Do you coo at cat videos? Cry during sad movies? Comfort someone when they’re down? Do you empathize greatly with the struggle of others? Many like to label themselves “compassionate” at least to some degree because if not, they feel as if they’re placing themselves on the other side of the spectrum, as someone cold or uncaring.
But in spite of all these actions to prove our compassion, we are able to live out our day-to-day lives while peacefully acknowledging the horrors of the world, such as world hunger, genocide and war.
There is this psychological phenomenon known as psychic numbing that explains the reason why we seem to care so little about issues that affect large numbers of people. This phenomenon can be best summed up by the statement, “the more people that die, the less we seem to care.” The idea is quite morbid, but the more you think about this statement, the more you find some little part of you that can relate to the statement.
An explanation as to why this phenomenon exists is that when the reality of the situation is too overwhelming for a single person to comprehend, people tend to suppress their emotional responses to said situation. For example, because most people in first-world countries do not necessarily struggle with intense starvation levels, it’s hard for them to fully put themselves in the shoes of someone who does, let alone millions of people going through this.
Another explanation behind why many seem to care less when more suffer is because of how people visualize “suffering.” We comprehend the suffering of one person because we can visualize their suffering as our own. However when the number changes from one to two people, we understand it a bit less because we cannot suffer as two people.
Perhaps, numbers don’t portray the true meaning of suffering to us. This idea was supported in a study where participants donated more money towards one child victim as compared to two child victims. Donations marginally decreased when the number of children increased to eight. More victims in a situation cause a feeling of apathy toward the situation.
This comes to a question about how perhaps there is not a constant value attributed to the concept of life.
But there is one definite conclusion that these results point out. It’s that we as people can’t envision the suffering of millions across the world, whether it be the present or past. This is why a story of one child in need of water across the world sparks more emotion across the masses than the fact that 297,000 children under the age of 5 die to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene. Or even why there are some that deny the idea of the Holocaust.
From issues such as why world hunger isn’t being solved as a collective issue to why people don’t believe in climate change, it’s because they can’t comprehend the idea of the amount of suffering within these issues.
People would rather reach out and solve one person’s issue than an issue that affects large groups of people because it feels like they can impact that one’s person’s life. It’s tangible to them that one person’s life can be improved. They can envision the improvement and are physically able to track it.
Whereas with large-scale issues, many develop the mentality of “what can I do about it.” It’s not like giving money to climate change activist groups guarantees anything, or going to protest automatically solves racial injustice. This mentality then develops into inaction and overall worsens the problem.
While many are tempted to help individuals, the problems of the world are big to be solved one individual at a time.
“Never again” was the slogan used to represent the idea that atrocities of the Holocaust and other genocides that had occurred should never occur again under the jurisdiction of the world’s leading nations. However, the underreaction of the masses to many large-scale issues in today’s world leads me to question whether it’s possible for an atrocity on that scale to happen once more across the world.
You realistically can’t solve every problem you point to, but there is something you can do.
As cliche as it sounds, awareness is actually a first-step solution to the issue and I don’t mean awareness as in the superficial like on Instagram or post on Twitter. What I mean by awareness is the ability to make people aware enough so that they are no longer numb to the issue and no longer feel as if their actions are inefficient. Sparking an emotion in others towards the issue is one of the first steps in effective awareness so keep this in mind when you need to try to bring attention towards a cause that matters to you.