The news out of Haiti this morning is hellish; the Earth slips and thousands die. The early reports have the same feel as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, in that every bulletin brings more awful news. I already find myself dreading tomorrow’s newspaper, which will outline the full scope of the tragedy. Here is more information on where to donate.
I’d like to take a moment and discuss a cruel paradox of such events, which is that the sheer scale of the suffering seems to inhibit our empathy. There are no stories yet, just anecdotal shards and heartbreaking photographs. And so all we get is ledes citing the horrifying statistics and shocking numbers of dead. But these numbers quickly get incomprehensible – we can’t imagine a thousand corpses – and so the emotional event becomes an abstraction, which fails to trigger the proper moral reaction. In my book, I write about the research of Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, who has looked at this paradox in detail:
Slovic’s experiments are simple: he asks people how much they would be willing to donate to various charitable causes. For example, Slovic found that when people were shown a picture of a single starving child named Rokia in Mali, they acted with impressive generosity. After looking at Rokia’s emaciated body and haunting brown eyes, they donated, on average, two dollars and fifty cents to Save the Children. However, when a second group of people were provided with a list of statistics about starvation throughout Africa⎯more than three million children in Malawi are malnourished, more than eleven million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance, etc.⎯the average donation was fifty percent lower. At first glance, this makes no sense. When we are informed about the true scope of the problem we should give more money, not less. Rokia’s tragic story is just the tip of the iceberg.
According to Slovic, the problem with statistics is that they don’t activate our moral emotions. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our mind can’t comprehend suffering on such a massive scale. This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well, but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water. Or why we donate thousands of dollars to help a single African war orphan featured on the cover of a magazine, but ignore widespread genocides in Rwanda or Darfur. As Mother Theresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”