On my daily commute a few weeks ago, I walked my usual 400 metres from the station to my workplace. Within the first 50 metres there was a man collecting money for the Salvation Army. About 80 metres further up the road there was a man collecting money for Motor Neurones Disease research. A further 20 metres up the road was a man selling The Big Issue, and a man a few metres from him trying to sign people up for regular donations to UNICEF. Then as I approached my building, a homeless man was selling hand carved wooden roses.
Over the course of the 400 metre walk I noticed something occur within me:
- For the first man I felt the need to donate;
- For the second man I felt the heartstrings pull and thought about donating;
- For the third man I looked but didn’t think much about it;
- For the fourth man I felt almost nothing; and
- For the fifth man I felt nothing.
Now, my progression of feelings about each cause I came across are not a reflection of how I feel about each of these causes in general. In fact, in terms of causes I personally feel connected to, I probably would put my interests in the exact opposite order to how I felt about each cause on the day.
This strange phenomenom got me wondering about why I felt such apathy towards charity in this scenario…
Arithmetic of compassion
Research by Paul Slovic has demonstrated that my progression of feelings as outlined above is actually very normal. Furthermore, his research has shown that this phenomenon affects most of us.
Switching off as a result of exposure to multiple people requiring help can be mainly attributed to a concept Slovic calls “psychic numbing”. This concept occurs when information received in the form of statistics and impersonal numbers fails to trigger an emotional response in us.
Exposure to more than one person or cause is all we need to “switch off”. After this, people become numbers and the emotive response to their needs numbs.
A well-known example of this concept is the civil war in Syria. In 2015, hundreds of thousands of people had died from the war… And, most of us didn’t even blink an eye. However, when the picture of the little boy washed up on a Turkish beach hit the news stands, suddenly we all cared about the Syrian war.
Seeing this innocent little boy wash up on a beach as a result of a failed mission to escape the war made all of our maternal and paternal instincts go into overdrive. As a consequence, donations to the cause went up by about 500% overnight.
This concept is well known by charity organisations and is why organisations such as World Vision offer sponsoring of children. This is because the feeling of helping one child in need invokes an emotive response and makes us feel like we’re really making a difference. Alternatively, an advertisement stating “150,000 children need your help”, doesn’t have the same effect, as we simply switch off from the message.
Now that you know about “psychic numbing” and the arithmetic of compassion (i.e anything more than 1 numbs your emotive response), you can try to trick your brain into not switching off from the causes and concerns you care about.
If you find yourself over exposed to people asking for help, you can try to consciously refocus your attention onto each individual and think about them as a person.
Additionally, when it comes to atrocities such as civil wars or natural disasters, you could try to find one person or animal suffering from the issue to focus your attention on. This ensures connection to the cause and will help you stay focused on trying to make a difference, however you can.