Strange the science of empathy | science | In-depth reports on science and technology | DW

The war in Ukraine caused an influx of humanitarian aid. Along with donations from around the world to aid organizations, people in Europe are opening their homes to refugees and driving en masse to provide assistance at the country’s borders.

The European Union has pledged to send at least 500 million euros to Ukraine, while the United States has pledged at least $12 billion.

This behavior raises questions: How long will support last? You may already have felt your attention waning. While the war may have consumed your conversations a month ago, now it’s a side idea – you can scroll through the news without reading.

And you might also be wondering: Why Ukraine’s massive humanitarian effort, while programs supporting crises in other parts of the world – such as the World Food Program – face multi-billion dollar deficits?

Paul Slovic has been studying psychological responses to humanitarian crises for more than 50 years. He called the collective psychological phenomena that occur during crises and then impede our ability to help.

Slovic’s work is built around a simple concept: When it comes to helping people who are struggling in crisis situations, we can’t trust our feelings. If we allow ourselves to be guided only by them, we fall victim to a kind of paralysis that tricks us into doing nothing at all.

Psychological anesthesia: the more people die, the less we care

Through experiments, Slovic has found that people are more likely to feel pain – and tend to help – one person rather than many. Once someone realizes that the victim is just one among thousands, empathy begins to fade.

This was observed in a neurological study conducted by brain researchers at the University of Lübeck in northern Germany. Neuroscientists mapped a core network of human empathy in the brain, which consists of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), medial cingulate cortex, and bilateral frontal insula. The researchers set out to measure how this network responded to stories about the tragedy.

Each of the 20 study participants was instructed to listen to 20 radio news stories. Some stories were neutral, while others described tragedies. Some included one person, others included many.

The study found that the empathy network was more reactive to emotional stories that included only one person compared to emotional stories that included many.

The more casualties, the less difference we think we can make – so we do nothing

Slovic also coined the term pseudo-efficacy, which describes the misconception that we can’t make a difference in the world at all, so there’s no point in trying.

In one experiment, Slovic and his team presented participants with a story about a young girl who was starving. She had a name, a face, and a homeland. They found that about half of the participants were willing to donate money to an aid organization to help the little girl.

They presented the same story to a second group of participants with only one change: They included a statistic that stated that millions of children like her in her area were starving.

“We thought it would increase the incentive to donate,” Slovic said. “It had the opposite effect. Donations almost halved.”

A well-known ‘villain’ like Putin helps increase empathy

Ukraine has experienced some of the highest levels of humanitarian mobilization in decades. People in wealthy Western countries who have the power to help are paying attention, at least for the time being. Psychologists say this crisis has sparked action in the West for several reasons.

First, they say, in order to sympathize with suffering, there must be a clear victim. In order to have an obvious victim, there has to be an obvious aggressor – in this case, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We see him on TV every day and we know him and we know his face,” said Slovic, who is from the United States. “We feel he’s a specific villain while the bastards in other genocides don’t know their names.”

He added that there is a kind of selfishness towards the West’s response to Ukraine.

“We feel [Putin is] A threat to us, while we do not feel that the attacks on the Uyghurs, the Yazidis, the Rohingya or the people in Africa are a direct threat to us.”

This feeling, combined with Ukraine’s proximity to Europe, makes it easy for people living in Europe or the United States to put themselves in the shoes of the victims and feel inclined to help.

Psychologists say the feeling of love for Ukrainian refugees as opposed to refugees from countries like Afghanistan likely has something to do with something called in-group favoritism.

Psychologist Mark Leary said that, as humans, we put ourselves in groups, and feel more empathy for others in our group. For people in Poland for example – a country whose policy toward refugees from Middle Eastern countries has not been very welcoming – people may see their Ukrainian neighbors as part of their group, unlike the Syrians.

“It should come as no surprise that the conflict in Ukraine is generating a mobilization unparalleled in 160 years. Not only because of geographic proximity, but primarily because Ukrainians are seen as similar to ours,” said Jean Dessetti, of the University of Chicago. A neuroscientist refers to the attitudes of people in the West.

He said that people naturally vary in the amount of empathy they feel for others depending on specific cues, and one of those cues is group membership and shared identity. DeSiti said that people identify better with people who share their ethnicity, national background, values, social norms, religion, attitudes or political goals.

It’s also proven in the brain: In a 2009 study, researchers measured how white participants responded to videos showing people of their skin color in pain and Chinese people in pain. They found that the white participants’ neurological capacity for empathy was higher when they saw pictures of people of the same skin color.

What can we do to change?

Leary said that although our response to our group members is understandable from an emotional and psychological point of view, that doesn’t mean it makes sense.

He said people should be more fair in helping them. If they realize that refugees fleeing conflict are all in more or less the same situation – they are traumatized after leaving their homes and countries due to violence and danger – it doesn’t matter if they are culturally similar to them.

In order to combat the psychological numbness we feel when faced with humanitarian crises, Slovic says, we first have to understand that it exists and that it is not rational. Our minds trick us into thinking we can’t help when in fact we can.

The more people realize the existence of irrational and emotional phenomena, the more they will learn to distrust them, and will choose instead to assess their ability to help through a more reasonable perspective. The world will be better as a result.

Editing: Carla Bleecker

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