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More than a Feeling

Empathy is a sweet impulse, sure enough. Through it people experience the suffering of others, and are led to selfless, often breathtaking, acts of charity.

Thanks to our empathic instincts, pictures of people in discomfort induce pain in viewers; our empathy motivates us to help our more vulnerable fellow humans, the hungry and the sick.

Yet empathy will only get us so far. Indeed, a recent wave of studies has demonstrated the limits of empathy when it comes to helping those in need. These studies show that, while our empathic instincts are real and sincere, they also have a short reach in time and space. For instance, psychologists Deborah Small and George Loewenstein have shown that our empathy wilts in the face of statistical reasoning. Their research suggests that people can empathize deeply with one individual, but this empathy wanes when those people are confronted with statistics of mass suffering. In one study, people were more likely to give to charity when told the personal story of a single hungry girl than when confronted with statistics of millions like her; the hungry girl’s story by itself even induced more generosity than when it was combined with those statistics.

In related research, Paul Slovic has traced the numbing effects of mass suffering to a principle familiar in perception: In the same way that a sound easily audible in quiet is harder to hear against noise, or a small change in brightness noticeable in a dim light would be utterly undetectable in a bright one, we fail to appreciate the true difference in suffering as losses of life increase. While saving one life may seem imperative to us when it is the first or only life saved, “the importance of saving one life is diminished against the background of a larger threat,” Slovic writes in a 2007 paper. “We will likely not ‘feel’ much different, nor value the difference, between saving 87 lives and saving 88.”

Given the nature of our empathic impulses, it’s no wonder we tend to focus our attention on the local misfortune, the present worry, and the psychologically salient, tragic individual. We lavish attention on famously tragic individuals, such as John F. Kennedy, Jr., Princess Diana, or Anna Nicole Smith, largely ignoring hundreds of thousands dying more anonymously in wars, genocides, famines, and epidemics.

So if we’re serious about improving the lot of people in need, we can’t rely too heavily on our empathic imagination; it is far too limited to address the massive social problems we face and to promote the priorities we value. Instead, we must take out of our hands the decision to help and commit ourselves to fair policy—policy designed to ensure that our country’s institutions treat individuals equally, offer them equal access to opportunities, and correct for luck-based differences in talent or wealth, typically at life’s start.

These kinds of policies have come under attack in recent years by a political movement that decries the idea of solving key social issues through government action. This political perspective should not come as a surprise: Alienated and intolerant people will always find a home in a country that began in an anti-government revolution, and where, less than a century later, half of the country took up arms against the federal government. At the moment, conservative legislators are being moved around by anti-government but pro-military “news” outlets, with loud and wild-eyed hosts who stage partisan political events to “cover” as news.

These vulgar spectacles of extremism may induce nostalgia for the dignified conservatism of the past, which simply claimed that solutions to social problems lay not in government and social policy but in the private, charitable choices made by individuals, guided by their own sense of empathy. But as research suggests, while we shouldn’t diminish the individual’s capacity for empathy, that empathy is too fickle, subject to too many biases, to tackle these problems on its own.

As an analogy, consider how you decide to make personal donations to charity. No matter how much you may empathize with the poor, ultimately your decision to give comes down to whether you feel you can make a donation without harming your own well-being. What’s more, a number of biases may prevent you from following through on your intention to help. For example, because we tend to focus our attention on tragic individuals rather than much larger populations that suffer, you may overlook worthy causes in favor of those that best grab your attention. We also discount the future—we tend to value the money we have today more than a slightly greater amount we’ll have later—and so you may find it easier to make charities wait until next year, when you expect to have more money. But given the impulse for immediate gratification, this will always be the case—you will always feel that you don’t have enough to give. What is important to the needy recipient, however, is whether you actually do have enough to give, not whether you feel you have enough to give.

So, instead of just relying on empathy as a guide, people are better off saving for charity using disciplined strategies of automatic deduction. The poor don’t need a potential donor’s empathy, after all; they need the donor’s discipline. A great example of this discipline is Christmas clubs, in which banks debit your savings or checking account on a schedule to ensure that you will have enough money to buy gifts for the holidays. One reason Christmas clubs work is that, like any automatic savings plan that starts small, we put the money aside without ever putting it in our pockets. We then adapt to our slightly reduced income, and it doesn’t make us any less happy.

We need to practice the same type of fiscal responsibility on a society-wide scale, codifying our empathic impulses in legislation rather than trusting that they’ll be expressed through private charity. Even after tapping all the sources of private charity in the United States, we may well fall short of satisfying the basic needs of our poor. The countries that are most successful in dealing with poverty in the present—countries with the lowest poverty rates—do not leave the fate of millions to the discretion of charitable individuals who can, for any reason, set the terms of the gift, or decide not to give at all. The only reliable alternative, then, is a social contract that guarantees basic needs to those who would otherwise not have them. This measure is an example of empathy memorialized in policy.

Some of these policies can arise with the support of professional scientific associations that bring new psychological findings to the attention of policymakers. Others start with a legislator’s ad hoc request for a position paper relating to a policy committee’s purview. But policies also come in big leaps, pushed by a president with a strong conviction. Social Security owed much first to Franklin Roosevelt’s empathy, and then to his popularity and power.

A social contract can require taxation, especially when it mandates humane intervention. But people adapt to taxation. There is nothing to be gained by rhetoric which casts taxation for basic needs as theft. It is no more theft than are the taxes that go toward a prepared military, a watchful Securities and Exchange Commission, an effective fire and police department, or proper water and highway services.

With proper awareness of the uses and limits of empathy, we can appreciate the need for social policies meant to help people meet their basic material needs. It is oddly punitive to give people the option of ignoring impoverished children and then blame them when they, predictably, do. A civilized response to poverty focuses on filling empty stomachs and reversing hopeless prospects, not fanning sentimental mercies. Consider the Amish, whose communities build housing when needed, and create insurance and make loans to vulnerable family and neighbors. They identify the most potent causes of human suffering, create institutions and norms to counteract them—and dispense with the tradition of empathic handwringing.

Whenever we embrace the virtues of a compassionate society, we should also acknowledge that it is our human biases that cripple our compassion. Psychological discounting causes us to neglect our future selves and the lives of those remote from us. The status quo bias leads us to thoughtlessly reproduce costly decisions, and to ignore more valuable courses of action. Legislation anchored by solid science can disable these biases, or turn them into opportunities.

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