Learning about psychological phenomena that inhibit compassion is not enough. In order to have an impact on the world, we must take action. Below are 7 ways that you can make a difference and increase compassion in yourself and others.
If you have stories of how you have taken these concepts and gone the next step into action, we want to hear from you! Contact us with your suggestions for how others can do the same.
1. Become aware of psychic numbing in yourself
Lessen the impact of psychic numbing by becoming aware of when the phenomenon is operating in you. Notice that when you hear a statistic of suffering in a group of people it affects you differently than when you see a picture or video of one identified victim. Try to imagine that each person represented in the statistic has a name, a face, a story, and a life. This exercise is especially important when hearing about suffering in a country and culture that is different from your own.
If you have the opportunity to take action, be mindful of what is at stake. Take time to introspect about the importance of protecting the lives at risk vs. the importance of other objectives that may conflict with protective action, such as monetary cost. Think about how much each of these objects should influence your decision—then make your choice.
2. Raise awareness in others
3. Harness the power of testimony
Presenting personal testimony can be one of the most efficient and powerful ways of conveying your experience of and your knowledge about important social or environmental issues. Testimonies are simply brief statements (often as brief as 300–500 words), in which you explain who you are and how you are associated with the issue you’re about to describe. Testimonies often include a short narrative developed from an experience you’ve had, combined with one or two paragraphs articulating an argument about or a possible solution to the issue you’re addressing. Try not to be overly abstract—accentuate the local and the personal, even if you’re writing about a big topic. Testimonies can easily be uploaded on YouTube and published on websites like this one. For more information about the concept of testimony or to discuss the possibility of a Testimony Training Workshop, please contact Scott Slovic at firstname.lastname@example.org.
View these examples of testimonies:
University of Guam undergraduate student Arielle Lowe recites her poem about the rhino beetle, which is now infesting the island: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V59XfiYuPXE
Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner speaking at the 2014 United Nations Climate Leaders Summit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4fdxXo4tnY
Former U.S. Marine Brian Steidle explains how he witnessed attacks on civilians during a visit to Sudan’s Darfur region in September 2004: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUeMRYSYRCE
4. Use digital media and other forms of technology to connect with people in need
Humanitarians can harness the power of digital media to accomplish their goal of helping others. New developments in technology are making it easier to connect with people around the world. Digital media can be used to bring awareness to the plight of others and connect with specific people in need of help.
For example, the recent exhibit at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC titled “Genocide: The Threat Continues” allows visitors to have a conversation via video chat with refugees who have fled violence in Syrian and Iraq. According to the director the museum's Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, the goal of the exhibit is for visitors to transition from informed to emotionally involved. You can read more on the exhibit in this Times of Israel article.
5. Use structured decision-making techniques
When making decisions on complex problems that involve difficult trade-offs, our minds are vulnerable to bias. When the issues involved threaten harm to large groups of people, like interventions to prevent or stop mass atrocities or addressing climate change, these biases include psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy, and the prominence effect. To ensure these biases do not influence decision making, structured decision-making techniques should be employed by decision makers.
Structured decision making is the opposite of simply “going with your gut.” Objectives, alternatives, and consequences are made explicit and compared side-by-side. Several decision tools aid structured decision making, including: (1) objective hierarchies, (2) performance measures, and (3) consequence tables.
Objective hierarchies are an ordering of objectives and sub-objectives. Making objectives explicit provides decision makers a framework for comparing the consequences of alternative actions.
Performance measures are specific metrics that account for changes in the achievement of objectives.
Consequence tables are a visual tool that display alternatives in columns while the objectives that may be affected are listed in rows. Consequence tables allow decision makers to track the impact of different alternatives on each specific objective.
For more information on structured decision making read the article “Improving Intervention Decisions to Prevent Genocide: Less Muddle, More Structure” by Robin Gregory, Michael Harstone, and Paul Slovic published in Genocide Studies and Prevention.
Also, read the book Structured Decision Making: A Practical Guide to Environmental Management Choices by Robin Gregory and others.
6. Appreciate that even partial solutions save whole lives
Due to the psychological phenomenon of pseudoinefficacy, people are often less willing to help one person when they are made aware of other people in need who they are not helping. If many are “out of reach,” any help one could provide may feel like only a drop in a bucket, thus not worth doing. However, to say that a problem is so big that “there’s nothing I can do to help” is a fallacy. Even with big problems, any help you provide may make a difference. Below are some examples of ordinary people who went to extraordinary lengths to help others, even in the face of problems that seemed insurmountable. We hope their stories inspire you to make a difference.
Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, is an organization that operates in rebel-held Syria and works to save as many victims as possible from bombings. Made up of ordinary citizens—students, bakers, teachers—the White Helmets are the first to arrive at the scene of bombings that target civilians. They pull people out of the rubble of destroyed buildings, saving many, and bury the dead with dignity. Inspired by the verse in the Quran, “to save a life is to save all of humanity,” the White Helmets’ mission is simple—save as many lives as possible. They have rescued more than a hundred thousand people from the scenes of bombings. Their efforts show that taking action on the level of the individual, making an effort to help one person, matters.
Since 2011, the government of Sudan has been bombing civilians living in the Nuba Mountains region of Sudan in an attempt to drive them out of the country—an ethnic cleansing. Due to threats by Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, aid agencies have not been able to perform humanitarian work in the Nuba Mountains, and many Nuba have been in desperate need of food. Despite the government’s threats, humanitarian activist and genocide scholar Samuel Totten bravely made trips from the U.S. to the Nuba Mountains to deliver food to the Nuba people during the hostilities. Dr. Totten is living proof that one person can make a difference. For further reading, see this blog post by Dr. Totten, and this recent interview.
