In a recent article, Biar Atem and Jonah Cohen of the New Republic shed light on the mass atrocity occurring in South Sudan—50,000 people have died in the violence and entire communities have been displaced. As the authors point out, there are “constructive, life-affirming steps that the U.S. could take immediately to alleviate some of the human misery.” The fact that the United States and UN Security Council have not taken sufficient steps to protect the South Sudanese from loss of life and displacement may relate to the theory of prominence discussed on this website. National security is more prominent (defensible) in the minds of decision makers, and a systematic decision analysis that respects the value we place in human lives may not be occurring. Only by analyzing all available options, such as allowing more South Sudanese families into the U.S. on asylum status and providing aid and manpower at refugee camps, will the world community be able to do something to help the South Sudanese escape the violence. As the authors write, “It should still be possible for liberal and conservative policy makers of good will to draft bipartisan strategies to assist South Sudanese migrants.”
A famous saying goes, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
Due to psychic numbing, our sympathy for suffering and loss declines precipitously when we are presented with increasing numbers of victims.
Research has shown that compassion fade can begin to occur when a threat to a single person expands to as few as two people.
Saving one life is of utmost importance, but saving 1 + 1 lives feels less important than saving two lives and sometimes less important than saving one.
Confronting this peculiar “arithmetic of compassion” in our daily lives and our national policy decisions is of critical importance in a world facing catastrophic threats from violence, disease, poverty, and natural disasters.
We believe that by raising awareness of these phenomena we can lessen the impact they have on our humanitarian decision making. We provide suggestions for how you can take action to combat these cognitive biases and tackle problems like mass atrocities, famine, climate change, and other critical issues.
Click on the links above to learn about the three related cognitive biases or visit our Take Action page to learn how you can combat these obstacles to compassion. Blog posts below connect these concepts to current events.