Sympathizing, caring and giving
Something to think about before you open your wallet….
The Globe and Mail
IDEAS: REASON AND THE LIMITS OF SYMPATHY
What makes us care
When a dog is abused, thousands of dollars pour in, yet the people of Darfur are still displaced and starving. Why? A new study finds that appealing to our nobler sentiments can actually get in the way of doing good. Bert Archer reports
Saturday, July 14, 2007 Page F6By all indications, being sympathetic to the distress of others is the hallmark of a good person. Parents, schools, religion and Bono spend a lot of time pressing us to help our fellow man. Why, then, do we grow blasé about the persistent pain and suffering in a place like Darfur – but are moved to tears at the news that a dog or cat has been abused?
Clearly, the first dilemma is greater. Yet time and again we respond more passionately – and more directly – to the plight of the puppy. It turns out that not only is sympathy a house divided, there is a growing body of research that suggests we may not even be capable of the sort we’re now so regularly called upon to exhibit.
U.S. psychologists Deborah Small, George Loewenstein and Paul Slovic report in their recent study, Sympathy and Callousness, that the less we have to think about a crisis, the more we’re likely to care about it – and to put our caring into action. This is good news for the Humane Society, not so good new for humanitarians concerned about people far away, whose lives are utterly unlike our own, subject to political circumstances we can only vaguely comprehend.
Sympathy, it turns out, is not the mature, rational, borderline divine sort of thing we’d like to think it is. Instead, it jumps around like a child, able to understand the world only in very basic terms. It has a short attention span and a tendency to lose interest when things get complicated or unpleasant. Sympathy cries at Charlotte’s Web but gets cranky when you try to read it Shake Hands With the Devil.
Part of the problem could be hard-wired. According to Prof. Loewenstein, the areas of the brain that direct sympathy are more primitive than those that allow us to understand things rationally. This means we are not especially good at dealing with international crises; they’re just too big and too complicated.
He points to research about monkeys. In a number of studies, monkeys feel sympathy for other monkeys, showing distress when one is shocked or otherwise hurt. But if they witness, say, a rabbit getting hurt, they don’t even flinch. Ditto – and this is bad news for the East Timorese or Darfurians – something as apparently similar to them as an albino of their own species. Their brains just can’t bring themselves to care. And neither, it seems, can ours.
The severe limits on human compassion – what came to be known as the “identifiable victim effect” – was first studied in 1968 paper by Thomas Schelling. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2005, Prof. Schelling discovered that people have a greater tendency to sympathize with victims they know something about, rather than ones represented by even the most egregious statistics. All of which should come as no surprise to anyone who has given money to an identifiable foster child at Plan Canada instead of, say, PEN Canada.
But as the authors of Sympathy and Compassion found, not only is our ability to sympathize with more than one person severely limited, the facts of tragic events can actually thwart our capacity to feel for and help others.
The more information participants in their study were given – the more they were asked to comprehend a situation rather than simply react to it – the less likely they were to help.
“Sympathy’s not rational,” says Prof. Small, a business professor and psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in charity marketing. “We don’t respond with the greatest level of sympathy as a function of the greatest level of disaster.” Actually, it’s pretty close to the opposite.
In a series of tests over several months to measure how people respond to calls for chartable giving, subjects were given various questionnaires to fill out – ranging from questions on technology to philanthropy. They were then paid $10 and given a slip of paper asking for a donation to Save the Children. Some slips had just text, others a picture of a girl with just her personal story, and others pictures, a personal story and statistical information.
Being asked to give money because a little Malian girl named Rokia was in trouble – and being shown her picture – elicited the most sympathetic, most generous response. Adding any further information, for example that there were 100,000 more children like her in need of help, reduced people’s donations. “Appealing to reason actually dampens the sympathetic response,” says Prof. Small. (Al Gore, take note.)
Studies, including one by Prof. Slovic and David Featherstonhaugh in 1997 called Insensitivity to the Value of Human Life, have also shown that people have a tendency to balk at even the slightest complexity. If told, for instance, that their money would help a large percentage of a small number of victims, subjects are more likely to give than if they’re told their donation would help a smaller percentage of a much larger number. They are more likely to help five people out of 10, that is, than 1,000 out of 100,000.
Though you might think the reason for this is something like a drop-in-the-bucket response, feelings of inadequacy or hopelessness in the face of enormity, the truth seems to be that our sympathies are not even that rational. In fact, they’re so irrational that what makes us back off from cases like this is the mere fact of our rational brains having to kick in.
When the rational sides of participants’ brains were primed before being asked to donate – some were asked to fill out a questionnaire about new technology – they were less likely to give, even when confronted with just the picture of sad little Rokia. According to these findings, it’s a zero-sum game being played between our emotional and rational selves. The more one is present, the less room there is for the other.
“We have these two processes, one which doesn’t feel sympathy, but is calculating, the other that experiences visceral sympathy, but is highly immature,” says Prof. Loewenstein, who teaches economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “The best of human nature comes when the calculating part guides the behaviour of the feeling part, but very often the feeling part is in control so we end up helping the wrong people – or the calculating part is in control and we fail to provide help to very deserving people, because we just don’t care about them.”
Though the study’s conclusion expresses the hope that future research will show how the Kirk and Spock sides of our brains might act better together, for the time being, Prof. Loewenstein has a recommendation for charities trying to elicit response for issues such as Darfur or climate change.
“I think the answer on some level is to trick people,” he says, “or lead people to trick themselves. The optimum, which is to experience a lot of sympathy for a lot of victims, may not be achievable. The second best may be 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.”
According to John Doris, that’s pretty much the only thing that works. A philosophy professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior, he figures good people and good works are pretty much unrelated.
“Oscar Schindler was a firstclass shit when he wasn’t being a world-class hero,” he says on his way to agreeing with Prof. Loewenstein. “It’s not really about character, it’s about making people care. The mistake is thinking that what we should be doing is trying to instill situation-independent character traits in people. We’re exquisitely situation-dependent creatures. That’s how we became king of the species.”
And how do we make people care? The usual. Prof. Doris refers to Stanley Milgram’s seminal 1974 study The Perils of Obedience, which discovered, among many more disturbing things, that people were less likely to harm attractive people. Further studies have established the corollary – that we’re more likely to help attractive victims.
Research has also shown that people who found dimes planted in pay phones were more likely to respond positively to requests for help. Something good happened to them, so they were more likely to pay it forward. Prof. Doris says it’s all about mood – which is why cases such as Darfur are so tricky.
“Darfur is this weird case, because it’s so aversive,” he says. “We North Americans are freaked out by mutilation. It doesn’t play right when it’s kids with their hands chopped off. We want sad, slightly hungry kids. It’s the same thing with mental illness.”
That’s why Prof. Doris is all in favour of celebrity spokespeople such as Angelina Jolie attaching her pretty face to issues such as hunger or Madonna grinding it out to raise awareness for the problem with greenhouse gases.
Darfur, it turns out, just needs a mascot – Matt Damon would probably do just as well as a puppy. Sure it’s crass, but so are we. When it comes to actively sympathizing with mass suffering, our baser instincts are our best bet.
Bert Archer is a Toronto writer.
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