Why you’re numb to the horrors in Syria, according to an empathy researcher

A girl from Syria looking through opening a door

At least 99 children are among those slain following new government-led bombardments of eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Syria’s capital city of Damascus, where more than 460 people have died since Sunday night, as Reuters reported Friday. The attacks on the rebel-held enclave have resulted in the highest short-span death toll of the civil war in nearly five years, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

It’s reported that people have been burned out of their homes, doctors must resort to using expired medicine and families have been eating rotten food to survive. The current state of the conflict has been described as “catastrophic,” “hell on earth,” an “extermination” and “beyond imagination” and images from the nation also led the Wednesday front pages of the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

And yet, as the latest crisis has unfolded, the world has responded with an incongruous emotion: Indifference.

Specifically — despite the week of carnage and horrifying imagery of civilian death — Google search queries about the nation remained low on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, particularly relative to searches for other newsworthy terms currently trending, like “Olympics” and “Florida.”

Mic/Google Trends

Why do global observers appear to be so apathetic to the killing in Syria?

One explanation is that, in addition to being more preoccupied with matters closer to home, the public has simply grown used to the 7-year-old civil war, as Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland suggested.

Yet there might be even more at play psychologically, according to professor Paul Slovic, a leading scholar on apathy toward genocide and decision research at the University of Oregon and co-author of Numbers and Nerves. Simply put, research suggests humans are not good at extending empathy to large groups, he said in a phone interview.

“There are several psychological obstacles to caring about distant suffering,” Slovic said. “One is that we react strongly to individuals at risk and want to protect individuals in danger, but as numbers increase, we lose our ability to engage emotionally. They just become numbers ... it is said that statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.”

Amer Almohibany AFP/Getty Images

Indeed, this “compassion fade” or “psychic numbing” in response to higher numbers of victims is just one of three major factors that Slovic said could help explain people’s muted responses to humanitarian crises like that in Syria — even as appalling acts of violence escalate.

Here are those major factors he describes, explained.

1. We’re numb to the pain of larger groups

If humans were perfectly rational, we might feel a certain amount of anguish at the thought of one death, twice as much sorrow with two deaths and so on — but studies by Slovic and other researchers have found, perhaps surprisingly, quite the opposite effect.

In one 2014 study Slovic co-authored, Swedish undergraduates were asked to review profiles of either one or two poor children at risk of starvation, and then choose how much money they’d be willing to donate to help, how they’d feel about donating and how big a difference they thought their giving would make.

The researchers found that not only were donations higher when subjects were asked to give to one child — as opposed to two — but they were also more likely to feel positive emotions about donating.

In fact, that emotional response, as opposed to beliefs about making a difference, seemed to be connected with the psychic numbing or fading of empathy toward two children versus one.

And such feelings about one’s own altruistic acts — that “warm glow of satisfaction,” as Slovic described it by phone, or the lack thereof — also play a role in the second factor underlying “the strange arithmetic of compassion”: something called pseudoinefficacy.

2. Mass suffering undermines our motivation to help even individuals

Slovic’s research on pseudoinefficacy — or the illusive belief that actions you take won’t make a difference — has found another reason people might feel less positive about providing aid to those in need.

It’s not just that you think your efforts might be a drop in the bucket, Slovic said: It also “doesn’t feel as good to help when you are aware of all the people you aren’t helping.”

Indeed, when you’re reminded of the large scale of suffering, “irrelevant negative feelings associated with those not able to be helped [appear] to blend with the good feelings for those who can be helped, leading to dampened warm glow,” Slovic and his co-authors wrote.

One relevant experiment, Slovic said, found that when people are told they can help a hungry child by sending money to an aid organization, “a certain percentage of people will donate, but if you show the same child alongside statistics [stating] she’s one of several million starving in these countries, then donations drop by half.”

In other words, our emotions are disproportionately influenced by the precise ways that others’ problems are presented to us. That might partly explain people’s selective attention toward the Syrian conflict, even though (or perhaps because) it is estimated to have cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

As Slovic and his co-authors wrote in another paper, “we cannot assume... statistics of mass human crises will capture our attention... the world was basically asleep as the body count in the Syrian war rose steadily.” That is, until 2015, when a viral “iconic image of a young Syrian child, lying face-down on a beach, woke the world for a brief time, bringing much-needed attention to the war and the plight of its many victims.”

