Are we as compassionate as we think we are?
Being constantly bombarded by news 24/7 has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s great to know what’s happening in the world, of course, but we’re also subjected to disasters, tragedies, wars and other types of “unpleasant” news. And that got me to thinking about how we feel compassion. The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science defines the term as follows: “. . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim.” I began to ponder what factors played a role in what we felt. Day after day we view tragic images on our screens. Do we eventually become “numb” to these images? Are there any mechanisms at work behind the scenes that we may not be aware of?
How about the question of individuals versus groups? Is that a factor at all? A single victim can tug at our heartstrings tremendously. The young Syrian boy who washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015 is a case in point. You didn’t have to be a parent. You didn’t have to share the same religion. You didn’t have to be for or against the wave of refugees trying to escape the ravages of war. That sight ripped your heart out (at least it did mine). People began donating to relief agencies like never before. We like to believe that we’re compassionate. But are we? What happens when the number of victims becomes very large?
We are primates, social and live in groups (for the most part), all of which gives rise to compassion (unless you are a psychopath). Research has shown, however, that we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Now, that doesn’t mean that we can’t feel compassion for large groups of people struck by a tragedy. However, we aren’t as compassionate as we think we are, according to Peter Singer, who wrote The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress. “Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human.” Mr. Singer goes on to say, “We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another, Mr. Singer states in his book.” This is what we expect from people in our community. But what happens as the number of injured and dead increases and takes place beyond our community?
“collapse of compassion”
Compassion dwindles and then collapses. Psychic numbing sets in, according to Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon (https://www.vox.com/explainers/2017/7/19/15925506/psychic-numbing-paul-slovic-apathy). Number seems to have something to do with this, but what and how? It turns out that number may relate to a theory developed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who posits that roughly 150 people is the number of people with whom we can identify, interact with, care about, and work to protect. He calls this The Dunbar Number. According to Dunbar, “we can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan.” So why is this so important, you might be wondering? It’s because, from an evolutionary perspective, we needed our group to remain intact to survive. We simply couldn’t care for people or groups outside this number. Why you might ask again? Because the groups outside our group probably competed with us for critical resources. Consequently, it made no sense to feel sorry for those people when tragedy struck them.
Proximity is critical, too. Try to visualize losing 10 relatives in a terrorist attack. Pretty horrible – right? Now picture the same attack killing 10 neighbors instead. How about 10 residents from a town 30 kilometers away. Switch this attack to another country and finally to another country farther away and 10 years in the past. Dunbar believes your compassion wanes as the attack took place farther and farther away and further and further back in time. In other words, our compassion collapses as proximity diminishes. And from my own point of view (not Dunbar’s), the frequency with which these attacks take place might also slowly begin to soften our compassion. Time is also critical. Even with social networking – “the amount of time we can invest in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week,” according to Dunbar, so compassion collapses with time. In other words, establishing and maintaining friendships requires a lot of time.
Professor Dunbar believes the limits of friendship to be a “budgeting problem.” We just don’t have enough time to have a bigger group of friends. “We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations,” and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145.” No matter how much we would like to think otherwise, we don’t seem to be as compassionate as we think we are. “The larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers,” according to Professor Dunbar.
It was interesting to read about research on factors that affect compassion. It certainly opened my eyes to a number of factors I hadn’t considered before. I’ve always considered myself to be a compassionate person. I get really happy when people succeed and really sad when tragedy strikes. I cry easily, both from sorrow and joy. And now that I’m aware of the factors that impact compassion, I’ll be doing my best to avoid “compassion collapse.” I hope you will, too!