Why Your Brain Can’t Empathize With Large Tragedies

You’re a good person, right? Don’t answer that if you don’t want to; I’m not here to humiliate you, we can just take it as a given. We’re all cool here. But you pay your taxes, only rarely worship false idols, and have never driven over someone for taking too long in a crosswalk. Basically, you care about others. Maybe you don’t act on your cares — doing good things is hard, and makes you sweaty — but you care enough to want other people to do good things in your place.

But because you’re a delightful bundle of contradictions, you decide what to care about for often the most illogical of reasons. To illustrate this, let me ask you a question. What’s worse: A person — let’s say someone you don’t know, someone far away — dying in a car accident? Or is it a hundred people, also ones you don’t know, dying in another car accident?

The second car would have been bigger, I guess.

This isn’t a trick question. The answer is that it’s the second one. Whether you get out a slide rule or just use common fucking sense, a hundred people dying is worse. And yet there’s a very good chance that when you learn about these tragedies on television or from one of the ravens which brings you news, you will care far more about the smaller tragedy, the one where only one person died.

Thanks to a phenomena called psychic numbing, as the scale of a tragedy becomes larger, we care about it less. Part of this is simply distance. If you hear about a genocide, it’s likely far away from you, impacting people you don’t personally know. And because it’s harder to think of those people as actual people, you care less about them as a result. But that doesn’t explain all of it. You might recall scraps of news where you cared quite a bit about someone you didn’t personally know. And not just a celebrity who gives you pants-feelings. You found yourself abruptly caring about a normal, some regular person struck by tragedy.

The reason for this is that when you hear about a tragedy affecting an individual, you often also learn about that person’s life, maybe enough to spot similarities with your own. “That could happen to me!” you say, because everything has to be about you, and as a result, you care more. Maybe even enough to act, to help the person or prevent the same tragedy from happening to anyone else, especially if that anyone else is someone who looks like you. There’s not a lot of conscious though in this; you see a person suffering, and without rationally processing anything, you care, and your brain later comes up with reasons you want to help.

But when you hear about a lot of people dying, you’ll rarely learn enough details of their lives to connect with any of them as people. You might just hear the number of victims, or number of limbs missing, or some other statistic which is harder to forge an emotional connection with. That instinctive, emotional reaction to seeing another human suffer doesn’t switch on, so your brain is just left with its plodding, rational toolkit. And for a big problem which looks insurmountable, the brain concludes nothing consequential can be done and sends you in search of the salty snacks which give you such comfort.

Crazily, that valuable empathetic reaction to seeing an individual suffer can apparently be shut down even by seeing a statistic. In one study, participants were divided up into three groups and asked to donate money to a specific cause. One group was presented with details on a specific starving kid, the second group was presented with statistics about a whole bunch of starving kids, and a third was told about the specific kid, but also got the statistical stuff about the bigger picture. People donated more to save the specific kid, as you’d expect. But the third group, the ones told about the kid and the bigger picture, gave less. Simply learning that more people were suffering made them care less. Other studies have suggested this effect occurs as soon as we’re asked to consider more than one person in need. The human brain evidently has a powerful desire to help one individual life. More than one? “Fuck em,” says the brain. It’s the reason we can lose a whole news day to the fucking balloon boy, but still muster little more than shrugs when we talk about genocide in the Sudan or refugees in Bangladesh.

OK, so your brain hates people. Is there any way to fix that? Salty snacks, yes, always, but is there anything else? Well there are three main things you can consider:


Use The Effect To Do Some Damned Good

Millions of refugees have been streaming out of Syria, many of them taking perilous journeys across the Mediterranean. A lot of them died as a result, and the world more or less did not give a damn. And then the devastating image of a dead boy washed up on a beach hit the news and everything changed. Refugees had been dying for a long time by that point, but this specific image suddenly drew the world’s attention to the issue. There was a sudden spike in donations to charitable groups which helped refugees, and a massive increase in political pressure on Western governments to permit more refugees into their countries. At the cost of one boy’s life, people finally gave a damn.

That lasted for about a month.

The key takeaway from this isn’t that humans are easily distractible monsters. No, it’s that, even for a month, something did actually happen. The image of a single person’s tragedy helped prompt action to address the wider tragedy. Which means if you’ve got a worthy enough cause, then by all means, use whatever powerful examples of individual suffering to illustrate it that you can. And because the effect will be short-lived, ensure there are ways for people to help right now. Have that donate button set up. Put that senator’s phone number in there. Get your pile of pitchforks ready. You won’t get a second chance at this.


Don’t Let Yourself Be Manipulated

As the more devious among you have just realized, that means this effect can be manipulated. Indeed, you can usually tell how someone wants you to think about an issue by whether they frame it with statistics or with an individual’s own experience. The classic example is a politician trotting some Regular Joe out on stage to talk about their challenges — “My first name is ‘Regular’ and people mock me for it” — and how the politician will make their life better (again, usually via salty snacks).

But politicians are scum, we know that. What about someone unassailable, a group seemingly perfect in everyone’s eyes, like the media? Well, consider this example: Healthcare (or a lack of it) affects millions of people in a variety of ways. Anecdotal evidence is of limited use here; someone else’s experience with the healthcare system might not be super relevant to you or the rest of the country. So can you guess what this CNN story about an individual family’s challenge with healthcare is trying to make you feel? That’s not prodding the rational thought parts of your monkey brain, is it? In fairness, CNN does the statistical version of this story too, and both are accepted reporting techniques. Just be sure you understand when it’s your heartstrings being tugged harder than your stronger, girthier brainstrings.

Or consider global warming. So the sea level is rising a few millimeters a year, and that’s bad, but … it’s not a very gripping image is it? Almost all the other potential impacts of global warming have a similar problem — they’re hard to visualize or far off in the future or somewhat statistical. Which is why you’ve probably seen variants of this image a hundred times …


That poor bear! It’s going to sink, or whatever happens to bears in the water, while hundreds of people take highly symbolic photographs of it. Man, who’s the real monster here, us or the monster? Would it surprise you to learn it’s us?

I’m not suggesting you ignore the risk of global warming or go to the Arctic and shriek “FAKE NEWS” in the face of polar bears. That won’t end well; you can be a salty snack yourself. Just understand that pictures like this are presenting a very narrow angle of global warming. Putting a furry, individual face on this issue is, if anything, diminishing its importance.


Remember That Even Partial Fixes Do Good

Finally, let’s consider what to do if you don’t have a single, photogenic person to save. You’ve just got the statistics, the grim news report, the excel spreadsheet filled with column after column of drowning polar bears. It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of huge problems like this. There’s no way to save hundreds of thousands of refugees, so you shake your head and do nothing.

But just like the example with the Syrian refugees, even if people only cared for a month, that still did a lot of good. Fixing 1 percent of a problem sounds pathetic, but if that problem is the “death of a thousand people,” congratulations, you saved ten lives. You don’t have to tackle the insurmountable problem; you can just tackle the little bit in front of you.

If every reader of this article paddles into an Arctic ice floe and saves just one polar bear each, think of the difference that will make.

Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist and is shopping for kayaks right this minute. As the author of the amazing novels Freeze/Thaw and Severance, he thinks you should definitely go buy both of those now. Join him on Facebook or Twitter.

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