Friday, September 14, 2007

Does empathy make effective charity more difficult?

Here's another bit of info that supports my "fish out of water" thesis, i.e. that human beings and our instincts are not designed to handle the modern world. It turns out that human empathy is good for getting you to care about the suffering of one person, but the greater the number of people who are suffering, the less empathic we feel:

In one recent experiment, Slovic presented subjects with a picture of "Rokia," a starving child in Mali, and asked them how much they'd be willing to give to help feed her. Then he showed a different group photos of two Malinese children -- "Rokia and Moussa." The group presented with two kids gave 15 percent less than those shown just one child. In a related experiment, people were asked to donate money to help a dying child. When a second set of subjects was asked to donate to a group of eight children dying of the same cause, the average donation was 50 percent lower.
(HT: Sullivan) The column then goes on to speculate why Bill Gates might be a very effective philanthropist. He might be effective precisely because he's not very empathic:

Which brings me back to Gates. The guy is practically a social cripple, and at times he has seemed to lack human empathy. But he's also a geek, and geeks are incredibly good at thinking concretely about giant numbers. Their imagination can scale up and down the powers of 10 -- mega, giga, tera, peta -- because their jobs demand it.

So maybe that's why he is able to truly understand mass disease in Africa. We look at the huge numbers and go numb. Gates looks at them and runs the moral algorithm: Preventable death = bad; preventable death x 1 million people = 1 million times as bad.

We tend to think that the way to address disease and death is to have more empathy. But maybe that's precisely wrong. Perhaps we should avoid leaders who "feel your pain," because their feelings will crap out at, you know, eight people.

I'm not as down on empathy as the author of the column: empathy seems like a good trait for helping one person instead of zero people. And going from helping zero people to helping one person is an important step. I should take it more often than I do. But I agree that to tackle macro problems on a global scale, empathy is not nearly enough. To save one child, give me a kind-hearted person. To save a hundred thousand children, give me someone whose good at logistics and has the ability to raise money, even if they're a jerk. To save ten million children, well, maybe Bill Gates is exactly the right person for the job.


Anonymous Mad Latinist said...

Reminds me of the bystander effect.

8:05 AM, September 14, 2007  

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