Compassion doesn’t scale

That’s the conclusion of a new study that explains just why the story of one dying child may move us to tears, but the news of a genocide where a million people died hardly affects us. Paul Slovic, a researcher, is quoted as saying:

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. 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.

There is a lesson in this for journalists. When we cover events that have caused many deaths, the most effective way to convey the effect of the carnage is to focus on stories about individuals. When I was travelling through Tamil Nadu after the tsunami, for example, I ignored the bigger numbers and just tried to blog about the small stories, hoping that they would be more evocative. (Examples: 1, 2.) A better example: The Gujarat riots of 2002, which can either be represented by a list of casualties, which would mean nothing to most people, or a single photograph like the one below, of Qutubuddin Ansari by Arko Datta.


If there were five such people in that picture, our attention would be diffused and the impact, I suspect, would be far less.

(Link via email from Sanjeev Naik.)