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The weird science of empathy

April 14, 2022

Why do we feel more empathy for some people in a crisis than others? Empathy motivates us and works in mysterious ways. Scientists have been investigating the pros and cons of this most human of feelings.

Child refugees in Ukraine
Ukrainian refugees have received a lot of help from rich Western countries. Why is that?Image: Ilya Pitalev/SNA/IMAGO

The war in Ukraine has triggered a flood of humanitarian assistance. Along with donations from across the world to aid organizations, people in Europe are opening their homes to refugees and driving en masse to offer aid at the country's borders.

The EU has pledged to send at least €500 million to Ukraine, while the US has pledged at least $12 billion.

This behavior begs questions: How long will the support last? Maybe you've already felt your attention waning. While the war may have consumed your conversations a month ago, now it's a side thought — you scroll through the news without reading.

And perhaps you're also wondering: Why the massive humanitarian effort for Ukraine, while programs supporting crises in other parts of the world — like the World Food Program — are facing billion dollar deficits?

Paul Slovic has been studying psychological responses to humanitarian crises for more than 50 years. He has named mass psychological phenomena which occur during crises and then impede our ability to help.

Slovic's work centers around a simple concept: When it comes to helping suffering people in crisis situations, we can't trust our feelings. If we allow ourselves to be guided merely by them, we fall victim to a kind of paralysis that dupes us into doing nothing at all.

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Psychic numbing: The more people die, the less we care

Through experiments, Slovic has found  that people are more likely to feel the pain of — and be inclined to help — a single person rather than many. Once someone realizes that a victim is just one of thousands, compassion starts to fade.

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

Each of the 20 participants in the study were instructed to listen to 20 news stories broadcast by radio. Some of the stories were neutral, while others described tragedies. Some included a single person, others included many.

The study found that the empathy network was far more engaged by emotional stories that only included a single person than by emotional stories that included many.

Sheltering Ukrainians in Poland

The more victims, the less difference we think we can make — so we do nothing

Slovic also coined the term pseudoinefficacy, which describes the false notion that we can't make a difference in the world at all, so there's no point in trying.

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

They presented the exact same story to a second group of participants with just one change: They included a statistic that mentioned there are millions of children like her in her region that are starving.

"We thought that would increase the motivation to donate. It had just the opposite effect. The donations dropped almost in half," Slovic said.

A well-known 'villain' like Putin helps increase empathy

Ukraine has seen some of the highest levels of humanitarian mobilization in decades. People in rich Western countries with the capacity to help are paying attention, at least for now. Psychologists say this crisis has sparked action in the West for a few reasons.

First, they say, in order to empathize with suffering,  there needs to be a clear victim. In order to have a clear victim, there needs to be a clear aggressor — in this case, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"We see him on television every day, we know him, we know his face. We feel he is an identified villain, whereas the villains in these other genocides, no one knows their names," said Slovic, who is from the US.

There is also a kind of selfishness to the West's response to Ukraine, he added.

"We feel [Putin is] a threat to us, whereas we don't feel that the attacks on the Uighurs or the Yazidis or the Rohingya or people in Africa are a direct threat to us," he said.

This feeling, along with Ukraine's proximity to Europe, makes it easier for people living in Europe or the US to put themselves in the shoes of the victims and feel inclined to help.

The sense of warmheartedness toward Ukrainian refugees as opposed to refugees from countries like Afghanistan likely has to do with something called in-group favoritism, psychologists say.

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As humans, we place ourselves into groups, and feel more empathy  for others in our group, said psychologist Mark Leary. For people in Poland for example — a country whose policy toward refugees from Middle Eastern countries has not been very welcoming — people probably see their Ukrainian neighbors as part of their in-group, unlike Syrians. 

"It should come as no surprise that the conflict in Ukraine is generating a mobilization never seen in 160 years. Not just because of the geographical proximity, but essentially because Ukrainians are perceived as similar to us," said Jean Decety, a University of Chicago neuroscientist, referring to attitudes of people in the West.

He said people naturally vary in how much empathy they feel for others depending on specific signals, and one of those signals is group membership and shared identity. People empathize better with people who share their ethnicity, national background, values, social norms, religion, political attitudes or goals, Decety said.

This has also been proven in the brain: In a 2009 study, researchers measured how white participants responded to videos featuring people of their own skin color experiencing pain and Chinese people experiencing pain. They found that the white participants' neurological capacity for empathy was higher when they saw images of people with the same skin color.

What can we do to change?

Leary said that although our response to members of our in-group is understandable from an emotional and psychological standpoint, that doesn't mean it's logical.

He said people should be more even-handed with their assistance. If they realize that refugees fleeing conflict are all more or less in the same situation — they are traumatized after leaving their homes and countries due to violence and danger — then it shouldn't matter whether they are culturally similar to them or not.

Slovic says in order to fight the psychological numbing we feel when confronted with humanitarian crises, we need to first understand that it exists and that it is not rational. Our mind tricks us into thinking we can't help when in fact we can.

The more people realize the existence of irrational, emotional phenomena, the more they will learn not to trust them, and will opt instead to evaluate their ability to help through a more logical lens. The world will be better off as a result.

Edited by: Carla Bleiker

Clare Roth
Clare Roth Editor and reporter focusing on science and migration