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.