Compassion Fade Causes and Effects

Compassion Fade

Compassion fade refers to the propensity to develop less empathy as the number of individuals requiring assistance rises. Being a form of cognitive bias, it exerts a substantial influence on the prosocial conduct that gives rise to acts of assisting. Paul Slovic, a psychologist and researcher, developed the term.

This phenomenon is particularly evident in the hesitancy of individuals to offer assistance during times of mass crises. Consequently, the psychological theory known as “compassion collapse” (or “collapse of compassion”) is intricately connected to the notion of compassion fade.

This collapse denotes the inherent human inclination to distance oneself from collective suffering. In discussing how individuals react to mass atrocities, Slovic also introduced the notion of psychophysical numbing — a diminished sensitivity to the value of life and an inability to appreciate loss — through a collectivist interpretation of the phenomenon of psychic numbing.

Affect heuristic, a mental shortcut or heuristic that causes individuals to base their decisions on emotional attachments to a stimulus, is the most prevalent explanation for compassion fade. An additional rationale is motivated emotion regulation, which occurs when individuals repress their emotions in order to prevent themselves from becoming emotionally overwhelmed, and affective bias, which amplifies empathy when one can visualize a victim.

Compassion Fade vs Compassion Fatigue

While they may sound similar, compassion fade and compassion fatigue are distinct concepts. Compassion fatigue refers to the emotional and physical exhaustion that can occur from prolonged exposure to helping others in distress. It is closely linked to professionals in caregiving roles experiencing burnout.

In contrast, compassion fade is a more immediate and situational response—usually among the general public—to overwhelming numbers of people in need. It is grounded in the psychology of perception and emotion rather than the chronic stress associated with caregiving.

Effects of Compassion Fade

Compassion fade often results in a decreased willingness to donate to charitable causes when faced with large numbers of individuals in need, as opposed to a single individual. People tend to feel less empathetic and thus less inclined to give when the scope of those needing help widens. For instance, a scenario involving a single child in need can generate greater charitable donations, compared to a situation where multiple children require aid.

Some economic theorists contend that, irrespective of the context, individuals ought to react more powerfully when more people are in need of assistance, since emotions and helping behavior ought to correspond with the number of those in need. Despite this, the observed outcome differs when psychologists assess genuine emotion and altruistic conduct.

On the contrary, individuals are more likely to feel intense emotions and exhibit a fervent desire to assist when confronted with a single person in need; when confronted with a large number of individuals, however, they exhibit diminished emotion and behave less charitably.

Decision Making in Emergencies

In emergency situations, such as during a natural disaster, compassion fade can affect decision-making. The valuation of lives can become skewed, leading responders and the public to allocate resources and attention disproportionately, often favoring smaller, more identifiable groups over larger, statistical representations of victims.

Influence on Humanitarian Aid

The delivery and distribution of humanitarian aid can also be swayed by compassion fade. According to research on charity donations, donations are inversely proportional to the number of individuals in need.

For example, during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, over 3400 people died, while the American Red Cross received $100,000 in donations over six months. However, in 2015, a crowdfunding campaign for a child in New York to attend Harvard garnered more than $1.2 million in a single month.

News Media

Event framing by viewers is influenced by the manner in which news events are presented.  According to Mark Hay, the Boko Haram massacre from January 3-7, 2015 received almost no immediate media attention; however, on January 7, when 12 satirists from Charlie Hebdo magazine were killed in Paris, “the media erupted (and continues to erupt) with heartfelt outrage and constant coverage.”

Journalists such as Simon Allison of the Daily Maverick have argued that, while biased media coverage indicates that the media and the world do not mourn deaths in Africa in the same way that they do in the West, it also indicates a more subtle failure in people’s natural human ability to gather empathy as the number of victims rises following a mass killing or to see past the fact that numbers of people are not people, but rather numbers.

Causes of Compassion Fade

When individuals consider helping others in need, emotional response and the amount of empathy they feel can be influenced by whether they are alone or in a group. Studies suggest that groups tend to feel a diminished sense of responsibility, as the burden of action appears to be shared among all group members, leading to a decrease in individual compassion. On the other hand, individual decisions to help can be quite powerful, driven by personal emotional connections with victims.

Studies on charitable giving report that only lesser numerate persons with more abstract images made fewer gifts due to a lack of responsiveness. Similar research found that persons who can think rationally should have a more linear link between the number of victims and valuations.

Mental Imagery

Compassion seems to be experienced most powerfully when a person can pay greater attention to and clearly imagine a sufferer. Psychological studies into choice theory discovered that vivid mental inputs play a significant role in information processing.

Given the limitations of the human capacity for compassion, more vivid mental imagery are associated with more empathy. Single victims are easy to mentally envision in more detail. A vast number of victims is more difficult to imagine, therefore it becomes more depersonalized, causing the individual to feel apathetic and empathy to thin out.

Cognitive bias research classifies this tendency as a “heuristic” to explain how people make decisions based on how easy the information is to understand. It is easier to digest information about a particular target (i.e., one victim) than an abstract target (i.e., several victims), which loses the emotional significance associated with it.

Bystander Effect

Situational factors such as the amount of individuals readily available to help influence compassion fade, which impacts the emotional processes responsible for a person’s motivation to help. The bystander effect is the idea that when people are among other people, they are less likely to aid them than when they are alone.

Darley and Latane’s late 1960s research indicated that just 62% of participants were motivated to offer assistance while in a group of more than five people. Similar studies on helpful behaviour discovered that diffusion of responsibility played a significant influence in lowering an individual’s motivation to help. The bystander impact on compassion fade is exacerbated as the number of individuals in need of assistance increases, but the perceived burden of obligation on an individual decreases.

Emotional Processing

Compassion fade can be viewed as an attempt to control one’s emotions in the face of a widespread crisis. Research supports the idea that people shut out their feelings in order to prevent getting emotionally overwhelmed or agitated.

Vastfjall and Slovic’s 2014 experiment discovered that persons who did not moderate their emotions showed a diminished effect of compassion fading. Similar research on charitable donations revealed that people who could process information more effectively had stronger emotional responses, which led to larger donations.

The Identifiable Victim Effect

People typically feel more compelled to assist when they are presented with a single, identifiable victim—a phenomenon known as the identifiable victim effect, or the singularity effect. The emotional attachment that a potential donor can form with an identifiable individual often evokes a stronger compassionate response when compared to statistics or abstract numbers of people in need.

The identifiable victim effect has been shown to work even when a single victim is compared to two victims. When a charity displays two victims rather than one, the results demonstrate that the single victim receives much more donations. The paired victims likewise experienced less effect.

This finding gives evidence for compassion fade as being produced by an emotional reaction to a stimuli, as when people feel less affected, they are less likely to donate or aid a cause. The researchers also assessed how strongly participants believed their donation would benefit the children’s lives. There was no significant difference in the perceived chance that the donation would improve their lives when comparing the single-child and paired-child conditions.

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Last Updated on May 3, 2024