Escaping Affect: How Motivated Emotion Regulation Creates Insensitivity to Mass Suffering
The need to “put a face” on a humanitarian crisis and give it individual particularity is premised on a well-established phenomenon: As the numbers of a group experiencing suffering increases, the level of compassion felt for that group typically decreases. However, the mechanism behind this apparently counterintuitive dynamic — declining compassion as the level of suffering increases — has long resisted understanding.
A 2011 study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Georgia State University published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Escaping Affect: How Motivated Emotion Regulation Creates Insensitivity to Mass Suffering,” used three experiments to measure the collapse of compassion felt toward a group’s suffering under different emotional conditions. In contrast to previous theories suggesting humans are simply not “tuned” to respond proportionately to mass suffering, the study’s authors construct “an alternative account of the collapse of compassion.”
The study’s findings include:
- When subjects weren’t asked to donate aid money, they experienced more compassion toward suffering groups than suffering individuals. This suggests that self-interest can play a role when compassion decreases.
- Subjects who were naturally better at regulating their emotions showed a greater decrease in compassion for suffering groups (as compared with individuals) than did subjects with poor emotion regulation. This suggests that active regulation of inner sympathy is at work in the phenomenon.
- Subjects who were explicitly instructed to regulate their emotions showed more compassion toward a suffering individual than a group. However, subjects who were allowed to experience their emotions fully showed increasing compassion over time for single and multiple victims.
- There does not seem to be a finite amount of sympathy that is necessarily exhausted: “Rather than people desiring to help [others] based upon how much compassion they felt, people in our studies let themselves feel compassion based on whether or not they desired to help.”
The researchers conclude that the “collapse of compassion is not simply a functional limit on how much emotion people can feel for others. Rather, active self-regulation may be required to stifle the moral impulse toward multiple victims in the service of self-interest. With enough effort and skill, many manage to make statistics of people.”
Tags: disasters, ethics, poverty, psychology, cognition, genocide, philanthropy
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study "Escaping Affect: How Motivated Emotion Regulation Creates Insensitivity to Mass Suffering."
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the issue-related New York Times column "Save the Darfur Puppy."
- If you were to write your own column in response -- advancing the argument on this topic through the lens of this new research -- what key points would you bring in from the study?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.