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.

But apparently it’s more than just a failure of the imagination. Slovic says more about his study in this column for Foreign Policy:

The psychological mechanism that may play a role in many, if not all, episodes in which mass murder is neglected involves what’s known as the dance of affect and reason in decision-making. Affect is our ability to sense immediately whether something is good or bad. But the problem of numbing arises when these positive and negative feelings combine with reasoned analysis to guide our judgments, decisions, and actions. Psychologists have found that the statistics of mass murder or genocide no matter how large the numbers do not convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The numbers fail to trigger the affective emotion or feeling required to motivate action. In other words, we know that genocide in Darfur is real, but we do not feel that reality. In fact, not only do we fail to grasp the gravity of the statistics, but the numbers themselves may actually hinder the psychological processes required to prompt action.

Is it possible, instead, that donors are working some kind of efficacy analysis in their heads?  Perhaps the numbing of which Slovic speaks indeed results when we are confronted with incomprehensible tragedy and feel helpless and impotent in the face of it.  But the students in Slovic’s study were, in a sense, being granted some small degree of agency: the opportunity to donate to the cause.  This would nuance the explanation slightly: Maybe it’s not a matter of emotionally shutting down in the face of large-scale tragedy (although there’s evidence for that tendency, as well), but one of wanting to see – or at least imagine – our potential impact.  Maybe something in our brains looks at that picture of a hungry child, or a scared, scrawny dog, or some other individual in need and thinks, “I can’t possibly help all of those other tens or hundreds of thousands, but I can help this one.”

Alas, if that is the case, the threshold at which we opt out is astonishingly low… like, 2.  From that same Foreign Policy column (italics mine):

Two Israeli psychologists asked people to contribute to a costly life-saving treatment. They could offer that contribution to a group of eight sick children, or to an individual child selected from the group. The target amount needed to save the child (or children) was the same in both cases. Contributions to individual group members far outweighed the contributions to the entire group. A follow-up study by Daniel Vstfjll, Ellen Peters, and me found that feelings of compassion and donations of aid were smaller for a pair of victims than for either individual alone. The higher the number of people involved in a crisis, other research indicates, the less likely we are to feel for each additional death.

(I’ll give you a moment to sigh deeply and acknowledge how depressing that is. (…..) OK?  Now, buck up. Obviously, there’s a lot of work to do.)

Advocacy groups long ago figured out that pictures and personal stories are more compelling than columns of numbers.  And they’re also aware that potential donors are experiencing a kind of compassion fatigue.  There are so many urgent needs in so many different directions!  But in recent years, I’ve noticed more and more fundraising material that spells out the purchasing power of an individual donation — in numbers of vaccinations administered, or meals served, or textbooks distributed.  It’s an interesting turn, because it does restore a sense of agency to the beleaguered do-gooder.  “$10 buys a kid a malaria net?*  I can do that… In fact, I can do 5.”  (*Yep.)

On the one hand, it’s a rather coolish, results-oriented, managerial approach to charitable giving.  On the other hand, it might gradually encourage us to think in numbers bigger than 1 and 2.

Bring what you are able…
Blessings of the season, everyone.
(“World on Fire” lyrics, here.)


One response to “Calculating compassion

  • Trina Lambert

    Just re-read “A Christmas Carol” again. Perhaps putting the face of poverty and its effects on Tiny Tim was what changed Scrooge from someone who thought the poor should die and decrease the surplus population to someone who finally got how immoral that line of thinking was.

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