We have an inherent selfishness about us. It's why heroes in movies will sacrifice the world for the person s/he loves and we all find that romantic instead of disturbing. It's why we have a tendency to care a lot less about a genocide than a friend with cancer.
Photo by Petr Vaclavek (Shutterstock)
As David Ropeik points out in an article for Psychology Today, we have a statistical numbness that urges us to care more about the problems of an individual than the problems of many.
In [a]study people were paid to participate in an unrelated psychological quiz, and on the way out they were given the opportunity to donate up to $US5.00 of their earnings to Save The Children. They were given three options:
- They could donate to help Rokia, a 7 year-old Malian girl. The subjects were shown a picture of Rokia. They were willing to give $US2.25.
- They could donate to help the hundreds of thousands of children in eastern Africa who were starving. They were willing to give only $US1.15.
- The third option was to help Rokia specifically, but along with this request subjects were also given the statistics about the other starving east African kids. The same people who were willing to give $US2.25 when it was just for Rokia, were only willing to give $US1.40 when the request to help Rokia included information about the larger statistics!
Other studies showed similar results. For example, people would donate $US11 to save one child but only $US5 to save eight. The same goes for single events — like a tsunami — versus an ongoing event — like starving children. We just don't seem to have the emotional bandwidth to care for too long or for too many people. One appears to be the magic number for empathy.
While we can't magically adjust our brains to start caring about millions like we care about a single human being, or have the power to help an endless number of people, we can be more aware of it. Next time you disregard a major tragedy that seems so far away, imagine what it might be like for just one person who has to experience it. What you decide to do about that is up to you, but at least your consideration won't be so warped by the numbers.
Statistical Numbing: Why Millions Can Die and We Don't Care [Psychology Today]