Thursday, January 08, 2009

Why We Don't Care

Stalin famously said (maybe) that "the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic." Brutal, but true. But why? Why don't we react to progressively more suffering with an equivalent amount of empathy? It's hard wired, apparently, according to one professor (via Hit & Run):

Slovic's research suggests that the central reason the United States has not responded forcefully -- and quickly -- to crises ranging from the Holocaust to the Rwandan genocide, from the ethnic cleaning that occurred in the 1990s Balkan conflict to the present-day crisis in Sudan's Darfur region, is not that presidents are uncaring, or that Americans only value American lives, but that the human mind has been unintentionally designed to respond in perverse ways to large-scale suffering.
A pair of experiments show that. In one, people were more likely to spend money to get water that would save 4500 refugees to a camp with 11,000 refugees than to a camp with 100,000 people. In the other:
Slovic asked people to imagine they were disbursing money on behalf of a large foundation: They could give $10 million to fight a disease that claimed 20,000 lives a year -- and save 10,000 of those lives. But they could also devote the $10 million to fight a disease that claimed 290,000 lives a year -- and this investment would save 20,000 lives.

Slovic found that people preferred to spend the money saving the 10,000 lives in the first scenario rather than the 20,000 lives in the second scenario: "People were responding not to the number of lives saved but the percentage of lives saved," he said. In the one case, their investment could save half the victims; in the case of the more deadly disease, it could save 7 percent of the victims.
OK, but why are we so irrational in such situations? He doesn't have a good explanation, yet, but focuses on the perceived diminished returns that come with larger numbers of victims.

I also think part of it is simply that the more people are involved in some tragedy, the harder it is for observers to empathize with any particular one. There's a reason why TV news coverage of disasters and crimes focus on human interest angles - the tearful tornado survivor or the heartbroken mother of a murder victim. Most viewers never met these people and never gave a damn about them, but in such coverage they can connect on a simulated one-on-one level. That's just impossible when you're talking about genocide or mass famine.

In addition, I wonder if, in a world of global news coverage where things are always awful somewhere if we just reach a saturation point and tune things out. Makes me think of a verse from this Genesis tune:

Lets skip the news boy (Ill make some tea)
The Arabs and the Jews boy (too much for me)
They get me confused boy (puts me off to sleep)
And the thing I hate - oh Lord!
Is staying up late, to watch some debate, on some nation's fate.
Given recent events, I find myself feeling that way quite a bit.

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