The Paradox of Compassion |

4 min read

As we approach the festive season, I am struck by the tremendous human capacity for kindness. Amidst frantic gift-buying and cookie-baking, charitable donations reach their annual high. The yearly sum of money donated to charitable causes in the U.S. is estimated at an eye-watering $499 billion. This equates to the construction cost of roughly five California High-Speed Rails or the megaproject “NEOM,” an urban area currently under development in Saudi Arabia.

Altruistic giving is an evolutionary miracle, which relies on a capacity for compassion. People put themselves into the shoes of those less fortunate and experience sadness on their behalf. Its mere existence is puzzling because it goes against the Darwinian principles of egoistic self-preservation. Additionally, the context in which compassion arises presents a surprising paradox.

The Paradox of Compassion Fade

Compassion is a well-established human trait that benefits society by inspiring helping behaviours and selfless acts of love and charitable giving. Yet, the extent of compassion rarely matches the actual need or the scale of a disaster. Specifically, people appear to be touched more deeply by the suffering of individual victims compared to the combined suffering of larger groups, communities, or entire nations.

Mother Teresa famously stated: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will”—thereby summing up the phenomenon that has been coined “compassion fade.” For example, a 2015 crowdfunding campaign to support a child’s visit to Harvard resulted in a staggering $1.2 million in donations. By comparison, individual donations towards the Ebola health crisis in Western Africa at a similar time only amounted to $100,000. Why is it that the amount of compassion we feel is so disproportionate to the total extent of suffering or the number of those in need?

Reasons for Compassion Fade

The paradox of compassion fade is typically explained by two different approaches.

1. Cognitive biases approach

The first approach focuses on how people’s emotional reactions and sympathetic responses are affected by different cognitive biases and thinking limitations. One such limitation is related to our numeracy skills.

Many people struggle to make sense of large numbers. While it is possible to picture groups of 10, 50, or 100, larger group sizes become increasingly tricky to grasp. As a result, abstract statistics about large-scale human suffering are difficult to process, comprehend, and empathise with.

Another bias is the “identifiable victim effect.” This refers to the fact that information about individual, identifiable victims evokes more vivid mental images than news about general, widespread misfortune. Detailed mental images make it easier to relate to the victim in question, put oneself into their shoes, and empathise with their suffering. As a result, compassion is larger for individuals as opposed to bigger crowds.

2. Motivational approach

The second approach focuses on how people weigh up the costs and benefits of their choices, which then affects their motivation for helping others. For example, helping one victim may be perceived as more achievable than helping hundreds, thousands, or even millions of victims. The sheer magnitude of some disasters may overwhelm potential donors and deter helping behaviours because they are perceived as futile.

Additionally, in making a small donation to a larger aid campaign, people may feel like their personal contribution doesn’t make much of a difference. After all, what’s $5 in the context of a million-dollar aid appeal?

Indeed, a donation in this context may be perceived as less impactful or significant, and feelings of emotional reward are likely to be lower. As a result, motivation for compassionate giving is often lower than in the context of a smaller disaster.

What Can We Do About Compassion Fade?

Human compassion and associated acts of helping or altruistic giving are something to be celebrated. Yet the paradox of compassion fade means that some of the worst disasters receive comparatively little aid. How can we ensure that financial donations are distributed more evenly and reach those who need them most?

A key strategy to increase compassion for the masses is to avoid complex statistics. Instead, it’s usually helpful to showcase individual victims of large-scale misfortune. By telling personal stories, mass suffering becomes more relatable and thereby easier to imagine. And while a single person’s experience is unlikely to be representative of an entire victim group, it might provide the necessary impetus for a compassionate response.

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