The Myth of "I Can't Make a Difference"

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By Andrew Quist

When problems are large, we often feel like there is nothing we can do. This false feeling of inefficacy—pseudoinefficacy—is actually a logical fallacy because even if we only help one person, we’ve made a difference.

Whether it’s sending aid to those who’ve lost their belongings to forest fires in America or helping to feed children facing malnourishment in developing countries, every dollar you give and every hour you volunteer makes a difference.

A great example of what one person can accomplish is Rola Hallam, the founder of CanDo. Living in the United Kingdom, Rola watched in horror as war engulfed her home country, Syria. Rather than succumbing to hopelessness, she launched a crowd-funding platform that supports local nonprofits in war-torn communities. CanDo’s first project, building Hope Hospital in Syria, became the first ever crowd-funded hospital. CanDo shows that with the help of technology, we can make an enormous impact where it is needed most in the world. You can learn more about Rola Hallam and CanDo in this TED video.

We may not all be able to start our own nonprofit, so New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof created this handy guide for altruism “How to Make the World a Better Place” which contains recommendations for donating to charities and volunteering with nonprofits. Our Take Action page also contains a list of wonderful organizations you can support.

Autonomous Weapons

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By Andrew Quist

Autonomous weapons are weapons systems that use artificial intelligence to decide which targets to destroy. The technology for autonomous weapons currently exists. In fact, 30 countries already have autonomous missile defense systems deployed that are supervised by humans. With recent advances in technology, nations will soon be able to develop unsupervised autonomous weapons that can be used in the battlefield. 

Autonomous weapons offer the prospect of reducing civilian casualties in warfare through more precise targeting, but they also raise troubling moral questions. Since machines do not feel empathy, they can’t rely on our human intuitions of right and wrong when deciding, for instance, the importance of minimizing civilian causalities compared to the military benefit in destroying a target. These tradeoffs either need to be made by humans supervising the machines, or engineers will need to program ethical guidelines into the weapons’ algorithms.

Paul Scharre, a former U.S. Department of Defense official and current defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) is an expert in autonomous weapons. He has written a book on the subject titled Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War, which was published in 2018. To learn more about autonomous weapons and the ethical questions surrounding their use, listen to this interview with Paul Scharre on NPR’s All Things Considered, and read this short report on the subject published by CNAS and written by Paul Scharre and analyst Kelley Sayler.

Why Are We Outraged Over Khashoggi's Murder, But Indifferent to Deaths in Yemen?

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By Andrew Quist

Why did the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi lead to international outrage against Saudi Arabia when the humanitarian crisis the country caused in Yemen was met with indifference?

Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has been fighting a war against the Houthi militia in Yemen. The United States is assisting by providing intelligence and logistical support. The Saudi military has killed thousands of civilians with air strikes, including an attack on a school bus that killed 40 children in August. The war also caused a cholera outbreak and mass starvation. Where has the outrage been for these atrocities? And why hasn’t there been a debate in America about its role in the war?

By contrast, the murder of Khashoggi has received wall-to-wall news coverage, and U.S. politicians in both parties are speaking out against the Saudi government.

Two related cognitive biases have likely contributed to this contrast. Psychic numbing prevents us from feeling empathy for large groups of victims. The identifiable victim effect causes us to feel heightened sympathy for one identified victim. This emotion disappears when we are confronted with statistical deaths.

Psychic numbing is obviously a problem, but what can we do about it? We can notice it operating within ourselves and remember that statistical deaths are deaths of individuals with a name and a family.

Read more about the discrepancy between the outrage over the murder of Khashoggi and the war in Yemen in Max Fisher’s New York Times article “How One Journalist’s Death Provoked a Backlash that Thousands Dead in Yemen Did Not.

Photograph of Jamal Khashoggi by April Brady/Project on Middle East Democracy, CC BY 2.0

Chiune Sugihara's Courage Saved 6,000 Lives

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We all have the capacity for tremendous courage. Risking his career and livelihood, Chiune Sugihara demonstrated such courage by disobeying orders and issuing thousands of visas to desperate Jews when he was the head of the Japanese consulate in Lithuania in 1939–40. It is estimated that Sugihara saved 6,000 lives.

As David Wolpe writes in this excellent op-ed in The New York Times, “Most of the world saw throngs of desperate foreigners. Sugihara saw human beings.”

There were many psychological biases and pressures that could have prevented Sugihara from this heroism. In-group/out-group thinking caused many in 1939 to see European Jews as “the other.” Psychic numbing prevents us from feeling empathy for large groups of victims. And pseudoinefficacy demotivates us when the scale of a problem is large.

Sugihara’s empathy overcame these biases, and his courage overcame the fear of reprisal from his superiors. Sugihara was fired and for years afterward worked menial jobs. But in 1968 his actions were discovered, and he was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations by Israel in 1984.

Queen Rania of Jordan on Psychic Numbing and Compassion

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By Andrew Quist

If the desire to help those in need is a universal aspect of humanity, why do we allow genocides and mass atrocities to occur?

