Why You Don't Care About The Deaths Of Millions Of People

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]


Comments

    How many times in the last fifty years have we been asked to donate money to feed the starving, save the whales or help with a tragedy, only to find later that there was a middle man sucking up the money for themselves? When I was young I would happily give money for these situations. Over the years the issue of the money not going to the right place has gotten worse and worse,... so of course I'm jaded! I just don't trust them any more, What happened with the Queensland flood fund,.. It sat in the bank making money for the Government until the people started screaming! Sorry Adam, I'm just sick of being screwed by charlatans!! #[

    We see the same thing in a simple office collection. Every month we have a morning tea for birthday celbrations and regularly it's accompanied by a collection. The collectiosn to help a single person or family always garner more donations than the big issues or charities.

    Personally I don't have the capacity or the ability to save thousands or millions of people.

    If I'm confronted with the question of whether I can change one person's life, then I have the capacity to do that (to some degree).

    My 15 year old dog is going for an operation tomorrow to see if she can be saved from the cancer that the vet found on the weekend. She's had a great life and she's old now, but I will still spend over $1,000 just to see how she can comfortably live out her remaining days.

    It seems sad, but our time and money is limited, so we donate it where we believe it will make a difference.

    I think that we feel this way because when the problem affects many it seems much harder to fix - like with the famine in Mogadishu; the suffering is just way too hard for Western civilisation to understand. There is also the effect that Eckythump suggests - people know that not a lot of the money will be used properly.
    In Mogadishu, a lot of the food aid that arrives is intercepted by the army and sold to starving people for their personal profit, rather than given as free aid, as intended by all the people from the charities who wish to help.

    When this helpless situation is compared to helping one single person in a unique situation - people see that and think that their money may actually make a difference because the issue is easier to fix (only affecting one person - how hard could it be?), so they give more, thinking it will make more of a dent in a mendable problem.

    Can't remember where I saw/heard it, but apparently humans only have a limited capacity for remembering different individuals (from memory, on the order of about 200-300 people). Supposedly, anything involving more than this number of people is difficult to comprehend or appreciate. This may have something to do with it.

    Dunbar's number/'Monkeysphere' - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number

    @Blank - Yup, I was gonna suggest Monkeysphere, but with this article http://www.cracked.com/article_14990_what-monkeysphere.html <-contains NSFW language

    I wonder, if participants were not shown the image of Rokia, would they have donated as much? Conversely, if participants were shown a photo of thousands of starving children, would they have donated more?

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