The Internet and other modern communications bring atrocities such as killings in Darfur, Sudan into homes and office cubicles. But knowledge of these events fails to motivate most to take action, said Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon researcher.
People typically react very strongly to one death but their emotions fade as the number of victims increase, Slovic reported here yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"We go all out to save a single identified victim, be it a person or an animal, but as the numbers increase, we level off," Slovic said. "We don't feel any different to say 88 people dying than we do to 87. This is a disturbing model, because it means that lives are not equal, and that as problems become bigger we become insensitive to the prospect of additional deaths."
Human insensitivity to large-scale human suffering has been observed in the past century with genocides in Armenia, the Ukraine, Nazi Germany and Rwanda, among others.
"We have to understand what it is in our makeup—psychologically, socially, politically and institutionally—that has allowed genocide to go unabated for a century," Slovic said. "If we don't answer that question and use the answer to change things, we will see another century of horrible atrocities around the world."
Slovic previously studied this phenomenon by presenting photographs to a group of subjects. In the first photograph eight children needed $300,000 to receive medical attention in order to save their lives. In the next photograph, one child needed $300,000 for medical bills.
Most subjects were willing to donate to the one and not the group of children.
In his latest research, Slovic and colleagues showed three photos to participants: a starving African girl, a starving African boy and a photo of both of them together.
Participants felt equivalent amounts of sympathy for each child when viewed separately, but compassion levels declined when the children were viewed together.
"The studies ... suggest a disturbing psychological tendency," Slovic said. "Our capacity to feel is limited. Even at two, people start to lose it.”