The Psychology Of Compassion And Conflict: Why Don’t We Empathize More?

When it comes to issues of war and peace, compassion and empathy are essential traits that can help lead us towards less conflict. These feelings allow us to connect to other humans, and make us want to help others even if we haven’t met them and they happen to live a completely different lifestyle on the other side of the world. Media platforms, such as the news and cinema, have constantly portrayed this power of compassion in order to resolve problems through feel-good-stories that end either when the characters ‘put themselves in the other person’s shoes’ or when they unite and work together. This is also evident throughout history in moments of conflict where we realize the humanity of our enemy and can no longer fight. For example, the Christmas Truce in WWI was a strong moment of peace that allowed soldiers from both sides to come together and celebrate their shared holiday and resulted in a reluctance to resume fighting the next day. However, more recently there has been an uprising in media exposure of conflicts around the world that has become so technologically accessible that we are continuously exposed to horrific images almost every day from every technological platform. This is overwhelming for any average person, so we understandably have mental coping mechanisms that help us deal with the emotions that these events evoke. Unfortunately, our cognitive coping methods often involve us losing our compassion for others, and result in us ignoring mass atrocities across the world. Instead, we seem to accept these injustices simply as common occurrences when we should be outraged or upset. So what are these coping mechanisms and how can we utilize them to help us want to help others?

Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, studies the capacity of the human mind when it comes to empathizing with mass numbers of people. Slovic’s research shows that as the number of victims rises in a tragedy, we become less likely to empathize and help, even when the number only goes from one to two people. He calls this phenomenon ‘psychic numbing’ and explains that the “opposite side of that is something we call the singularity effect, which is an individual life is very valued. We all go to great lengths to protect a single individual or to rescue someone in distress, but then as the numbers increase, we don’t respond proportionally to that.” Slovic has examined this effect in other studies to do with money, discovering that we find it easier to connect with and visualize one thing at once. This makes sense, as it is harder to focus on more than one thing at a time, and in the context of compassion, it takes far more effort to pay close attention to multiple people compared to one. So what can we do with this information?

Slovic believes that individual stories “can be very effective… if there’s an action that can be taken, then, while you’re engaged.” So conflict can empower us with the motivation to help, as long as our interest is heightened because of one person’s moving story. This is an important point for the media and, more importantly, charities to note as our investment in individual lives can be used as a tool to completely change the public’s outlook on an issue, allowing for more interest and money to be raised. An example of this was a surge in interest and donations after images emerged of a young Syrian boy who had drowned and washed up on a beach after he tried to flee the conflict. Slovic notes that because of that photo, donations to the Swedish Red Cross went up from $8,000 to $430,000 within a day, and general interest lasted for a further month. However, this is not the blanket solution to our psychic numbing when it comes to conflicts, as there are plenty of examples where this doesn’t work. But, it is an important approach that we need to keep in mind when reporting conflict to ensure that each story has the ability to evoke our empathy. Using this approach further ensures we do not overwhelm the audience with numbers to the point where they become numb to feeling any compassion for others.

The Dalai Lama once wrote that “we can help ourselves only if we help the Other. It is the cultivation of love and compassion, our ability to enter into and to share another’s suffering, that are the preconditions for the continued survival of our species… To understand the suffering of others… means to possess true empathy… The feeling of community with all living creatures can be attained only if we recognize that we are all basically united and dependent on one another.” But how many people can we truly help, show compassion to, or empathize with? These questions are a classic example of a second cognitive weakness that is detrimental to our empathy: ‘our false sense of inefficacy’. This occurs when we feel like we can’t make a difference, and think that what we do doesn’t matter. This feeling of inefficacy happens when we think the negative outweighs the positive, for example thinking about all the people you aren’t helping when you help someone else. This issue again comes back to us becoming overwhelmed by that mass of problems. We can in fact help, but because there is so much to help with we think there is nothing we can do because there is no way of fixing everything. We sort of just give up because it’s all too hard.

Slovic further argues we have a “bias in decision-making toward the intrinsically more defensible” option. This third cognitive process is known as the prominence effect and occurs when we use a simplified rule to choose between options. By using this we feel more comfortable because if someone questions our decision we have chosen the option that is easier to defend. This is evident in how politicians currently frame the refugee crisis by claiming the solution is to “stop the boats” or implement a “Muslim ban”. Slovic states that politicians do this because “even though you say it’s important to attend to the humanitarian catastrophes, when it comes down to choice, the choice to protect the homeland is more defensible.” Further, when something is defensible it often seems like the easier and more logical solution when it might not be.

This year, Slovic has been specifically applying psychology to genocide to try and tackle some of these issues. He states that “recognizing that we cannot rely only upon our moral feelings to motivate proper action against genocide, we must look to moral argument and international law. The 1948 Genocide Convention was supposed to meet this need, but it has not been effective. It is time to examine this failure in light of the psychological deficiencies described here and design legal and institutional mechanisms that will enforce proper response to genocide and other forms of mass murder.” Therefore, we need to take what we know about how the human mind functions and use this information in our critical re-thinking of solutions for peace and conflict.

Arno Gruen, a late American psychologist, also studied the psychology of peace and war. He argued that we have been led to believe that “human evolution advanced solely by means of struggle and competition and that the survival of one species depends on the defeat of another one.” This belief causes us “to push aside our feelings, which we consider to be irrational” and instead view emotions as “a threat” that “must be repressed; therefore, we judge a way of thinking to be realistic if it has been freed of empathy and the capability to share pain, to understand suffering, and to feel a connection with all forms of life.” If this is true, we must also rethink and re-frame how we perceive emotions and feelings. They should not continue to be seen as weak or invaluable as they do dictate all our behaviours and thoughts, making them extremely powerful and central to any issues that involve humankind.

Psychological analysis opens up an important conversation about how we can approach peace and conflict solutions to make them more engaging. The findings highlight the necessity for us to remain empathetic and compassionate in order to reach real, long-lasting solutions. These feelings need to further be consolidated in global systems like international law and the media. However, the first step is for each of us to be more aware of these psychological tendencies in our own behaviour, and to make others aware of their own. Because if we all had true compassion and empathy for all, and we all acted on these morals, would these conflicts even exist?

Kate Eager


The Organization for World Peace