How Long Does Public Empathy Last After a Natural Disaster?

Empathy peaks quickly, and within a few weeks, it has abated significantly.

Posted Sep 24, 2017

Inevitably Spring Will Come by Zeze57 Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Inevitably Spring Will Come by Zeze57 Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

To many of us, it may seem like there has been a much higher than average number of natural disasters this summer. They have disrupted the lives of millions of people all over the world. For disaster victims, it takes a considerable amount of time, measured in years instead of months, and abundant resources that include money, social support, goods, and services, to recover from a major hurricane, earthquake, or wildfire.

As I have written recently on this blog, natural disasters bring out the best in many people. Soon after the catastrophe, an outpouring of assistance and support follows to the affected region and people. People from all over the world text $10 to major charities, change the frame on their Facebook profile picture, and volunteer at nearby soup kitchens. When the disaster has a natural origin (instead of a man-made one), people are even more inclined to offer help.

But for how long?

After a natural disaster, people are naturally empathetic. However, this empathy starts to wear off rather quickly. They start experiencing what psychologists call “compassion fatigue,” or a reduction in empathy that occurs when an individual is exposed continually to the suffering of others. As Jamil Zaki insightfully observes:

“Communicating the suffering of others does not always stir empathy, and can even be counter-productive, for example when an inundation of suffering depicted in stories and pictures leaves people feeling helpless or exhausted. The term “compassion fatigue” was first coined to describe hospice workers, who — after spending their professional lives exposed to fear and pain — can find themselves drained of instinctual concern for others. With today’s mass media, anyone with a newspaper or internet connection is able to receive daily, multimedia updates about crises — man-made and natural — affecting people all over the world. The resulting habituation, paired with a feeling of numbness, can drain our empathy, motivating us to stop caring about victims of tragedies.”

While much of the psychological research on compassion fatigue has focused on first responders to traumatic events, the concept applies more generally to every one of us who are confronted with large-scale disasters, personally or vicariously through various media.

Tip Jar at Open Bar by Dave Dugdale Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Tip Jar at Open Bar by Dave Dugdale Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

After the occurrence of a particular natural disaster, say the recent Hurricane Harvey, or the Mexico earthquakes, compassion fatigue may manifest in many ways. However, one important way that it occurs is through reducing our interest in donating to disaster victims.

In this blog post, I want to answer the question in the title: How long does public empathy last after a natural disaster and before compassion fatigue sets in?

It turns out there is a relatively clear-cut answer, and that is “very quickly.” The most direct evidence to answer this question comes from a study by Philip Brown and Jessica Minty. These economists studied donations made through the internet to eight U.S. based charities including Catholic Relief Services, CARE USA, Mercy Corps, and SurfAid after the December 24, 2004, tsunami. The figure illustrates the pattern of their findings.

Disaster Response Donations, Adapted from Brown and Minty 2005 by Utpal Dholakia
Source: Disaster Response Donations, Adapted from Brown and Minty 2005 by Utpal Dholakia

In their study, donations to disaster victims made through the internet peaked approximately one week after the disaster. From then on, fatigue kicked in as seen in the downward sloping line. By the end of three weeks post-disaster, donations had slowed to a trickle. Other studies have shown similar results. In another unpublished study conducted in the United Kingdom, there was a sharp drop-off in donations six weeks after a natural disaster, and by fourteen weeks, donations had dried up completely.

Of course, compassion fatigue is just one possible explanation for the sharp drop-off. It could also be that people are still as compassionate as ever. However, after a few weeks, their attention shifts to other things going on in their lives, and they gradually lose interest in disaster victims. Whether the explanation is grounded in reduced empathy or not, the drop in donations sets in far too quickly after a natural disaster, especially when measured against the time it takes disaster victims to recover adequately.

How can people remain empathetic (and donate to disaster victims) for longer?

It turns out that one answer lies in keeping the spotlight on the disaster with media coverage. In their paper, Brown and Minty also studied the effects of media coverage on donations to relief agencies. They found that in conflict with Zaki’s earlier comments, media coverage of disasters had a positive impact on donations to aid agencies. Every additional minute of nightly news coverage of the major television networks or an extra story in the main newspapers raised donations by 17-21% after controlling for the elapsed time since the disaster. A more recent study considered the effects of both traditional on social media coverage on charitable giving after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The authors’ conclusion was:

“Both traditional and new media coverage were positively correlated with donations: every 10% increase in Twitter messages relative to the peak percentage was associated with an additional US $236,540 in contributions, while each additional ABC News story was associated with an additional US $963,800 in contributions. While traditional and new media coverage wanes quickly after disaster-causing events, new and social media platforms may allow stories, and potentially charitable giving, to thrive for longer periods of time.”

Earthquakes and sharks by Dylan Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Earthquakes and sharks by Dylan Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

It is important to note, however, that these studies are limited by the fact that media coverage subsides in the same “few weeks” timeframe after the disaster as donations. They are not able to determine if sustained media coverage or another form of attention would help to reverse compassion fatigue of donors.

Another interesting finding from this research is that some people are naturally more susceptible to experiencing compassion and acting on it than others. One study found that those who donate to other charitable causes are the very individuals who are also likely to give to the victims of a natural disaster. They are the “super-compassionate” people. Another study conducted in Japan found that non-donors have a less positive view of disaster relief activities and are less knowledgeable than donors about how charitable activities can work and benefit disaster victims. This finding suggests that greater transparency about how donations are helping victims may help delay compassion fatigue.

Given the scale and frequency of natural disasters this summer, and the number of people that have suffered, it seems to me that it is important for psychological researchers to understand what causes compassion fatigue in laypeople beyond first responders. And they also need to study how to slow compassion fatigue down or even reverse it, so that ordinary citizens will continue to act on their better impulses for much longer than they are normally inclined to do.

My latest book is How to Price Effectively: A Guide for Managers & Entrepreneurs. I teach marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedInFacebook, or Twitter @ud.