Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Psychology of Compassion

Nicholas Kristof has a very interesting column (subscription required) in tomorrow's New York Times about the psychology of compassion--when do we give and when do we not. The theme is that we give in response to individuals in need, but not to a number of people in need. Here are some highlights:

Finally, we’re beginning to understand what it would take to galvanize President Bush, other leaders and the American public to respond to the genocide in Sudan: a suffering puppy with big eyes and floppy ears.

That’s the implication of a series of studies by psychologists trying to understand why people — good, conscientious people — aren’t moved by genocide or famines. Time and again, we’ve seen that the human conscience just isn’t pricked by mass suffering, while an individual child (or puppy) in distress causes our hearts to flutter.

In one experiment, psychologists asked ordinary citizens to contribute $5 to alleviate hunger abroad. In one version, the money would go to a particular girl, Rokia, a 7-year-old in Mali; in another, to 21 million hungry Africans; in a third, to Rokia — but she was presented as a victim of a larger tapestry of global hunger.

Not surprisingly, people were less likely to give to anonymous millions than to Rokia. But they were also less willing to give in the third scenario, in which Rokia’s suffering was presented as part of a broader pattern.

. . .

Advocates for the poor often note that 30,000 children die daily of the consequences of poverty — presuming that this number will shock people into action. But the opposite is true: the more victims, the less compassion.


In one experiment, people in one group could donate to a $300,000 fund for medical treatments that would save the life of one child — or, in another group, the lives of eight children. People donated more than twice as much money to help save one child as to help save eight.


Likewise, remember how people were asked to save Rokia from starvation? A follow-up allowed students to donate to Rokia or to a hungry boy named Moussa. Both Rokia and Moussa attracted donations in the same proportions. Then another group was asked to donate to Rokia and Moussa together. But donors felt less good about supporting two children, and contributions dropped off.


“Our capacity to feel is limited,” Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon writes in a new journal article, “Psychic Numbing and Genocide,” which discusses these experiments. Professor Slovic argues that we cannot depend on the innate morality even of good people. Instead, he believes, we need to develop legal or political mechanisms to force our hands to confront genocide.


Read it all (subscription required).

There is obviously a message here about social marketing--if you want to raise support for the Millennium Development Goals, focus on one child, and not the larger need. Perhaps true, but a sad comment on human nature.

But if we believe that our faith in Christ is a transforming experience, perhaps there is hope for our compassionate nature yet.

No comments: