From Faster Than 20

Compassion Fading / Psychic Numbing

Empathy doesn’t scale. We’ll help an individual, while ignoring masses suffering from the same plight. We’re good at processing plight of small group of people, but not at plight of large groups. This effect starts as soon as we go from one person to two.

Perhaps best articulated by Joseph Stalin in 1947: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

Pioneered by Paul Slovic, who, in the 1970s, was intrigued by Prospect Theory, particularly how people value things differently when the size increases. For example, people value $10 saving off of a $20 good significantly more than off of a $1,000 good, even though the savings are exactly the same. Wondered if that applied to human lives as well.

Turns out it does. For example, the difference between one and two deaths seems much larger than the difference between 100 and 101 deaths, even though it's the same one life.

There are likely biological reasons for this. For example, we can easily detect the difference between a quiet sound and a louder sound. However, if we start with the louder sound and increment it by the same amount, it's much harder to tell the difference.[1]

Examples of psychic numbing:

  • "In one recent experiment, Slovic presented subjects with a picture of “Rokia,” a starving child in Mali, and asked them how much they’d be willing to give to help feed her. Then he showed a different group photos of two Malinese children — “Rokia and Moussa.” The group presented with two kids gave 15 percent less than those shown just one child. In a related experiment, people were asked to donate money to help a dying child. When a second set of subjects was asked to donate to a group of eight children dying of the same cause, the average donation was 50 percent lower."[1]
  • Study about death of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian refugee who drowned and washed ashore on a beach in September 2015. Up to that point, the death toll in Syria over five years had been hundreds of thousands. Sweden had taken in 160,000 refugees. Swedish Red Cross had raised $8,00. After that photo appeared, Google searches rose dramatically. Swedish Red Cross donations jumped up to $430,000. After about a month, numbers dropped back to previous levels.[2]

Slovic lists three obstacles that inhibit response to major crises:[2]

  1. Loss of sensitivity with larger numbers
  2. False sense of inefficacy
  3. Prominence effect — bias toward things that feel intrinsically more defensible.

Maybe there are positive manifestations of psychic numbing. For example, in this interview with wolf expert, Diane Boyd, she says she's not concerned about the death of one wolf, because she's interested in population trends. In ecosystems, individuals die.

The opposite of psychic numbing is the “singularity effect,” where an individual life is highly valued.

Empathy Gaps

Hot-cold empathy gaps

Adam Hoffman. "How awe makes us generous." Greater Good Magazine, August 3, 2015.

See Also