The Limits of Our Compassion


From the widespread protests in Colombia, US, Palestine, Afghanistan to climate change urgent pleas and disaster emergencies, how are humans valuing each other’s lives?

By Natalia Bonilla


Since the early 2000s, psychologists Paul and Scott Slovic have led a groundbreaking research on how humans relate to mass atrocities. In their latest book Numbers and Nerves and its companion website The Arithmetic of Compassion, they provide answers to why we value some lives more than others and whether our compassion can wane the distant and longer an Other’s suffering takes.

“What our research shows is that, indeed, this is the way our feelings influence us with regards of life: as the numbers get bigger and bigger we may lose feeling all together. The more who die the less we care,” Dr. Paul Slovic said.

After almost two decades of interviews and case studies on genocides and other human rights violations, Slovic, his son Dr. Scott Slovic and more than a dozen of contributors, have identified three phenomena that affect the way our brains and emotions work: psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy and the prominence effect.

The first two are related as psychic numbing causes humans to feel indifferent to the suffering of large numbers of people while pseudoinefficacy refers to the idea that people are less willing to help one person when they are made aware of the broader scope of people in need that they are not helping.

“We found that if we invited people to donate money to a humanitarian aid organization trying to help starving children and we show a picture of a child starving and we give him a name and a story, then people will donate,” Paul explained.

The president of Decision Research and professor of psychology at the University of Oregon added that when we share the fact that there are millions of children starving in a specific country, a decline of empathy may occur.

“People have the opposite effect when the statistics of the big problem were put next to the picture of the child first because they need our help, we feel good helping others (something he refers to as “the warm glow”), but they didn’t like it to feel that there are many other children suffering,” he said.

From several studies on this matter, the behavioral and environmental sciences scholars found that people don’t feel as good about helping others when they realize there are some people who are not being helped even discarding even the possibility of helping those they possibly can.

In a post-truth era, where social protests, digital scams, natural disasters, pandemics, racial and colonial tensions are impacting our relationships in an unprecedented way, there is a need to understand what kind of emotional and rational responses we have when processing information about what’s happening in the “real world”.

According to Scott, it’s important to share “poignant stories in catastrophic cases in order to provoke and produce attention but then we want them to analyze this situation and realize there is not only this one suffering person but actually this is amplified to a much larger scale and probably need to be dealt through better public policy.”

“We really want to use the emotional trigger but also don’t want to leave it out because people’s emotions will flatten out, we need to transfer the emotional awareness to analytical responses,” the professor of literature and environment and chair of the English Department at the University of Idaho said. The third and last phenomena studied in the book was the prominence effect, a theory of choice that says people often default to choosing the option that is better in the most prominent or defensible attribute.

A simple example of this is the choice between helping others or protecting our own security like many Purge movies or international nuclear tensions scenarios.

In their website, it is featured how the ongoing genocide in Sudan showcases this disparity as it reads:  “In the United States, our leaders claim that preventing genocide is a core national interest, but as a result of the prominence effect, the U.S. has often defaulted to inaction whenever preventing genocide seems to conflict with economic or security interests. For example, 480,000 people have died in the ongoing genocide in Sudan, and more than 470,000 people have died in the ongoing conflict in Syria, yet aside from two one-off missile strikes in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on civilians, the U.S. has chosen not to exert military pressure on the Sudanese or Syrian governments. In both cases analysts have speculated that the U.S. allowed the atrocities to occur because intervening was seen to be somehow detrimental to national security. This explanation for inaction raises the question: what kind of security are we getting from our inaction that is worth half a million lives?”

For Scott, reflecting upon emotions and reasons is incomplete if we don’t address abstraction and concreteness.”One of the things that happens with distance of any kind is that phenomena starts to seem abstract, hard to visualize, hard to conceptualize. So part of the role of a communicator is to help the audience visualize in a concrete and immediate way phenomena that may be distant and much of this boils down to very specific examples, very specific stories,” finishing with a telescoping method of framing them into the bigger picture, Dr. Slovic said.

As humans, professors and authors, Paul and Scott have high hopes for the future and believe it is possible to change the way we relate to one another in these times of increasing humanitarian and climate emergencies where polarization and violent conflicts make it difficult for people to trust, connect and care for each other.

No matter how overrated the word is, hope ultimately lives in both father and son and their dozen of team members, contributors and university students researching the limits and the potentiality of human compassion.

You can listen to the full audio interview with Dr. Paul and Dr. Scott Slovic here.

You can follow the blog of the The Arithmetic of Compassion here.

You can learn more about the book Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data here.

If you would love to see more of this content, consider joining the Lumina Support Fund here.

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