actually exist. And yet it can bowl us over with emotion. Likewise, we can deeply imagine multiple victims of a tragedy, letting the weight of their pain wash over us. But more often than not, we won’t.

Downside of compassion

The downside of compassion is clear. Given the volume of suffering in the world, empathizing with many victims could burn us out or leave us with constant guilt for not doing more. The upside is less obvious. We can make a real difference for one suffering person, but barely make a dent in the lives of thousands. If empathy hurts us more than it helps anyone else, why bother? Scientists in the “won’t” camp hold that people faced with mass suffering willfully turn down their compassion like the volume knob on a stereo.

Is compassion collapse a “can’t” or “won’t” problem? As with most debates like this, the answer is both. People do empathize more naturally with one person’s visible, heart-wrenching sorrow than with descriptions of massive tragedies, and human emotion does have a limited range. But even when people could extend their care toward a suffering group, they often shy away.

Fighting compassion collapse

Understanding the problem is not merely an academic exercise; it can help us fight compassion collapse—because each type of collapse calls for different solutions. Imagine that someone is having difficulty connecting with a large number of sufferers—a “can’t” problem. Evidence suggests that focusing on one of the sufferers can jump-start empathy for the entire group, giving them a vivid case on which to hang their care.

If someone worries that empathizing with many is useless—a “won’t” problem—merely giving them a way to connect might not work. Instead, they might need convincing that caring is worthwhile.

“Empathic self-efficacy,” the idea that someone can truly help others without being overwhelmed, can drive generosity. Pointing people to the difference they can make might inspire them to dig into their empathy even amid great tragedy.

If people could empathize with mass suffering, philanthropy could become broader and more effective. But it will not fix all problems.

The most generous charity after a disaster like Indonesia’s must still be delivered in order to help, and lack of good infrastructure can prevent that. Empathy generated by mass death can’t lower the toll. Charitable donations tend to be reactive, not proactive—it’s easier to care about the ongoing suffering of many than the potential suffering of future people that could still be prevented.



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