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 Africaâ¯more than three million children in Malawi are malnourished, more than eleven million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance, etc.â¯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."

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It's possible that Slovic gets into this in the body of his research, but there's a possible alternative explanation that seems fairly obvious to me: Two bucks fifty is a lot of money to Rokia in Mali, but divide it by three million and it suddenly doesn't seem quite so impressive. I'd be interested in seeing the distribution of those donations to see how many more people (in the second instance compared to the first) simply decided that considering the scale of the suffering, there was nothing they could meaningfully do.

The amount of the average donation doesn't tell us anything about that.

By konrad_arflane (not verified) on 13 Jan 2010 #permalink

I have been through the disastreous '99 earthquake in Turkey. It was hearthwarming to see voluntary rescue teams from around the world come and try to save lives of people whom they didn't know at all.

I think that that the signals that flow through neurons that induce emotions (physiological state changes) are the brain's way of recognizing survival challenges (and opportunities). Evolution has naturally made brains very sensitive to those signals.

When we see or hear of others who face survival problems we empathize. When we hear or see others in ways that are emotionally vivid and compelling (like video of the child in the well crying for help) we empathize more strongly and connect emotionally with the threat on many levels.

Statistics are just numbers. Yes they represent people injured and dying. But people get injured and die every day. Everyone alive today will eventually die. And so it has little effect on us. But when we actually see or hear the drama of someone experiencing danger, injury or death the brain has no trouble identifying with that and becoming emotionally aroused. That's what brains are for.

Yes, we logically know that an earthquake in Haiti poses no danger to us watching our TV in Dallas, Texas. But I think this shows both the weakness of reason and the power of emotion when it comes to the brain responding to even logically unlikely survival challenges. The emotion signals in the animal brain are designed to overestimate danger, not underestimate it. By far the great majority of mammalian brains that ever existed had no facility for reasoning - and so evolution produced mammalian brains that have a "better safe than sorry" response to any potential danger.

I think the ability of reasoning to determine behavior - when any significant emotion signals are flowing through the brain from other sources is greatly over-rated.

By Ray in Seattle (not verified) on 13 Jan 2010 #permalink

One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.
Joseph Stalin

"If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."

I think this is one of the few thoughts I've ever shared with mother Theresa. I remember thinking it after the latest round of "Romanian orphanage" pictures appeared on BBC TV (for those who missed this story - apparently Romania's state-care system isn't much better since 1990.) I remember thinking how hard it would be to care for and care about so many damaged children - but then it occurred to me that if you could care for just one or few at a time, all the time, then you could avoid being overwhelmed, and do your best for people that needed it. In a large institution like that the people just blend into a mass, and from the point of view of the carers become just like machines to be serviced, and all your personal empathy and care is drained away. The root of so many hospital / old peoples' / orphanage care scandals...

Did the people in Slovik's experiment believe that they were donating to a single individual in the first case and millions of people in the second? If so, their donation would have more impact in the first case, so they would be willing to pay more, with the expectation of making more of a difference. (Empathy and willingness-to-pay are not the same.)

Otherwise, the experiment simply suggests that images produce more empathy than do numbers presented without images. That's plausible, but it does nothing to support your statement that the scale of suffering inhibits empathy. The image of a thousand suffering children may still produce greater empathy than the image of a single suffering child.

By the way, Larry: Stalin was wrong. Most normal people consider the Holocaust to have been tragedy, not a mere statistic.

If there was a country that didn't need this it was Haiti. Everyone needs to do what they can.

Along those line I guess, and entirely consistently with his prior acts, Pat Robertson has announced that the earthquake is a result of Haitians making a deal with the devil to overthrow French rule.

Phony charities are another problem. My recommendation is to contribute cash to the American Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders but there are many reputable organizations doing good work. Just be careful.

By the way, Larry: Stalin was wrong. Most normal people consider the Holocaust to have been tragedy, not a mere statistic.

And yet, Stalin himself killed at least 23 million of his own people in the various purges and the (deliberately created) Ukraine famine [cite]. People killed by the Maoists in China? Statistics. Armenian genocide? Statistic. Darfur? Statistic. And on and on and on. The Holocaust is the exception that proves the rule.

By mad the swine (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink

And yet, Stalin himself killed at least 23 million of his own people in the various purges and the (deliberately created) Ukraine famine [cite]. People killed by the Maoists in China? Statistics. Armenian genocide? Statistic. Darfur? Statistic. And on and on and on. The Holocaust is the exception that proves the rule.

You don't consider these tragedies?!

Statistics does activate our emotions - I find myself weeping at the numbers when I read Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor and it doesn't matter if I read about German soldiers dying or about Russian soldiers deflecting because of extreme hunger.

However, like Ray, I believe evolution has made our brain sensitive to an event so that we either register it as something our efforts can bring about change (such as an individual suffering person) or something that seems beyond us (when we are "overwhelmed"). Thus, that apathy protects us because we are then able to continue functioning (eating, breathing and sleeping) instead of going into shock.

Fact is, if everyone does or gives a little something towards what seems like an impossible task, it does change the situation for the better. "How could drops of water know themselves to be a river?"

Leaders need to know how to break down this overwhelming event and assign responsibilities in piecemeal so that the tasks ahead become surmountable. The media can help greatly by focussing on what is being done, what else can be done and being a channel of communication between the situation and those who wish to help, instead of taking the sensational route.

Meanwhile, the individual can help by not being overwhelmed by the sorrows and depair in this situation but to remain calm and believe himself/herself to be of use. http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/13/haiti-disaster-relief-how-t… Remember, even the smallest contribution helps to alleviate the suffering.

My thoughts remain with everyone (rescuers and victims) in Haiti.

Perhaps the issue of scale addresses why the $10 cell-phone contributions have been so successful. The gesture is small but doable, and immediate.
We contribute at a human scale, and it brings our interaction with the cataclysm back into a human size that we can relate to. We actively join others in a way we know will work. We reduce the unthinkable enormity of the cataclysm from our end, one person and one ten-dollar bill at a time.
And current experience peaking with the Obama campaign assures us that our drop will be joining millions of others, and all drops really do make the ocean bigger. We no longer consider whether this would be effective or not. Social media as international emergency relief.
A sort of inverse proactive response to the scale of the tragedy.
Jonah, you are always such a thoughtful and eloquent writer. Thank you.