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Capacity for Compassion Fades in the Face of Genocide

“If I look at the mass I will never act.”

A resolution on the 1915 Armenian Genocide was recently introduced in Congress by Representatives Dave Trott, and Adam Schiff.  It’s legislation to officially recognize genocide.  It got me thinking about why many of us go numb and fail to take action in the face of large scale massacres and abuses.

Do you recall the horrifying image of a child refugee who drowned while trying to escape his war-torn country?  The image brought the world to tears.  Yet, just twenty-four hours later, similar refugee images had circulated the internet but failed to elicit equal outrage.  The difference was in the number of victims.  Why did the image of one victim engender more sympathy than images depicting the same tragedy with more victims?

The same psychological tendency happened with the story of Cecil the Lion.  The public was outraged by the death of Cecil, the lion killed for sport by a dentist.  Meanwhile, hundreds of animals— on a much larger scale, are killed for sport yearly, and most fail to engender the same level of visceral outcry.

The quote by Joseph Stalin: “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” is the perfect apropos for this psychological phenomena called compassion fade.

Why is this?  Why does our sympathy decline, and our capacity for compassion and our desire to help fade when the number of victims rise? Why does one death or one example of abuse leave us more upset than genocide and other urgent, global issues such as climate change?

The answers lie in the numbers; in something termed “arithmetic of compassion” by Zbigniew Herbert.

A study on “compassion fade”, conducted by Paul Slovic, showed that our compassion for victims decline as the number of victims rise. The emotion areas of our brains will deactivate, or go “numb” in response to higher number of victims or larger scale problems.

The study found 3 psychological mechanisms behind arithmetic of compassion:

1. Psych numbing:  our sympathy for victims fades if the number of victims is higher than one: compassion fade.

2.  Prominence effect:  placing more value on issues in the near-term, e.g., current affairs, and less value on issues that seem too remote and abstract, e.g., climate change.

3.  Pseudo-inefficacy:  we lose our desire to help even just one victim when we’re consumed by how many others we can’t help.  Helping one seems futile and less desirable when there are many more we can’t help.

Amazing there’s a science behind why our capacity for compassion fades the greater the number of victims.

For more reading on this interesting phenomena check out this study.

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”
Aesop

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