Queen of Jordan and human rights advocate Rania Al Abdullah addressed this question in her keynote speech at the 2018 TRT World Forum in Istanbul. She specifically discussed two of the psychological biases that we call “the arithmetic of compassion.”

Noting that we too often fail to act decisively in the face of mass atrocities like the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, she said, “We recognize a single person’s suffering as a tragedy, but, as the number of those affected piles up, that tragedy begins to lose its emotional grip.”

Our tendency to shut down our emotions when confronted with large-scale tragedies is called psychic numbing. It can be overcome by becoming aware of it operating in ourselves and by focusing on the individuals who make up a larger group of victims.

Queen Rania also identified pseudoinefficacy as a barrier to compassion: “Perhaps the greatest obstacle to action is the sense of helplessness. Many resign themselves to the idea that there is nothing they can do. They tell themselves that any efforts to improve our world would be offered in vain.”

Queen Rania offered reason for hope. Despite the doom and gloom conveyed to us constantly in the news media, she noted that the world is getting safer, people are living longer, and more people have access to water, electricity, and medical care than ever before. By becoming aware of our biases, maintaining hope, and redoubling our efforts to help those in need, we can enact positive change.

View and read Queen Rania’s speech at the TRT World Forum here.

Photograph of Queen Rania by Jordanian Royal Hashemite Court CC BY-SA 4.0, 2018.

The More Who Die the Less We Care

Paul Slovic delivered this presentation titled "The More Who Die, the Less We Care: Confronting the Deadly Arithmetic of Compassion" September 28, 2018 at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

Video of Paul Slovic’s talk by the University of British Columbia.

Thumbnail photograph of visitor at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda by Flickr user followtheseinstructions, CC BY-SA 2.0, 2018.

Factfulness

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By Andrew Quist

Although it might not feel like it, the world is improving. In the past 20 years, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has halved. Crime is going down, more girls around the world are attending school, and 88% of the world’s children are being vaccinated. Why then, does it feel like things are getting worse?

Renowned physician and statistician Hans Rosling’s latest book, Factfulness, identifies 10 biases that cause us to see things as worse than they really are and distract us from the ways we can most effectively enact positive change. These biases include our tendency to notice negative developments and ignore positive ones, our instinct to pay attention to things that frighten us, and our tendency to misjudge the importance of numbers given without context.

Due to understandable developments in our psychology when we were hunter-gatherers, our minds are programmed to focus on the negative and dramatic, take brash action in the face of fear, and ignore or minimize risks that play out over a long period of time (like climate change). These biases might have served us well 100,000 years ago. After all, if the rustling in the bushes might be a lion, it’s better to act immediately and run away, rather than collect data and carefully analyze the situation. The problem with this psychological inheritance is that most of the challenges we face today are complex, and effective solutions must be carefully analyzed and implemented. Eradicating an Ebola epidemic or improving a collapsed economy require the focused analysis of data. We can’t afford to be blinded by fear, blame, and gross assumptions.

Factfulness concludes each chapter with practical advice we can put into practice to see through our biases and engage in fact-based decision making. Rosling’s advice will make you more effective at solving your own and society’s problems. Rosling died while writing this book (it was finished by his son and daughter-in-law), but he was proud to be able to provide “an enjoyable text that will help a global audience to understand the world.” Rosling and his co-authors challenge us to view the world not with rose-tinted glasses nor pessimistic insecurity, but as it really is. That way we are in the best position to enact meaningful change.

Factfulness was published in 2018 by Flatiron Books AB.

Photo of Hans Rosling by Bernt Sønvisen CC BY-ND 2.0

Ai Weiwei's Human Flow

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By Andrew Quist

“As a human being, I believe any crisis or hardship that happens to another human being should be as if it is happening to us. If we don’t have that kind of trust in each other, we are deeply in trouble. Then we will experience walls and division and misleading by politicians that will make for a future in the shadows.”

-Ai Weiwei

We are in the midst of a refugee crisis. In the past few years, millions of refugees have crossed from one country, or continent, into another, and they all have one thing in common: they are risking their lives to escape hell.

In Human Flow (2017), artist, activist, and filmmaker Ai Weiwei combines stunning bird's-eye aerial shots of enormous refugee camps with face-to-face interviews with individuals telling their stories. The film conveys the tremendous scope of the current refugee problem while simultaneously creating empathy in the viewer for the plight of refugees. Filmed in over 23 countries, the film examines refugee flows in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and North America.

During an interview with a refugee from Afghanistan and her family at the Greece-Macedonia border, the filmmakers inform the family that the border to Macedonia has been closed to Afghans. When the filmmakers ask the woman what she will do, she responds, stunned, “We don’t have a plan. . . No one leaves their country lightly. You only put yourself through the hardship of fleeing in order to find safety.” Watching moments like these, it is impossible not to feel heartbreak.

With this documentary, Ai Weiwei has provided a powerful antidote to psychic numbing. The central question of the film remains unanswered, “Will our global society emerge from fear, isolation, and self-interest and choose a path of openness, freedom, and respect for humanity?”

