By BENEDICT CAREY, The New York Times, October 1, 2011
Do we have no more room in our hearts to care for this Haitian earthquake victim?
ABOUT the only thing tanking faster than consumer confidence and the Greek economy would be the global compassion index, if such a measure existed.
Consider just a few recent news items: Americans are balking at extending unemployment benefits, and even disaster relief was in doubt for a time last week in another of Washington’s budget skirmishes; Europeans are cutting payments to pensioners; and “there’s no mood for intervention” to avert famine in Somalia, according to one diplomat.
At a recent Republican presidential debate, the audience erupted into cheers upon hearing Texas’s nation-leading rate of executions.
Behind such sentiments lie genuine concerns, be they for law and order or personal responsibility, not to mention limited resources and a struggling economy. After all, a lowering tide grounds a lot of rescue boats, literally and psychologically.
Yet psychologists and primatologists have been arguing for years that compassion is an evolved instinct, rooted in the brain’s circuitry. In a new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” the psychologist Steven Pinker calls empathy “the latest fashion in human nature.” Chimpanzees show evidence of compassion, as do some monkeys; even mice seem to feel the pain of close peers. But if current trends continue, rats might become a more appropriate subject of study.
Are people today — are societies — really becoming somehow more callous?
The answer is no, of course not — at least not in any fundamental sense. But compassion is a limited resource, a system rooted in cognitive networks that tire and need refueling. And it’s not always rational.
Those in the so-called helping professions know as much about the limits of empathy as they do about its merits. Studies of oncology nurses, trauma workers and even marriage counselors, among others, have documented a common “compassion fatigue” that seems directly related to the amount of emotion shared. “In particular, listening to people who are suffering and not being able to do enough for them puts a tremendous weight” on caregivers, said Dr. Charles Figley, a psychologist at Tulane University.
In just the past decade, he said, professional organizations have begun to give guidelines to offset fatigue, like urging counselors to take time off, seek support from colleagues, even engage in therapy themselves.
Therapists quickly learn to recognize the signs.
Fatigue often results “when you’re seeing the same problems repeatedly, when they’re chronic, and when the outcomes are not good,” said Bret A. Moore, a former Army psychologist and co-author of “Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life After Deployment.” “One sign that you’re there is that you start hoping your appointments cancel.”
The public has a similar reaction to mass joblessness and starving countries alike: the problems sap the imagination in part simply because they are daunting and have not responded well to previous efforts. We have already pumped billions into each, with little visible effect. If only they would cancel their next emergency.
Still, even when rested and ready, people generally find it far harder to extend empathetic concern to a nation than to a neighbor. The helping instinct evolved to protect the household, the clan. Some psychologists make a distinction between moral intuition, the physical horror at seeing someone hit by a car or the tears of a parent whose son is kidnapped; and moral reason, the more intellectual process of grasping larger tragedies, like floods and famine.
THE former is a stronger, more emotionally visceral reaction, which is why people often show far more compassion for an individual victim than for a dozen, or 100, or an entire region.
“I sometimes make the analogy to vision,” said Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon and president of a nonprofit company called Decision Research. “We have this sophisticated capability that’s rational and works well most of the time; but it can also be misleading” — in the same way the eye is fooled by optical illusions.
In a recent study, Dr. Slovic and two colleagues, Daniel Vastfjall and Ellen Peters, tested this relationship directly. They found that when study participants saw a picture of a single victim, a 7-year-old girl named Rokia, they donated twice as much money to a hunger charity than when told only that the organization was working to save millions.
Another group of participants was presented with both the photo and the statistics, the single fragile soul along with the larger context. They made significantly lower contributions than those presented with just a picture of Rokia. Other studies have picked up the same pattern, a falling off of concern after people respond to the suffering of a single individual. “This is one of those results that, when people see it, they recognize it in themselves,” Dr. Slovic said. “But it’s one thing to recognize it and another to confront it directly.”
Dr. Slovic calls this nearsightedness in compassion “psychic numbing” and blames it for much of the West’s inertia in response to atrocities and genocide in places like Rwanda and Darfur.
Yet a strange thing happens once the action starts. Human compassion, like all highly evolved social responses, is not always helpful. Yes, it can and does move people to concern. But to be helpful on the ground amid real suffering, it may be necessary, paradoxically, to blunt empathetic instincts.
In a 2010 study, Chinese and American researchers took brain-wave readings from participants as they watched another person prick himself with a pin, or dab himself with a cotton swab. Half of the people in the study showed clear differences in their reactions to the pinprick and the swab — a measure of their “pain empathy response,” as the authors describe it.
But the other half did not. They were doctors, with long experience managing sickness and pain. “We believe they learned to inhibit this reaction somewhat,” said Jean Decety of the University of Chicago, one of the authors. “This frees up cognitive resources, we think,” allowing them to do their jobs better.
In his book “Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima,” the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton argued that rescue workers at Hiroshima were able to function at all only because they succeeded in “turning off” their feelings of compassion. He called that process “psychic numbing,” too, and it’s a reminder that empathy may be a limited resource for a reason.
Real action, when it’s called for, often requires a cool heart, if not a cold one.