Posted by: sean | February 28, 2007

Our limited capacity for feeling

Here’s some disconcerting but unsurprising news about human empathy and statistics, or “numbers and nerves”:

Follow your intuition and act? When it comes to genocide, forget it. It doesn’t work, says a University of Oregon psychologist. The large numbers of reported deaths represent dry statistics that fail to spark emotion and feeling and thus fail to motivate actions. Even going from one to two victims, feeling and meaning begin to fade, he said.

In a session Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science devoted to “Numbers and Nerves,” Paul Slovic, a UO professor and president of Decision Research, a non-profit research institute in Eugene, Ore., urged a review and overhaul of the 1948 Genocide Convention, mandated by much of the world after the Holocaust in World War II. “It has obviously failed, because it has never been invoked to intervene in genocide,” Slovic said.

Slovic is studying the issue from a psychological perspective, trying to determine how people can utilize both the moral intuition that genocide is wrong and moral reasoning to reach not only an outcry but also demand intervention. “We have to understand what it is in our makeup — psychologically, socially, politically and institutionally — that has allowed genocide to go unabated for a century,” he said. “If we don’t answer that question and use the answer to change things, we will see another century of horrible atrocities around the world.”

…In Slovic’s latest research, evidence is mounting for an even more disturbing ‘collapse model’ that he described in his talk. “This model appears to be more accurate than the psychophysical model in describing our response to genocide,” he said. “We have these large numbers of deaths occurring, and we are doing nothing.”

His new research follows up an Israeli study published in 2005 in which subjects were presented three photos. One depicted eight children who needed $300,000 in medical intervention to save their lives. Another photo depicted just one child who could be helped with $300,000. Participants were most willing to donate for one child’s medical care. The level of giving declined dramatically for donating to help the entire group.

Slovic and colleagues Daniel Vastfjäll and Ellen Peters used the same approach but narrowed the focus. Participants in Sweden were shown a photo of a starving African girl, her individual story and the conditions of the nation in which she lives. Another photo contained the same information but for a starving boy. A third photo showed both children. The feelings of sympathy for each individual child were almost equal, but dropped when they were considered together. Donations followed the same pattern, being lower for two needy children than for either individually.

“The studies just described suggest a disturbing psychological tendency,” Slovic said. “Our capacity to feel is limited.” Even at two, he added, people start to lose it.

If we see the beginning of the collapse of feeling at just two individuals, “it is no wonder that at 200,000 deaths the feeling is gone.”


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