Nilufer Demir Dogan News Agency AFP/Getty Images

And yet, alas, even “this empathic response was short-lived,” they wrote — an assertion the boy’s father himself made a year after the photo was taken.

3. We don’t act in ways we think we should

A final factor that hinders empathy, Slovic said, has to do with the prominence of certain social values over others when we are forced to make a decision.

Specifically — even if we believe theoretically that helping refugees and stopping mass atrocities worldwide is a top priority — when it comes time to take action, other more self-interested priorities tend to take precedence.

“If our government knows what’s going on [in Syria], why are they still not acting?” Slovic said. “Psychological work has shown we are more likely to help others when we are secure in our own lives... For top officials contemplating intervening in large crisis, there’s a risk. It could threaten national security, engender anti-American feelings, alienate political allies, put the military at risk or cost a lot of money.”

For these reasons, Slovic said, even when a person believes otherwise, they might tend to pick the easier or “more defensible choice of turning their back.”

“There’s this feeling that if there’s even the slightest risk to letting people into country, we can’t let them in,” he said.

Google Maps

It does not help that the feeling of geographical and cultural distance from victims reduces empathy, Slovic said. And competing priorities can also help explain why, for example, the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, might crowd out the crisis in Syria in the competition for American attention.

“Our feelings can’t add or scale up well,” he said. “If there’s a lot of anxiety in the the air and threatening information, which there certainly is right now, that comes in and is part of the mix. In order to discriminate and think logically, you need to think slowly... But instead you think fast and don’t question, ‘Is a school shooting actually relevant to how I react to Syria?’”

Slovic continued: “It’s not that any of these problems are easy, but that we underreact. There’s more we can do about each of them; we have the capacity.”

How do we get people to care about Syria?

Even relative to the volume of searches for “Syria” over the past five years, interest in the subject today has essentially flatlined — with the last two major spikes in queries occurring only when sarin gas chemical weapons attacks were reported in April 2017 and August 2013, and a smaller bump in searches when the aforementioned photo went viral.

Mic/Google Trends

From a purely rational standpoint, this doesn’t quite make sense.

While it is certainly true, for example, that painful chemical weapons carry a particular type of horror, does that justify the wide difference in search interest following the sarin attack in April 2017 — when it’s estimated 89 people died — versus the most recent “conventional” attack that killed hundreds in Syria?

“Our feelings grow more engaged with certain forms of assault on human beings,” Slovic said. “Gas is invisible and horrific, while bombs are more visible and familiar. For whatever reason, it’s more acceptable to drop barrel bombs on people than expose them to chemical weapons... but those reasons are hard to defend with slow thinking.”

To borrow from political science professor and author of “The Chemical Weapons Taboo” Richard Price, this discrepancy means we perhaps should “wonder not so much why chemical weapons are special, but why the world has a higher tolerance for so many other means and scales of violence as ‘conventional’ — with all the legitimacy that term implies,” as Price wrote in the Boston Globe in 2013.

In general — for all the reasons outlined above and others — it is tough to get people to care about mass violence, particularly when the situation, as in the Syrian conflict, is complex.

Yet if your goal is to encourage peace, engagement and humanitarian aid, there are also some hopeful lessons in the psychological literature that suggest potential solutions — whether you work for a non-profit, in media, or are simply trying to urge your friends to pay closer attention to crises in Syria or elsewhere. Specifically, it is possible to reduce some of the numbing effects described above.

Compassion fade, for example, is mitigated when large groups of victims are described in a more coherent way — like as a family.

Specifying names, stories and images that humanize those in need can also increase engagement. And Slovic and his partners specify other ways to bridge the empathy gap at their website arithmeticofcompassion.org.

If you hope to personally help victims of the violence in Syria, you have many options. You might, for example, support relevant campaigns at Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF or Save the Children — or learn more about others supporting victims on Charity Navigator’s landing page on the Syrian crisis.

Finally, to better understand the conflict in Syria and what can be done about it politically, check out these explainers and stories by Brookings, CNBC, Vox, USA Today, Reuters, Al Jazeera, the Guardian, Mother Jones, Foreign Policy the Nation, Politico, the New York Times and Fox News.

Feb. 23, 2018, 2:45 p.m. Eastern: This story has been updated.