Daily Archives: December 17, 2010

Calculating compassion

Last week I heard a short commentary by Jonah Lehrer on “Marketplace,” talking about the inclination to charitable giving.  He noted some interesting things: imaging studies of reward-related areas in the human brain confirm that people get more pleasure out of giving money than they do from receiving an equivalent amount.  But he also talked about a study by Paul Slovic, of the University of Oregon:

(Slovic) told undergraduates about a starving child named Rokia — she lived in a crumbling refugee camp in Africa. His students acted with impressive generosity. They saw her emaciated body and haunting brown eyes and they donated, on average, about $2.50 to Save the Children.

However, when a second group of students were provided with a list of statistics about starvation throughout Africa — like the fact that more than five million children are malnourished — the average donation was 50 percent lower.

What gives? (Pardon the pun.) “The depressing statistics leave us cold, even when they are truly terrible,” Lehrer explains in his commentary, continuing “That’s because our emotions can’t comprehend suffering on such a massive scale. This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well, but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water.”  Several years ago, I saw a documentary about the AIDS crisis in Africa in which a doctor talked about how important it was for her to go to Africa and see what was happening firsthand.  Statistics, she said, are “humans with the tears wiped off.”  They don’t give the whole picture.  And the picture they do create is sterile and actuarial, leaving everything to the imagination – but nothing for the imagination to work with.  The numbers (and the humans behind them) all run together. Continue reading


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