Human Flow is available on various video streaming platforms, including Amazon Video, iTunes, Google Play, and YouTube.

Photograph by Amazon Studios

Open Your Eyes

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By Paul Slovic

The following is the text of a talk delivered at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in September 2018.

The story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar in today’s Torah reading has many interesting twists and turns from which to contemplate the topic that is the theme of the scientists in synagogues seminar series that Rabbi Ruhi and I will host during this new year. That topic is “Compassion and Obligation in Judaism and Psychology.”

Today I’m going to briefly discuss one particular aspect of the reading that connects to psychological research my colleagues and I have conducted, trying to understand what motivates people to help others in need and why we help in some cases and not in others.

Recall the point in the reading where Hagar and her son, Ishmael, are cast out into the wilderness with little to sustain them but a bit of bread and a sack of water. These meager provisions were quickly consumed and the pair wandered in the desert without sustenance, growing weaker. Hagar left Ishmael in a bush and, unable to watch him die, moved away from him. She raised her voice and wept. We can feel her sense of hopelessness and despair. But then God intervened to “open her eyes” and she noticed nearby a well, most likely a spring. She quickly filled the empty sack with water and saved her son.

It’s interesting that God didn’t simply just revive Ishmael directly through divine power, but rather enabled Hagar to recognize an effective solution and action she could take to rescue Ishmael. But it’s not always so easy to appreciate how effective our actions will be when we try to help others. I’ll return to this point about effectiveness in a minute.

Let’s flash forward to today’s world where there are so many people in need. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless because of the enormity of  problems, such as homelessness and food insufficiency in our own community or the tens of millions of refugees forced by violence and increasingly by climate change to flee their homes and wander their wilderness. Despite our sincere concerns and desire to help, hopelessness paralyzes many of us, our attention strays, and we turn away to address more manageable issues in our lives.

What might a psychological scientist in a synagogue say about this? I’ll give it a try.

In 1994 I carefully followed the reports of the genocide occurring in Rwanda where some 800,000 people were murdered in about 100 days. I was shocked by the indifference of the American public to this terrible news and angered by the refusal of the world’s governments to intervene and stop the bloodshed.

After the Rwandan genocide, my colleagues and I decided to study why we are so often indifferent to genocide and other mass atrocities and fail to intervene to prevent them from occurring.

By coincidence with the story of Hagar and Ishmael, our first study involved water and wells. Those who survived the genocide in Rwanda fled to the safety of refugee camps on the border with Chad. In one camp, many became sick with cholera because they lacked clean water. And they began to die from this disease. There was a desperate need for equipment to drill wells that could provide safe drinking water to the refugees.

In our study, we asked participants like yourselves to play the role of a government official in a neighboring country who had enough money to drill new wells sufficient to provide clean water to 4,500 Rwandan refugees in the camp, thus keeping them healthy and alive. But you, as the government official, could instead use the money for building schools or roads or medical facilities in your own country. What would you do? Would you send the money to drill new wells?

We split our study participants into two groups. One group was told that the camp had 250,000 refugees. The second group was told the camp had 11,000 refugees. The new wells would protect 4,500 refugees in either camp.

What we found was that participants in our study, acting as government officials, were far more likely to decide to provide equipment to help 4,500 people in the small camp. This confirmed our hypothesis that the perceived effectiveness of this lifesaving action would be determined more by the percentage of people helped, obviously greater in the small camp, than by the actual number of people helped, which was the same in both camps.

We then did another study, this time asking participants to make a real donation to a charity in order to help a starving child, identified with her name, photo, and country. We convened a second group of participants and gave them the same opportunity to donate to this child. In order to increase the donations, we gave additional information to those in the second group, calling attention to the fact that that the problem was very important—millions of people were starving in the region where the child lived. Our manipulation failed. In fact, donations dropped almost in half when donors were told that the child was one of millions in need.

In reflecting upon these two studies, we came to appreciate the role that our feelings of effectiveness play in motivating us to help those in need.

We help others not only because they need our help but because we feel good when we help; we get kind of a warm glow of satisfaction when we do something good for someone. But we don’t feel our efforts are effective and we don’t expect to get that warm glow when we help only a small percentage of those in need, as in the large refugee camp, or when we help only one girl out of millions—“a mere drop in the bucket” we may think. So then we don’t help, even though we could.

Let me give you one more example of this. In another study we found that all it took to stop some people from donating to a child they could actually help was to learn that there was one other child they were not helping—not millions and not thousands, as in the first two studies I described. Just one child not helped created bad feelings and a sense of inadequacy that dampened the warm glow. It didn’t feel as good to help the child they could help, so they didn’t help that child. This is wrong! Just because we can’t help everyone doesn’t mean we should help no one. We gave a name to this deception of our feelings. We called it “pseudoinefficacy,” a false sense of inefficacy, false because we really could do something that was meaningful and worthwhile.

