The Arithmetic of Compassion

By Andrew Quist and Paul Slovic

In September 2015, photographs of deceased three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi were published in newspapers across the globe and went viral on social media, giving rise to an outpouring of empathy for the plight of Syrian refugees. Prior to their publication, the conflict in Syria had been occurring for more than four years, resulting in an estimated 250,000 deaths, and little to no action had been taken by the international community to stop the violence. This raises the question, why did the photographs of Aylan Kurdi create such a strong empathic response while statistics of hundreds of thousands of deaths failed to pierce the global consciousness?

JDM researchers interested in prosocial decision-making sought to address this question and published their findings in a recent article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The iconic photographs of Aylan Kurdi are an example of “the identifiable victim effect”: being presented with one identified person in need stirs our emotions and motivates us to help. The photographs of Aylan clearly had this effect. Using Google Trends data, the researchers found that Google searches for the words “Syria” and “refugees” increased dramatically after the publication of the photographs of Aylan’s body. The mean number of daily donations to a fund established by the Swedish Red Cross to aid Syrian refugees increased by more than 100 fold immediately after the publication of the photographs. However, the empathy these photographs evoked was short lived. After five weeks, the donations to returned to the level they were before publication of the photographs. The number of searches for the terms “Syria” and “refugees” also declined in subsequent weeks, but remained at a slightly higher level than they were before Aylan entered our consciousness.

The opposite of the identifiable victim effect is psychic numbing. The importance of saving one life is great when it is the first or only life saved, but diminishes as the number of lives at risk increases. Thus, psychologically, the importance of saving one life pales against the background of a larger threat: We may not “feel” much difference, nor value the difference, between saving 87 lives, or saving 88. As a result of numbing, statistics of suffering do not motivate us to act.

Due to psychic numbing, we may fail to appreciate threats from natural disasters, terrorism, famine, and other large scale disasters and atrocities. It is important that we do not allow such insensitivity to prevent us from taking action to address these challenges. To counteract the effects of psychic numbing we first need to become aware of the phenomenon in ourselves and to bring awareness to others. We also need to create legal mechanisms and social institutions that can keep us on course, forcing us to pursue the hard measures needed to combat massive human and environmental problems when our attention wanes and our numbed feelings lull us into complacency.

Photos of victims of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide on display at the Kigali Memorial Centre at Kigali, Rwanda. The centre has been established to raise awareness of the Genocide of 1994 and to help prevent further outbreaks of genocide around the world. A visitor centre, genocide archive, memorial gardens and a number of mass graves are at the site.

Many of us also exhibit another cognitive bias that can work to prevent us from taking action to help others: pseudoinefficacy, the false belief that due to the large scale of a problem, any action one takes will not be meaningful. Pseudoinefficacy is expressed in the thought, “the problem is so big, there’s nothing I can do to help.” The truth is that even if you are able to help only one person, your actions do matter.

To counteract this false sense of inefficacy we encourage people to recognize that even partial solutions save whole lives. Our world is full of stories about people who go out of their way to help others, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. A recent example is the White Helmets, a group of Syrian civilian volunteers, who converged at the site of military strikes and risked their lives to rescue the wounded. The bulk of their activity in Syria has consisted of urban search and rescue in response to bombing, medical evacuation, evacuation of civilians from danger zones, and essential service delivery. Most of us may not be able to help in such a dramatic fashion, but there are myriad ways humanitarians can make a difference in their own communities or a world away.

We have created a website to raise awareness of and combat psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy and other psychological obstacles to action in the face of threats to humans and nature. The site starts with brief tutorials about these obstacles. It then presents short blogs describing recent news stories illustrating failures to act that reflect these tendencies, along with examples where individuals have acted, often heroically to overcome them. A section called “Take Action” shows what you can do yourself or by supporting activist organizations to make a meaningful difference. Please visit the site and, if you think it worthwhile, spread the word with your own social media.

Further reading: Slovic, P., Vastfjall, P., Erlandsson, A., & Gregory, R. (2017). Iconic photographs and the ebb and flow of empathic response to humanitarian disasters. Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, 114(4), 640-644. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1613977114

Funding Acknowledgment: This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1227729 and 1427414 and Riksbankens Jubileumsfond. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or Riksbankens Jubileumsfond.

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