Indonesia’s Tsunami and the Problem of Human Empathy

When a 7.5-magnitude earthquake rocked the sea floor off the coast of Indonesia last week, the resulting tsunami devastated much of the city of Palu. The confirmed death count has soared to over 1,700, and will almost certainly continue to rise. As of this writing, there are an estimated 70,000 people displaced, with dwindling water supplies, in desperate need of help that might not arrive in time.

These numbers might sadden or alarm you; they might also leave you strangely unmoved. You wouldn’t be alone. For decades, social scientists have documented a troubling quirk in human empathy: People tend to care more about the suffering of single individuals, and less about the pain of many people. Such “compassion collapse” is morally backwards—dozens or hundreds of people, by definition, can lose more, fear more, and hurt more than any one of us; human concern should scale with the amount of pain in front of us. Instead, it dries up.

[Further reading: Would the U.S. warning system have averted Indonesia’s disaster?]

Compassion collapse may seem like just a (lack of) feeling, but its consequences extend further. Most importantly, it affects how and when people choose to help each other. In 2015, a three-year-old Syrian refugee named Alan Kurdi, along with his brother and mother, drowned as his family tried to cross from Turkey to Greece along a narrow strait in the Mediterranean Sea. Images of his small body on the shore spread around the world. The tragedy, and his father’s anguish, moved millions of viewers, and donations to refugee aid organizations poured in. Within days, and for a variety of other reasons, Angela Merkel made the fateful decision to open German borders to refugees. But within weeks, most people moved on, and the money stopped. Anti-migration politicians gained popularity across Europe; borders tightened again.

Millions of refugees, tens of thousands of children among them, continued to suffer. But their numbers, unlike a single vivid tragedy, left the world cold. Biases like this pop up in laboratory experiments as well. Across a number of studies, people donate more money to charity after learning about one, as compared to many, people in need.

[Further reading: An image of a small child evokes an unfathomably huge tragedy.]

Compassion collapse is a dramatic psychological problem, but where does it come from? Researchers offer two competing answers to that question. Some suggests that …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Global

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