Perhaps you’re wondering, “Why should we trust our feelings to motivate us when they behave so irrationally?” This is a great question. We trust our feelings to guide our behavior because most of the time relying on our feelings actually works well to guide us efficiently through our daily tasks and help us make good decisions. But reliance on feelings doesn’t always work well, as we have seen in the studies I described. The lesson here is to focus your thoughts on what you can accomplish, and its importance—rather than dwell on what you can’t do, because that may make you feel badly and stop you from doing something worthwhile.

My colleagues and I have created a website called “The Arithmetic of Compassion” to create awareness of the strange ways our minds sometimes deceive us into thinking our efforts to help others are not worthwhile when, indeed, they are truly meaningful and important. On the website we feature the starfish story that many of you likely know, originally told by Loren Eiseley, a famous American anthropologist, philosopher, and science writer. Here is what he wrote:

While wandering a deserted beach at dawn. . . I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. There were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, “It makes a difference for this one.” I abandoned my writing and spent the morning throwing starfish.

Returning to today’s reading, it is significant that God didn’t simply revive Ishmael directly through some divine power, but rather opened Hagar’s eyes to an effective action she could take to save her son.

As we begin this new year, there are millions like Hagar and Ishmael, wandering their personal wildernesses in search of survival and needing aid. We learn from the Torah not to expect divine intervention to rescue them. We need to act ourselves, as did Hagar. We need to open our eyes so as not to be dragged to the depths of despair that felled Hagar. I take this eye-opening to mean becoming alert to the possible ways we may be able to help others in need, by taking direct action ourselves, or by working with and offering financial support to some of the many fine organizations that are dedicated to addressing humanitarian crises in our community or around the world and are doing heroic work.

But some of the actions that become apparent to us may not be as simple and as fully effective as going to the nearby well was for Hagar. In that case, science can open our eyes, too, by alerting us to the ways our minds can fool us into thinking our actions won’t matter, when, in fact they do. What we learn from science is that we should not be discouraged from doing whatever we can, even when we cannot fill the entire need. As in the starfish story, even partial solutions can save whole lives.

Photograph credit: Pam Brophy / Starfish: Caswell Bay / CC BY-SA 2.0

Compassion Week

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From July 30 through August 3, 2018, Decision Research held its seventh annual conference titled “Compassion Week.”

Compassion Week provides scholars from around the world the opportunity to share their current research, learn from each other, and establish opportunities for future collaborations. Each scholar is engaged in the research of pro-social behavioral psychology. Their various research topics include compassion, empathy, altruism, emotion, introspection, decision making, charitable giving, climate change, humanitarian interventions, and nuclear war.

This year, 23 scholars joined us from Canada, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Each scholar paid for their own transportation and lodging, often using university and grant funds. Decision Research provided the conference space, refreshments, and travel assistance, such as arranging lodging and ground transportation.

Below are summaries of some of the presentations delivered at the conference:

Paul Slovic, Decision Research and the University of Oregon

The Caveman and the Bomb in the Digital Age

“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.”

-Albert Einstein

No human decision is more fraught than one involving the use of nuclear weapons—a decision on which may ride the lives of millions of people and potentially the fate of civilization. Shortly after the dawn of the nuclear era, psychologists and other behavioral scientists began the empirical study of the cognitive and social factors influencing human decision making in the face of risk. The findings are worrisome, identifying numerous cognitive quirks and limitations that challenge the ability of our leaders to make rational decisions about using nuclear weapons. Implications of these troubling findings for strategic decisions and arms control were discussed.

Ari Kagan, Center for Advanced Hindsight, Duke University

Applying Donation Psychology to Effective Altruism

The effective altruism movement uses evidence and information to help people do as much good as possible with their donations, given limited resources. To do so, the effective altruism movement often relies heavily on information, such as charity evaluations and correcting common misperceptions around charitable giving, as a way to increase donation efficacy. However, information has often been found to be ineffective at changing beliefs and even less effective at changing behaviors. One study was presented which examines whether information is an effective way to correct common misperceptions around charitable giving and to change donation behavior. While the information helped reduce some of the misperceptions, it did little to shift actual donation behaviors. As a result, approaches grounded in behavioral psychology may be more effective at changing donation behavior. In line with this approach, a new startup app (Sparrow) was discussed which makes use of behavioral science to help people give to charity, by allowing users to tie events in their daily lives to automatic donations.

Stephan Dickert, Queen Mary University of London

Contribution in Context: The Effect of Status on Prosocial Decisions

We looked at the effect of asymmetrical status on donation decisions when two donors and one target (both a charity organization (Exp.1) as well individual recipients (Exp. 2–4)) are present. Results show that low status donors are willing to donate a higher percentage of their endowment than high status donors, but only in joint situations when paired with high status individuals where status differences are readily visible. Symmetrical pairing (low status individuals paired with other low status individuals) as well as making the donation decision public vs. private showed that the presence of another donor as well as social signaling cannot readily explain the effects.

Arvid Erlandsson, Linköping University, Sweden

Saved Lives Insensitivity and the Prominence Effect

Why do people sometimes prefer to help few rather than many victims? We let participants first read several helping dilemmas where they stated, e.g., how many outgroup-members that must be helped in Project A to make it equally attractive as Project B which could help 100 ingroup-members. Later, participants chose between the two equally attractive projects. Several helping dilemma attributes were prominent, meaning that they influenced preferences more in choice-tasks than in matching-tasks. To exemplify, although 72.5% expressed that ingroup- and outgroup-projects were equally valuable in the matching task, 93.5% of these supported the ingroup-project when forced to make a choice.

