Friday, March 16, 2007

The power of one: Compassion is strictly a one-to-one thing

I'd love to blog more today, but must run off to do a TV show (Behind the Story, where journalists talk about how news is covered).

Meanwhile, here's an item by a psychologist that highlights the importance of focusing on one person if you want to encourage people to feel compassion:
A recent study I conducted with Deborah Small of the University of Pennsylvania and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University found that donations to aid a starving 7-year-old child in Africa declined sharply when her image was accompanied by a statistical summary of the millions of needy children like her in other African countries. The numbers appeared to interfere with people’s feelings of compassion toward the young victim.

It's not hard to see why. Compassion requires putting yourself in another person's shoes. I can imagine what it would be like to be seven years old and starving, but I haven't the least idea what it would be like to be 500 000 people starving.

Actually, I haven't the least idea what it would be like to be 500 000 people in any condition. Inundating me with numbers doesn't help. Like most human beings, I can't easily grasp big numbers without mathematical operations, and the process doesn't especially elicit compassion.

I like author Slovic's quote from Mother Teresa: "If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." We need to know we will make a real difference in one individual's life.
My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007).

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