About the Arithmetic of Compassion
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.
The mission of the Arithmetic of Compassion Website is to raise awareness of psychological obstacles to compassion, including psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy, and the prominence effect. 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 below to learn about the three related cognitive biases, or visit our Environmental Humanities page to learn how artists and other communicators employ various strategies to overcome these obstacles to compassion in both humanitarian and environmental contexts. Humanities scholars have developed such concepts as slow violence and narrative empathy to understand the challenges of grasping and communicating information about current crises, and scholars in the Environmental Humanities are now bringing together methodologies and vocabularies from cognitive psychology and textual studies to determine the effectiveness of specific communication strategies through an approach known as empirical ecocriticism.
As scholars interested in social and environmental issues in the modern world, we have increasingly focused on these issues of why human beings make "bad" or irrational decisions when faced with crucial ethical and practical questions. This project, Arithmetic of Compassion, arose from decades of study and experience in psychology and humanities fields, as an effort to better communicate research findings and expand the conversation. Here are some of our key people:
Andrew Quist is an administrative coordinator and research associate at Decision Research. Andrew is the editor of the Arithmetic of Compassion website and an author of many of the blog posts.
Paul Slovic is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and a founder and President of Decision Research. He studies human judgment, decision making, and the psychology of risk. With colleagues worldwide, he has developed methods to describe risk perceptions and measure their impacts on individuals and society. His recent work examines "psychic numbing" and the failure to respond to mass human tragedies.
Scott Slovic is Professor of Literature and Environment, Professor of Natural Resources and Society, and Faculty Fellow in the Office of Research and Economic Development at the University of Idaho. He served as chair of the English Department at Idaho from 2014 to 2018. The founding president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment from 1992 to 1995, he has edited ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, the leading journal in the field of ecocriticism, since 1995. He has worked for many years, as a teacher and writer, on topics related to ecological literary studies, environmental communication, and interdisciplinary approaches to the environmental humanities. Much of his current research and teaching focuses on “information management” (how information is collected, communicated, and received) in the contexts of humanitarian and environmental crises.
Alex Garinther is a PhD student at the University of Oregon, Department of Psychology.
Daniel Västfjäll is a professor of cognitive psychology at Linköping University and a research scientist at Decision Research. His research focuses on the role of affect in judgment and decision making, perception and psychophysics.
Leisha Wharfield is the administrator at Decision Research.