Emir Efendic, Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands

Self-Serving Justifications in Charitable Behaviors

Self-serving justifications are an important determinant of dishonest behaviour. Usually, researchers look at when people behave dishonestly for their own benefit, but one can also behave dishonestly when it leads to someone else’s benefit, say for instance, a charity. In a recent study, we show that people are indeed willing to cheat for the benefit of a charity, especially when the situation is ambiguous and tempting—thus the cheating is more easily justifiable. However, while people who show higher general prosociality tend to cheat more for the benefit of a charity, overall, people were equally likely to cheat for their own and the charity’s benefit, suggesting a certain tit-for-tat cheating behaviour.

Marijke Leliveld, University of Groningen, the Netherlands

Face Valence in Charity-Related Advertisements (with In Hye Kang & Rosie Ferraro)

In advertisements for charities and in those for companies selling products of which parts of the proceeds go to charity (so called cause-related marketing products; “CM”), very often the pictures of those in need are presented. In this project we find that although a sad face results in more distress towards the person in need and as a consequence increased willingness to donate or willingness or buy the CM product, it also results in another inferential process. We show that people infer from sad faces manipulative intent by the organization (holds for charities well as companies) which has a negative effect on ad and organization evaluation, and a negative effect on willingness to donate and willingness to buy the CM product.

Charity Ad Effectiveness on Social Media and Subsequent Donation Decisions (with Hans Risselada & Daniel Västjfäll)

We know quite a lot about charity ad effectiveness on (hypothetical) donation decisions, but much less about how these ads are effective on social media. Moreover, we don’t know how supporting an online petition spread via social media can influence decisions in subsequent donation requests of that same charity. This project discusses how we will be able to study this by collaborating with a lead generating company and a call center. One of the possibilities to study is whether there is a difference between using the word “help” vs. the word “support.” We provided some initial pilot data and discussed with the Compassion Week attendees the best ways to use this research opportunity.

How Donors Can Overcome Overhead Aversion (with Jan Willem Bolderdijk)

In this project we study why people are overhead averse. We show that people are averse towards charities which generously pay their employees (i.e., a taboo trade-off) even when this implies that the charity can raise more money. However, when the performance of the charity is described in sacred terms (number of lives saved) rather than secular terms (money raised per year) people are able to overcome overhead version.

Hajdi Moche, University of Linköping, Sweden

Are People Less Willing to Donate to Charity Causes When They Are Reminded of Other Ways They Could Spend Their Money?

The talk focused on two research questions: Are people less willing to donate to charity causes when they are reminded of other ways that they could spend their money? And are they less willing to help when the cause is abstract, with no identified victim to the cause? The preliminary result of the study that was presented seemed to indicate that people are almost as willing to donate even when reminded of alternative ways to spend their money. Also, there seemed to be no difference in willingness whether there was an identified victim or not.

Enrico Rubaltelli, University of Padova, Italy

Cost and Benefit in Funding a Bundle of Aid Programs (with Stephan Dickert, Marcus Mayorga, & Paul Slovic)

We demonstrated that people are more willing to fund a bundle of smaller aid programs rather than a single aid program corresponding to the overall donation amount (and number of lives helped) of the bundle. Critically, people perceived donating to the bundle as less costly than funding the single aid program, whereas the benefit for the people who received the help was perceived as similar in the two cases. We also discussed boundary conditions that can modulate such an effect.

Pär Bjälkebring, University of Gothenburg, Sweden

The Coupling of Prosocial Behaviors and Emotions in Everyday Life: Results from a One-Week Diary Study

The topic of the presentation was prosocial behaviors. Every night for seven days we had people report whether they did something prosocial in the last 24 hours. Our results showed that those who did the most prosocial acts were happier than those who did fewer.

TEDx at Kakuma Camp

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The first ever TEDx event held at a refugee camp was broadcast around the world on June 9, 2018. The event featured refugees, artists, and international experts on refugee issues, including Arithmetic of Compassion contributor Paul Slovic. 

Professor Slovic's talk, titled "The More Who Die, the Less We Care: Confronting Genocide and the Numbing Arithmetic of Compassion," discussed the psychological biases that prevent us from scaling our empathy when confronted with mass suffering.

You can watch Professor's Slovic talk here.

A transcript of Professor Slovic's talk is available here.

You can watch the full event here.

A photo gallery of the event is available here.

The photograph of refugees at Kakuma Camp pictured above is by UNESCO, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Red Lines

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By Andrew Quist

On April 13, 2018, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom carried out military strikes in Syria in direct response to Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on civilians. Announcing the decision, President Trump said of Assad’s behavior, “These are not the actions of man; they are the crimes of a monster instead.”

