The Current

We're bad at feeling compassion for large groups, says psychology professor

Research by psychology professor Paul Slovic finds humans are bad at dealing with big problems involving a lot of people — as opposed to individual suffering. He tells The Current how our brain plays tricks on us to prevent us from caring.
We're better at feeling compassion for one person than for thousands, according to psychology professor Paul Slovic who researches the psychology of decision-making. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

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Paul Bloom, a Yale University psychology professor, argues in his bookAgainst Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, the problem with our world is there's too much empathy.

But according to University of Oregon psychology professor Paul Slovic, compassion has got problems too — specifically when our compassion for one suffering person outweighs our caring for the many.

Slovic is the president of Decision Research, a non-profit group that researches the psychology of decision-making, and his project The Arithmetic of Compassion looks at how our minds prevent us from acting in humanitarian ways.

"There are certain tricks that our minds play on us that provide obstacles to action and we're trying to get people aware of that so we can overcome those obstacles." 
The arithmetic of compassion is flawed, says psychology professor Paul Slovic. (

He tells The Current's Friday host Laura Lynch that when the iconic photo of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy face down on the beach after he drowned came out, people cared about the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

"This one picture woke the world and suddenly people cared about the problem." 

Slovic's research found donations on behalf of the Red Cross to care for Syrian refugees spiked after the picture emerged.

"Why were  we so numb to the statistics that we had to be awakened by a single photograph?"

According to Slovic, our brain plays tricks on us.

"We have two ways of thinking about these problems characterized by what Daniel Kahneman called fast and slow thinking," he explains.

"Fast thinking is kind of our intuitive gut reaction … that's our default mode of thinking."

The fast system is designed to help people think about one person and makes an emotional connection very powerfully.

"But what we find is that as the number of people at risk increase, even starting with the number two we start to lose contact — we start to lose feelings."

"So by the time that we're talking about about, you know, large numbers they're just numbers they carry no feelings, no emotion and we don't really care about them."

When it comes to slow thinking, we should be multiplying the importance of lives but feelings are insensitive.

"The feeling system can't count. It can't add. It can't multiply."

"The arithmetic of compassion is a flawed arithmetic. You know it's maximum at number one."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.