Last month Newsweek posted a slideshow on their website showing pictures of the earthquake victims in Haiti. The first picture I saw was a little girl, her head wrapped in a makeshift bandage, with a black eye and a swollen bump on her forehead. My heart melted, and I had to look at the next one. Picture after picture showed more victims, more misery. Halfway through the set of 20 images, they had already begun to lose their emotional grip. My thoughts turned inevitably to how many more there must be just like her. How many thousands? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? By that time it was just easier to think about something else. Anything else.

The idea is not new. Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said that the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic. And Mother Teresa once said, "If I look at the mass I will never act." When Stalin and Mother Teresa agree on a point, I sit up and pay attention. It turns out that the human tendency to turn away from mass suffering is well documented. Deborah Small and Paul Slovic have termed this phenomenon the collapse of compassion. It's not simply that as the number of victims goes up, people's sympathy levels off. No, when the numbers go up, the amount of sympathy people feel goes perversely down. And with it goes the willingness to donate money or time to help.

But why? In a world where people go around saying things like, "every life is precious" and "all people are equal," why do we react with such apparently unequal preciousness? If we take seriously the idea that every life is of equal value, we'd expect to feel twice the sympathy for two victims as for one; and we'd feel a hundred thousand times as much for a hundred thousand victims. And yet, we do the opposite.

Recent studies that Daryl Cameron and I conducted shed light on why this might happen. We found evidence that as the number of victims goes up, so does the motivation to squelch our feelings of sympathy. In other words, when people see multiple victims, they turn the volume down on their emotions for fear of being overwhelmed.

We tested this idea in a couple of ways. In one study, we asked one group of volunteers to read about Rokia, a child victim of the ethnic cleansing violence in Darfur, in West Africa. They also saw her photograph. We asked another group to read about eight children, each presented with photos and names. Unlike previous studies, we measured how good each volunteer was at keeping their emotions under control. We found that, as in past research, people expressed less sympathy for the eight victims than the singe victim. But critically, it only happened for those who were good at controlling their emotions. This study provided a first clue that the collapse of compassion might be due to strategic control of emotion, because only those who were good at controlling emotions seemed to do it.

That's a good first piece of evidence, but it doesn't show that emotion control causes the collapse of compassion -- only that the two are correlated. In another study we instructed one group to keep their emotions under control as they read about the victims from Darfur. We asked a second group to let themselves experience whatever emotions came to them. Within each of these groups, half saw one victim and half saw eight victims. The group told to keep their emotions under control showed the typical pattern: less sympathy for many victims than for one. But the collapse of compassion disappeared for the group encouraged to experience their emotions.

Together, these studies suggest that the collapse of compassion happens because when people see multiple victims, it is a signal that they ought to rein in their emotions. The alternative might seem too difficult. It also suggests a way that the collapse of compassion might be prevented. Anything that encourages people to accept their emotions, rather than suppressing them, might reduce the collapse. Scads of studies show that a non-judgmental acceptance of our own emotions can be good for our health. This new research suggests that it might also be good for the health of thousands of victims in Haiti, Chile, Darfur, and beyond.

We stumbled on a final twist that neither the volunteers nor the researchers anticipated. When volunteers were instructed to keep their emotions under control while reading about the victims, they later rated themselves as less moral people. Keeping cool in the face of great suffering has its benefits, but it might cost even more.

About the Author

Keith Payne

Keith Payne is an associate professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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