Assad is a monster for gassing his own people, but he is also a monster for dropping barrel bombs on civilians and deliberately bombing hospitals, ambulances, and schools. The recent military strikes by the U.S. and its allies will do nothing to deter Assad from murdering civilians with conventional weapons. As former Department of Defense official Jasmine El-Gamal wrote in a thoughtful op-ed, “The signal the international community for years has given Assad is that conventional military tactics that may constitute war crimes are acceptable, while chemical weapons use is (sometimes) not.”

If we allow dictators to murder people in mass numbers as long as they don’t cross a “red line” by using chemical weapons, it is reasonable to ask how much value we place on human life.

Commenting on the recent military strike in the publication Syria Deeply, a person living in Syria during the war had this to say about “red lines”:

Honestly, it’s very hard for me to watch how these countries choose these arbitrary red lines and decide to act on them. The international standards and policies that they work from are so far removed from the human lives that are lost. At the end of the day, it is clear that there is no value placed on human beings. For these countries, what is most important is the type of weapon used and whether or not intervening for the sake of saving civilian lives suits their own interests.

After the Holocaust, the international community said it would “never again” allow a genocide to happen, but then we allowed it to occur in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan. For the past seven years we have allowed mass atrocities to occur in Syria. Collectively, we must overcome psychic numbing, the tendency to view far-away deaths as an abstraction, and take action to stop mass atrocities, whether that is arresting dictators and trying them in the International Criminal Court, or using diplomatic and military pressure to make it clear that mass murder will not be tolerated.

After all, we value human life, don’t we?

The above photograph is by Russia Presidential Executive Office, CC BY 2018.

Genocidal Violence Accelerates in Darfur

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By Andrew Quist

This year marks the fifteenth year of violence in the Darfur region of Sudan, and government sponsored troops continue their ongoing campaign of ethnically-targeted destruction against non-Arab peoples in the region.

According to Sudan researcher Eric Reeves, Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) recently targeted and destroyed eleven villages belonging to the Fur people in Jebel Marra. About 50,000 people were forced to flee to caves, where they are without food or water. UNAMID, the formal peacekeeping operation in the region, has not arrived to provide help.

According to Reeves, the ongoing genocide in Darfur is one of the worst in modern history. Three million Darfuris have been displaced and “more than 500,000” have died “from the direct and indirect effects of Khartoum-orchestrated violence.”

The International Criminal Court has had a warrant out for the arrest of Sudan’s president Omar al Bashir for the crime of genocide since 2009. However, because Sudan is providing intelligence to aid the U.S. in its war on terrorism, the Trump administration recently lifted all sanctions against Sudan.

It is understandable for the U.S. to look out for it’s own security interests. But at what cost? What intelligence information could possibly justify allowing the Sudanese government to continue to engage in this unconscionable violence against its civilians?

Above photograph is by Flickr member katmere and is copyrighted under the Creative Commons designation CC-BY.

Why Do We Ignore the War in Syria?

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By Andrew Quist

Why is it so hard to get people to pay attention to the continuing atrocities committed in the war in Syria, now in its seventh year? That is the subject of this BuzzFeed News article by Rose Troup Buchanan. Despite an uptick in violence in the province of Eastern Ghouta this month, Buchanan writes, “Global interest in the conflict is waning, and analysis by BuzzFeed News shows the number of shares on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites of the most-read stories about Syria in the past two months were a 10th of what they were just over a year ago.”

The article contains an interview with Arithmetic of Compassion contributor and professor of psychology Paul Slovic. According to Slovic, we show less interest in Syria than is warranted due to psychic numbing. Our minds are incapable of coping with prologned catastrophes like genocide and mass atrocities.

And when shocking images do get our attention, we feel helpless and hopeless and tune them out. “We do numb to repeated photographs, just like we numb to increasing numbers of individuals,” Slovic said. This is a form of pseudoinefficacy, part of the flawed arithmetic of compassion that allows catastrophic abuses of human beings to continue unabated.

We must appreciate the individuality of each human being suffering in places like Eastern Ghouta, Syria in order to combat psychic numbing and this false sense of inefficacy (false because there are meaningful actions we and our government can and should take).

One way you can help people suffering in Syria is by donating to the International Rescue Committee, which is supplying nutritional supplements to more than 3,300 malnourished children in Eastern Ghouta.

Professor David Frank commented on this article by noting that history reveals we do have the capacity to stop this violence:

  • “Between 1944 and 1997 the presence of peacekeeping missions has reduced recidivism to violence and civil war by 80%. [Edward Newman, Understanding Civil Wars: Continuity and Change in Intrastate Conflict (New York: Routledge, 2014), 158.]
  • The United Nations reported an 80% decrease in genocides and politicides between 1988 and 2001, in part because of successful third-party intervention to prevent and mitigate mass atrocities, suggesting the world community can respond effectively to prevent and contain mass atrocities. [Virginia Page Fortna, Does Peacekeeping Work?: Shaping Belligerents' Choices after Civil War (Princeton University Press, 2007), 116.]
  • The world could have prevented the Rwandan genocide. Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, the Force Commander for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, needed a mere 5,000 well-equipped troops to prevent many deaths; he was left with 270. [Roméo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, 1st Carroll & Graf Ed. (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004).]
  • Chivvis, in the most careful study of the Libyan intervention in 2011, concludes that it succeeded in “averting a slaughter in Benghazi.”  Unfortunately, many misuse this intervention to justify inaction. [Christopher S. Chivvis, Toppling Qaddafi: Libya and the Limits of Liberal Intervention (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 90.]
  • The state department dissidents in their 2016 memo outline several steps that could have mitigated the suffering in Syria, which Obama and Power ignored.
  • The UN needs to enforce Resolution 2401 and a cease fire.   

