Thursday, March 15, 2007

Compassion is Not in the Numbers

Advocates for intervention in cases of genocide work tirelessly to publicize the tragedies suffered by the people upon whom the violence is visited. One of the most common strategies is to talk about the sheer numbers of people who have been killed or displaced, in an attempt to galvanize people into action by emphasizing the magnitude of the horror. But new research in psychology indicates that this may not be the most effective strategy to get good people to intervene against evil.

Paul Slovic questions the conventional wisdom that people are only compelled to act in cases of genocide when the human stakes are very high and made clear through grim statistics. In a short research note on Foreign Policy online, he argues that “it is our inability to comprehend numbers and relate them to mass human tragedy that stifles our ability to act.”

Slovic reports on a series of psychology experiments conducted by various researchers on compassion, and concludes that statistics, no matter how big the numbers, do not convey the real meaning of the evil of genocide. This is because cold, hard numbers “fail to trigger the affective emotion or feeling required to motivate action.” Rather, in a fascinating cognitive twist, an appeal to reason—through statistics, for example—numbs affect, which is the human ability to know whether something is good or bad. In Slovic’s experiments with another researcher, subjects’ donations to aid a starving African child actually fell sharply when the child’s image was accompanied by details about the millions of other needy children like her.

The good news is that inaction in the face of genocide does not seem to come from any fundamental deficiency in our humanity: people are, after all, often very motivated to exert significant effort to help needy individuals. The bad news is that ‘compassion fatigue’ can set in very quickly, even at the point where one needy individual becomes two. This means that expecting people to be finally galvanized into action in, say, Darfur when some tipping point of genocide has been reached will likely be fruitless. What may be more successful in spurring a response are detailed individual stories that bring the horrors of genocide home, in a way that resonates with the human instinct for compassion.

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