Three Helpful Secrets for Putting Empathy to Work

By: Tim Elmore

One fascinating study on the subject of compassion was conducted at Princeton Seminary in 1973. Graduate students who studied theology were asked if they were entering the ministry because of innate reasons (i.e., they cared for people) or for circumstantial reasons (i.e., their father was a minister). After the survey, each respondent was told to offer a Bible study on the Good Samaritan. Three groups were formed, each was given a different urgent time to come and offer an effective homily on the passage.  

On the way to the location where they’d conduct the study, a man looking wounded lay on the sidewalk. As each respondent walked by, researchers observed who would stop to help this man in need. It may not surprise you that many failed to practice the story of the Good Samaritan on their way to teach the story. Interestingly, the majority of seminarians who walked past the man in need were the ones who were told they must get to the study quickly. In other words, they knew the right thing to do, they just didn’t have time to do it. They were preoccupied with talking about compassion instead of practicing compassion. 

Sound familiar?

Psychic Numbing 

The phenomenon is called “psychic numbing.” We become numb to the needs around us due to the lifestyles we live today:

  • Too little time.
  • Too much exposure to a need.  
  • Too overwhelmed. 

Frequently today, we feel overwhelmed. Psychologist Paul Slovic says, “Indifference sets in when we’re confronted with calamity or busyness that feels too big. It keeps us from doing something to change the circumstances.” For example, when we hear about or see a person suffering, we feel that pain ourselves. When we hear of a large group of people suffering, we stop feeling the pain as much. In fact, the larger the number is, the more our brain finds it difficult to identify. Statistics feel different than people. Psychic numbing occurs when the problem becomes large enough to become a number. We become numb. We fail to see that “statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.”

Dr. Slovic is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the president of Decision Research. He says, “I began researching this when our world became aware of the genocide happening in Rwanda in 1994. We failed to respond to 800,000 murders in about a hundred days. I wondered why we stopped to help some people who needed it but not others. The research revealed that the answer surrounds how many people are at risk. We believe one life is extremely valuable to protect, and we make an emotional connection to an individual in need. But it doesn’t scale up. We do so little to come to the aid of thousands at risk.”

Sadly, the data reveal the more people who die from a certain cause, the less we tend to care. 

Although we like to think humans are logical creatures, we don’t respond proportionately as the needs become greater. We are sensitized to risk by our feelings, not necessarily our minds.  There is a fine line between feeling engaged and feeling overwhelmed inside our brains. 

So, how do we convince ourselves to engage in compassionate acts for others? 

Three Secrets for Putting Empathy to Work

1. Put a single face to a problem.

Peter Singer illustrates the power of this secret. He invites you to imagine you’re walking by a pond and you see a child drowning. You want to jump in save the child’s life, but you realize it will ruin your nice suit or pair of shoes you’re wearing. What do you do? You jump in anyway because you know you can always buy new clothes. However, if you saw a second child drowning in the same pond, you begin to feel demotivated. It starts feeling like you can’t make a difference. Further, if you heard about starving children in need across the world that you could help with a donation of less than the price of a pair of shoes, you’re far less likely to act. You can’t see their faces. Studies found that the more people heard about larger numbers, their donations dropped in half. We somehow feel less motivated when we believe we can’t do it all. 

A photograph of one suffering child can transform public opinion about an issue. A photo of two suffering children affects us less. Predictably, it’s very difficult for humans to connect with the death of more than a quarter of a million people, the toll of COVID-19 in America alone so far. Dr. Slovac summarized it this way: “One life is valuable, but that life loses value, perceptually, if it is part of a larger tragedy.” Slovac’s team asked people to donate to children who were facing starvation. He found that as the number of children in need increased the propensity to give decreased. People’s sense of need to help did not grow as the number of victims got larger, but in fact, it got smaller. When we cannot put a face to a problem, our compulsion drops. It either is stagnant, or it declines. It was strongest for small numbers. 

The answer? We must do for one what we wish we could do for everyone. To prompt our brains to act, we often must imagine or identify a single individual and see their faces, and perceive their needs. Whittle the problem down to a single person. 

2. Act immediately to help.

This “false sense of inefficacy” can lead us to think that our efforts will be so puny that we’re better off doing nothing. We don’t feel we can really help; it won’t matter. We are emotionally paralyzed. The best way to combat feeling paralyzed is to simply act. Period. Don’t wait to feel something deeply or to calculate the depth of a single action.  Just do it. The more we act, the more our neural pathways are developed toward compassion and empathy inside our brain.  

I learned a long time ago that the world is full of two kinds of people: thinkers and doers. The doers need to think more, and the thinkers need to do more. Both are necessary, but today we are vulnerable to the “paralysis of analysis.” We consume so much information and we’re so afraid of making a mistake, we end up doing nothing as a result. It explains why so many smart people never reach their potential. This is why action is such a transformational force. While it’s not their fault, our culture has fostered “artificial maturity” in young people: 

  • They are over-exposed to information earlier than they are ready.
  • They are under-exposed to first-hand experiences later than they are ready.

This over and underexposure creates a teen that feels they comprehend a subject, but perhaps they’ve only read a few headlines and watched a video about it. They’ve never actually experienced it. They possess information but not application. Truthfully, we are all susceptible to this reality if we have a smartphone in our hand. Consider the “virtual” world kids grow up in today:

  1. They enjoy virtual reality through goggles and screens.
  2. They explore virtual relationships via social media.
  3. They display virtual progress by winning video games. 
  4. They experience virtual thrills on a roller coaster.
  5. They make virtual connections on the Internet.
  6. They produce virtual results on quizzes and exams.

We don’t have to look far or long to see pictures of people in need; people who need our compassion. A person who’s on social media consumes up to 10,000 messages a day when you consider all sources of information coming at us. This makes it easier to gripe (about the wrong that’s happening) or to swipe (to the next prompt on our phones) than it is to wipe the tears from the eyes of those who need it. Empathy develops when we act on what we see and feel. Even if it’s not strategic, action changes us and deepens our empathy. The key is to do it now. 

3. Imagine you’re the only one. 

People tend to become demotivated for a third reason: when we see others who could solve a problem and we assume they will. It becomes a copout. This is called, “The Bystander Effect.” It was first demonstrated and popularized in the laboratory by social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané in 1968 following the murder of Kitty Genovese. These researchers launched a series of experiments that demonstrated people are less likely to help a person in need when they know others are present. A crisis situation is staged where researchers measure how long it takes the participants to intervene, if they intervene at all. These experiments have found that the presence of others inhibits helping, often by a large margin. People tend to think: Oh, someone else will do something.

The fact is, often there may be others around who can help. In order to combat this becoming an excuse for inaction, we should imagine we are the only person present. We must use the old adage: “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” This of course means we’ll run the risk of taking too much control or not seeing how others could step in. Yet this is a far better problem to solve than everyone assuming someone else will solve a problem. Action beats regret most of the time. 

I saw a cartoon that said it all. It was a picture of a large crowd of people all saying aloud, “But what can one person do?” They had no clue they were all wondering the same thing. They could not see what good could happen if each of them took action. 

I wonder the same thing. May this next generation learn from us how to take action, even when it may feel insignificant.

Three Helpful Secrets for Putting Empathy to Work