We need to visualize mass atrocities and pepper these accounts with realistic action steps backed by a history that offers us some agency.”

To learn more about psychic numbing and pseudoinefficacy visit our pages on these subjects.

To learn more about overcoming psychic numbing and related psychological biases that inhibit compassion, visit our Take Action page.

The above photograph is of ruins in Zamalka, Eastern Ghouta, Syria, February 22, 2018. CC 3.0 Qasioun News Agency.

Representing Victims of School Gun Violence

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By Andrew Quist. Photograph by UO College Democrats.

Psychic numbing prevents us from scaling our emotions and empathy when confronted with statistics of human suffering. Statistics alone do not motivate us to act to solve large-scale problems. But visual displays can overcome psychic numbing by turning statistics into something tangible.

If you walk along the main quadrangle in the University of Oregon this week, you’ll see 732 small flags representing all of the victims of school gun violence in the U.S. since the shooting at Thurston High School in 1998 in the neighboring town of Springfield.

The display was created by the University of Oregon College Democrats. In an interview with the student news website Daily Emerald, Program Director Kevin Lance explained, “When it’s numbers on a screen it’s hard to put that into perspective. It helps to see the numbers.”

The idea was inspired by a similar visual representation. In the fall of 2016, groups dedicated to raising awareness of sexual assault placed hundreds of flags on the same quadrangle to represent campus sexual assault victims. And in 2007 various peace and veterans groups filled the lawn with flags, representing deaths from the war in Iraq.

In each instance, the advocates behind the displays attempted to go beneath the surface of the numbers to communicate the individual reality of the victims. Flags displays are one of many ways activists can use visual representation to overcome psychic numbing and motivate pro-social behavior.

To learn more about gun violence, visit the website for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence: lawcenter.giffords.org

To learn more about psychic numbing, click here.

Why Do We Mourn For Parkland But Ignore Genocides?

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By Andrew Quist

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida has sparked a nationwide debate about how to keep students safe from school shooters. Giving interviews on mainstream news outlets during the week after the massacre, appearing angry and upset yet poised and articulate, students from Douglas High captured our attention and inspired many of us to take action by lobbying our elected representatives to change gun laws and improve school safety. We empathized with these students and felt their anguish.

If a tragedy resulting in the deaths of 17 young students can so shock and motivate us, why is it that we care so little about violent assaults on humanity in other parts of the world?

Recently more than 500 people in eastern Ghouta, Syria were slaughtered by the Assad regime. The regime also bombed 26 medical facilities. Syrian forces continued to bomb civilians even after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution mandating a cease-fire. Syrians—who are pleading for the international community to enforce the Geneva Conventions—feel abandoned by the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, 900,000 Rohingya refugees wait in refugee camps, afraid to return to their home country, Myanmar. In August 2017, Burmese government forces accompanied by Buddhist civilians began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, murdering the men, raping and killing women, torturing children, and burning down entire villages. Despite the horrific nature of these atrocities, the international community has done little to pressure the Burmese government to end this genocidal assault and allow the repatriation of the Rohingya.

Why are we ignoring the atrocities in Syria and Myanmar and failing to take action to help these victims? Due to the psychological phenomenon of psychic numbing, it is difficult for us to empathize with people suffering in far-away places. Moreover, as death tolls mount (more than 400,000 people have died in the war in Syria), individual deaths become statistics, and our ability to empathize is further reduced.

Also, we often feel overwhelmed by complex problems like a foreign civil war. Due to another psychological bias called pseudoinefficacy, we resign ourselves to inaction when no easy solution is apparent.

But meaningful action is possible, and it is the same action one can take to mitigate school shootings: lobby our elected representatives. The U.S. should sanction Assad’s allies and establish safe zones in Syria, or in the case of the Rohingya, pressure the Burmese government to allow safe repatriation of refugees and restore their citizenship. Additionally, citizens should push their representatives to pass the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, which has been stalled in committee since May 2017.

Although we are physically separated from Syria and Myanmar by thousands of miles of land and ocean, we bear witness to the plight of their people through news reports and technology. With awareness comes responsibility to act. As Professor Rebecca Hamilton writes in her book, Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide,

 “Our world is getting smaller. A generation ago, television brought the lives of those outside our borders into our homes. Today, the pace and quantity of information continues to increase; more and more people at different ends of the earth see and interact with each other, in real time. As has always been the case, a sense of community can arise from relationships built over the course of repeated interactions, but no longer does physical proximity dictate the boundaries of these spheres of obligation.”

Our obligation to prevent needless violence certainly extends to the children in our schools.  Should it not extend as well to Syrians suffering in Ghouta, and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh? Shouldn’t they be protected, not ignored?

The above photograph is of Arbine village, Eastern Ghouta, Syria, on February 27, 2018. CC 3.0 Qasioun News Agency

Psychic Numbing and the Recent Atrocities in Syria

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By Andrew Quist

After seven years of a steadily rising death toll reaching into the hundreds of thousands, the continuing atrocities committed by the Assad regime, such as murdering nearly 300 people in the past three days in Eastern Ghouta, fail to capture our attention. In his column, “The Slaughter in Syria Should Outrage Us. Yet Still We Just Shrug,” Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland writes “For seven years we have known that a civil war is raining horror on Syria, and we’ve gotten used to it.” Freedland posits that the global community is not moved to act to end the violence in Syria for two reasons: we’ve simply gotten used to the violence, and we don’t know what to do about it.

Although he doesn't name the psychological biases involved, Freedland has correctly identified two elements of the flawed arithmetic of compassion that underlie this indifference to the latest atrocities in Syria. One is psychic numbing, the inability to connect emotionally with large, slowly accumulating death tolls. The other is pseudoinefficacy, the idea that if one cannot identify a way to solve a complex problem, one reverts to inaction.

“But paying attention, making a noise, has value,” Freedland writes. Our governments should pressure Syria’s allies Russia and Iran to reign in the Assad regime and stop targeting civilians. It is not true that there is nothing we can do. Even partial solutions save lives.

You can read Jonathan Freedland’s column here.

Photograph above depicts the Civil Defense "White Helmets" team pulling bodies out from under rubble in Kafrowaid village in southern Idlib's countryside in March 2017. CC BY 3.0 Qasioun News Agency.

The Civil March for Aleppo

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By Andrew Quist

Berlin based journalist and blogger Anna Alboth had been following news reports of the war in Syria since its inception. But in 2016, after watching videos of the devastation in Aleppo and speaking with Syrian refugee friends about the war they fled, Anna felt she had to do something. She posted on Facebook a question and call to action: Will you march with me from Berlin to Aleppo, the route Syrian refugees take but in reverse, to raise awareness and influence public opinion in the hopes of ending the war?

As an activist who had previously organized a nationwide campaign in Poland to provide sleeping bags to Syrian and Iraqi refugees living in Berlin, Anna was not making an empty gesture with her posting. As support for the march began to pour in over her Facebook feed, Anna and others began organizing.

On December 26, 2016, a group of 400 ordinary citizens and humanitarians began the march. By the time they had completed the eight month trek through 12 different countries and reached the Lebanon/Syria border, more 3,500 people had joined for at least one leg of the journey. Thousands more local residents stopped to ask the participants about what they were doing. The conversations often began with puzzled curiosity, but ended with the onlooker asking what they too can do to help the people in Syria.

By taking action to raise awareness for the plight of Syrians, Anna and her fellow travelers were able to resist the psychological bias of pseudoinefficacy and its gravitational pull to do nothing when confronted with a seemingly insolvable problem. Their impact was felt in the media and in the minds of each individual who interacted with the march. Each marcher also inspired their network of friends and family to pay attention and make a difference.

The war in Syria has not ended, and Syrians continue to die. But the Civil March for Aleppo perhaps created a spark, a ripple for peace. As Robert F. Kennedy said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

You can read about the Civil March for Aleppo at civilmarch.org.

Photograph of marchers in Sarajevo by Janusz Ratecki

Overcoming Psychic Numbing Through Narratives: A Review of Numbers and Nerves

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In 2015, Scott and Paul Slovic released a book titled Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data which analyzes psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy, and the prominence effect, and how these psychological biases prevent us from appreciating the magnitude and danger of large-scale problems that confront humanity. In the latest issue of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Professor Patrick Colm Hogan provides an excellent review of Numbers and Nerves.

Hogan agrees with Slovic and Slovic’s recommendation to educators and activists that in order to persuade people to appreciate dangers like genocide and global climate change, they should integrate statistical information with compelling narrative. After all, people are moved by narratives and images, not statistics. Noting that narratives can be used as propaganda just as they can be used to motivate positive social change, Hogan offers his own recommendation: to incorporate ideological critique in social activism, along with statistical information and narrative particularity. You can read the entire review on the ISLE website here.

Numbers and Nerves is available on the OSU Press website, as well as Amazon.

Does Trump Understand What It Means to “Totally Destroy North Korea”?

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While speaking before the United Nations General Assembly in September, President Trump made an extraordinary threat to “totally destroy North Korea.” Due to psychic numbing, the president fails to appreciate the consequences were he to follow through on this threat: the deaths of 25 million people.

In a recent blog post for Scientific American, Arithmetic of Compassion contributors Andrew Quist, Paul Slovic, and Scott Slovic discuss how psychic numbing prevents President Trump from grasping the consequences of his threat to exterminate a country’s entire population.

To read more, access the blog post here.