Gilbert Kraus was a Jewish lawyer living in Philadelphia who in 1939, along with his wife Eleanor, traveled to Europe to attempt to save as many Jewish children as they could from the Nazis by bringing them to the United States. The Krauses devised a scheme to bring up to 50 children into the U.S and house them at a home outside Philadelphia until they could be reunited with their families or taken in by foster parents. Because the U.S. State Department’s policy made it nearly impossible for large numbers of Jewish refugees to enter the country, Kraus had to obtain 50 affidavits from American families willing to assume responsibility for the children. The Krauses traveled to Nazi-controlled Austria and interviewed hundreds of families who wanted to send their children to America with the couple. After a harrowing encounter with the Gestapo, the Krauses were able to obtain 50 passports and save the lives of all 50 children, who they brought to Pennsylvania just two years before the start of the Holocaust. The Krauses’ courage demonstrates how individuals taking action can have an important impact even when a problem is so big that it is impossible to help everyone.
Cédric Herrou, a thirty-seven-year-old farmer from southern France has for months been assisting migrants traveling north through the Roya Valley. Watching migrants traveling through his town from war-torn regions in Africa be turned back or placed in migrants camps with poor conditions, Mr. Herrou could not simply sit back and do nothing. As Adam Nossiter of The New York Times writes, “Mr. Herrou has become something of a folk hero by leading a kind of loosely knit underground railroad to smuggle migrants north. . . . His work has won him admiration for his resistance to the state and his stand that it is simply right to help one’s fellow man, woman or child.” Mr. Herrou is currently on trial for violating French law in order to smuggle migrants. However, Mr. Herrou and his supporters believe that they are upholding the French value of Fraternity. He told reporters outside the courthouse, "It's not up to me to make a distinction between black and white, people with or without papers. It's not my job. Farming is what I do, my job is feeding people and that's what I do." Cédric Herrou shows us that one person can make a difference in other people’s lives despite resistance or inaction at the level of the state.
8. Get involved
Apply the concepts shared on this website as you take action in the world. Search for volunteering opportunities that will reconnect you with the human scale of global trends. Search for organizations that will use your donations in effective and conscious ways. Actively research political issues and advocate for global-scale actions to make a difference.
Stopping genocide can especially seem like a problem for which there is no easy solution, but Professor Aliza Luft has provided some excellent suggestions in this essay on how to use boycotts and social media campaigns to pressure companies that do business with genocidal regimes and militias. This pressure can result in cutting off funding that aids violence. Luft writes, "Without money to fund their fighters, the militias can’t act."
The following is a list of excellent organizations that you can join or support to help address suffering around world:
Academics Stand Against Poverty – An international community of academics confronting the rules and practices that perpetuate global poverty.
Amnesty International – A global movement of more than 7 million people in over 150 countries and territories who campaign to end abuses of human rights
The Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation – Through education, training, and technical assistance, AIPR supports States to develop or strengthen policies and practices for the prevention of genocide and other mass atrocities
CanDo – A pioneering global community of humanitarians working to transform the way the world supports people in war-devastated areas
Doctors Without Borders – An independent, global movement providing medical aid where it’s needed most
Enough Project – Supports peace and an end to mass atrocities in Africa’s deadliest conflict zones
Frank – Connecting communicators, scholars, storytellers and activists working on the front line of social change
Genocide Watch – Genocide Watch exists to predict, prevent, stop, and punish genocide and other forms of mass murder
The International Committee of the Red Cross – Operates worldwide, helping people affected by conflict and armed violence and promoting the laws that protect victims of war
International Rescue Committee – Helps people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover and regain control of their future
Jewish World Watch – Mobilizes against genocide and mass atrocities through education, advocacy and projects serving survivors of acts of inhumanity
The Life You Can Save – The mission of TLYCS is to help change the culture of giving in affluent countries while dramatically raising annual donations to highly impactful nonprofits that reduce suffering and premature death, and improve life and livelihoods, for people living in extreme poverty
Mercy Corps – A global team of humanitarians who partner with communities, corporations and governments to transform lives around the world
Operation Broken Silence – Building a global movement to empower the Sudanese people through innovative programs
Partners in Health – Builds health systems in places where health care is most needed
Red Trunk Project – A cultural initiative based on the idea that children should learn to Respect every difference
Sudan Unlimited – Supports Sudanese and South Sudanese who are working tirelessly to secure freedom, justice, peace and prosperity for Sudan and South Sudan
Syrian American Medical Society – A global medical relief organization that is working on the front lines of crisis relief in Syria and beyond to save lives and alleviate suffering
The Trace – An independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to expanding coverage of guns in the United States
The UN Refugee Agency (aka UNHRC) – A global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – A living memorial to the Holocaust
The White Helmets – Volunteer rescue workers operating in Syria
Websites and Podcasts
The following is a list of important websites and podcasts that discuss themes related to the Arithmetic of Compassion:
Documentary Photography by Paul Jeffrey – Website of a photojournalist who lived in Central America for two decades, documenting life, poverty, war and hope
Empirical Ecocriticism – Facilitates the development of empirical ecocriticism by providing information, compiling relevant publications, and enabling cross-disciplinary communication and collaboration
Hidden Brain podcast – Reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, and the biases that shape our choices
How to Make the World a Better Place by Nicholas Kristof – A guide to change the world
openDemocracy – An independent global media platform covering world affairs, ideas and culture which seeks to challenge power and encourage democratic debate across the world
Sudan Research, Analysis, and Advocacy by Eric Reeves – An unparalleled analysis of the uprising in Sudan
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication – Conducts scientific research on public climate change knowledge, attitudes, policy preferences, and behavior, and the underlying psychological, cultural, and political factors that influence them