Thursday, June 12, 2008

What Makes Us Care?

A Canadian friend sent me an article that appeared in the GLOBE AND MAIL last July, on the topic, "What Makes Us Care." Why do we feel more sympathy for the suffering of individuals or small numbers of people or animals than for vast throngs of people starving or being slaughtered in distant countries? According to one study, the more we think about and analyze a situation, the less likely we are to act compassionately (give money, for example). Shouldn't it work the opposite way? As the article puts it, sympathy "has a short attention span and a tendency to lose interest when things get complicated or unpleasant." The areas of the brain that control compassion, it seems, are more primitive than those that work on a rational level. Another factor, the "identifiable victim effect," means we are more likely to sympathize with individual victims we know something about. Huge numbers of anonymous people suffering far away don't have an emotional impact on us. As somebody or other has said, "One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." That's why charities try to "trick" our brains by mailing us photos of sad children or abused puppies. Also, like one of my own favorite charities, the local homeless ministry, they send newsletters with real-life stories of people who've been helped or who are waiting for help. Another proven factor in giving, alas, is that we're more likely to want to help attractive victims. We often get "freaked" by mutilated victims or the visibly mentally ill and are therefore less likely to respond positively.

The article reminded me of an online essay about the Monkeysphere. Google that strange word, and the essay will pop up high on the search page. It's well worth reading. The author cites a study showing that various primates differ in the number of members of their own species they can know as individuals (and therefore the optimal number to make up a social grouping), and by examining the size of a primate's brain, scientists can approximately predict what that number is. For Homo sapiens, the maximum is about 150. That's our Monkeysphere. Unless we make a conscious effort to think otherwise, people outside our personal Monkeysphere aren't "real" to us. The car that cuts us off in traffic is just a car to us, not a person behind the wheel. Some of us have no qualms about yelling (and gesturing) at that other driver in a way we'd never think of doing if we met him or her face to face, say, in an elevator. As the author of the essay puts it in one example, the garbage collection guy isn't a person to us; he's "the thing that makes the trash go away." To return to the topic of sympathy, the essayist asks which would upset you more, your brother being in an accident or a busload of children across town being in one? Similarly, which would you be more distressed about, that bus accident across town or thousands of people getting killed by an earthquake in Asia? The emotional and rational parts of our brain work in opposition to each other where caring for others is concerned. Now, there's another way to look at the matter, as proposed by C. S. Lewis (in one of his letters, if I recall correctly)—that the modern media are placing demands on our capacity for caring that it wasn't designed to handle. It's natural for us to feel sympathy for the people we come into contact with, about whose plight we can actually do some concrete good, rather than for people we'll never meet whose suffering may distress us but about which we can't do much of anything. Yet, on the third hand, we can make some limited contribution to the good of those abstract masses by wise giving to organizations that seek to address their plight. Which brings us back to the necessity for rational analysis of the options, so that our charity dollars don't go to scam artists or get intercepted by greedy warlords. And there we are again, with the problem of the rational part of the brain working against the impulsive part that wants to jump in and help. Psychologist George Loewenstein (quoted in the GLOBE AND MAIL article) suggests that the solution is "for people who are responsible for good causes to make use of what we know about human sympathy, to channel people's efforts in particular directions."

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you brought this to our attention. It is exactly the sort of thing writers need to know.

    And actually, I would have considered the number of people a human can "know" personally at about 110. But if it's 150, then a small town where everyone "knows everyone else" would be about 3 times that -- or about 450 or 500 people.

    If you know somebody who knows somebody, you will hear all about them. If someone in your 150 circle is pained by the plight of someone they know, you, too will care enough to help.

    Beyond tier 2, I think we get into "reputation" - and you do care about people you don't know except by reputation.

    So if we, as humans, are having trouble relating to the global community, then how much more so will we have trouble relating to an interstellar community?

    Do we need to intermarry with aliens to establish some 150 member circles across the stars?

    What if the Earth is under quaranteen because we can't relate properly to more than a mere 150 people?

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg