Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Media Generated Empathy

The following type of stories appear repeatedly in the news: A person or family, down on their luck due to unforeseen circumstances, perhaps due to illness or economic downturn. The story airs on national news... and suddenly they become the recipients of a huge outpouring of contributions of money, job offers and scholarships.

For example recently the CBS news show “60 Minutes” ran a story about homeless children in Florida; parents laid off work, living in their car, using a gas station restroom to clean up for school. The story had a huge impact on viewers; so much so that a follow-up story was broadcast about viewers sending in nearly one million dollars in contributions. One of the little girls in the story was wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the name of a university – that particular university offered the girl a full scholarship. [1]

I see these stories and think: "Great… but what about the hundreds of thousands of other families who weren't lucky enough to appear on '60 Minutes'. What do they get?"

The answer is, they get nothing! People see these stories in the context of an isolated incident. They know that there is widespread poverty and deprivation in the world, in their community. But until it becomes personalized, most people are blind to issue.

Yet oddly we recognize that most humans are generally obsessed with a sense of morality. Granted how we each of us personally defines morality varies widely from individual to individual. But a sense of morality infuses a large percentage of how we interact with others. A number of scientific studies have actually been conducted in an attempt to find a biological basis for our sense of morality. At the biological level, we know that when levels of oxytocin are raised in the blood stream, we feel more magnanimous and interested in moral abstracts.

Interestingly the mere acting or invoking of empathy actually causes the oxytocin; some have begun to call it it the “moral molecule”. But oxytocin has a very short half-life and our ability as humans to summon empathy is equally short lived. Empathy rapidly attenuates as the demand for it becomes more widely spread. A story about four specific homeless children in Florida strongly evokes empathy in a large population of television viewers. But a story instead about the hundreds of nameless, faceless homeless children, often entirely misses the empathy bulls-eye. In fact often the opposite happens; the sense of morality instead generating indignation and the feeling that empathy is undeserved.

I often find myself dealing with negative emotions when, confronted at some check-out counter at a store or restaurant, there is the seemingly ubiquitous slotted can next to the cash register: "Help little Timmy get that liver transplant, his parents have no insurance." I’ve even dropped spare change in such cans myself. But I wonder what would that store would look like if there was a slotted contribution can for every needy Timmy, Johnny, Sally… all the thousands of needy people just in my area alone? Slotted cans would be stacked on every surface up to the ceiling, all over the floor and rolling out the door!

I find outrage in the realization that most people are unable to generate even the remotest sense of empathy, and remote sense of morality, to those they have no way of individually connecting to? Who decides who has earned a donation jar or nightly news story in their name and who will continue to suffer silently in anonymity?

1. Homeless teens on "60 Minutes" get free college, December 3, 2011


DJan said...

It seems to me that when poverty is personalized, I might be able to do something about it. When I view it in the abstract, I can't figure out how I might alleviate even one little bit. I have been reading about people going to KMart and other stores and paying off the balances of accounts of strangers.

Giving feels good. Trying to fix the entire problem doesn't feel good, it feels frustrating, since I can't.

Rain said...

Yeah, you nailed it. When poverty is personalized, people get a warm and cuddly feeling for doing something about it and off the hook for really doing something about it. I'm with you on this one.

Paul said...

Helping someone seems to help the helper as much as the person who is being helped...

Nance said...

"Slotted cans would be stacked on every surface up to the ceiling, all over the floor and rolling out the door!"

Empathy, as something more than a passing hormonal rush, can be developed, nurtured, cultivated in oneself. When that's been done to a sufficient degree, one can be said to truly "vote one's conscience."

Excellent choice of subject matter, Robert.

Jono said...

A child goes missing every 40 seconds in the U.S. How come we only hear about baby so-and-so, but none of the rest?

Robert the Skeptic said...

DJan The good news is that there are entire systems in place (yes, in Government) which address these issues. This is why our country doesn't look like India or Guatemala. The bad news is that these people are being vilified by the Conservatives as undeserving of the modest help they do get. I guess the Conservatives in this county WANT the US to look like India or Guatemala.

Rain You hit it right on the head. I wish at least these news stories would end with a line something like, well that takes care of one family, now if we could just do this for the three million others.

Paul It does, the oxytocin "rush" people get from acting on their empathy is quite pleasurable.

Nance People feel empathy on many different levels. It can extend to the broader base of humanity, or it can be more focused... such as empathy for people "just like us". That results in one group being considered deserving while the other is undeserving. What I find remarkable is the number of religious people on whom the sense of a broader morality is completely off their radar.

Jono I would venture to say this is because only an extremely small handful of missing children go missing at the hands of strangers. The vast majority of child abductions are done by an estranged parent or relative. Like plane crashes, the rarity and seemingly uncontrollable factors, drill into our deepest fears.

billy pilgrim said...

the 60 minutes piece reached millions of people and was professionally crafted to evoke sympathy in the audience so i'm not surprised by the results.

i pass by homeless people panhandling on a daily basis. i often give money to older men or anyone with a dog.

History Doc said...

We do get overwhelmed with these stories, especially at the holidays.

On the other side of the issue, though, hubby read me a story in the local paper about a woman who couldn't afford presents for her 10 great-grandchildren. SHE WAS 55!

My empathy may be being pulled in many directions, but hers was not right up there.

Rubye Jack said...

I don't know. The whole thing is so sad. Our government really does help a lot of needy people with homes and food, but there are so many people who don't qualify because they don't have kids or are not elderly. There's so many mentally ill people on the streets or in prisons, and I think why pay off a layaway bill for someone who can at least afford an installment plan when there are so many more who can't even begin to think about layaway. I could go on and on and on but what good does it do.

This is a great post Robert.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Billy Yes, the TV network would not have done a story about a haggard, toothless, middle-aged man... cute kids have built-in cuteness and tug at our heartstrings. I am surprised they didn't throw in a little puppy as well.

Doc On the Mormon side of my wife's family, her aunts and uncles have grand kids and great grand kids too numerous to bestow gifts and money on.

Rubye I really think this thing of people paying off other's layaway is misguided. There is no means testing, for example; because someone puts a product on layaway does not mean they are necessarily poor. But that is the situation with most local food banks as well, they just "assume" people asking for food help are indigent. Some are not, and since there is no means testing, people who may not be in need still get a free handout.

secret agent woman said...

My thought about stories like that is that it's great that the family is being helped, but I'd rather see the money distributed at least a little more widely. That family doesn't need a million bucks - the same money could help several families. Ad for the jars onthe counters, I'm a cynic. I don't trust that they are going where they are supposed to.

KleinsteMotte said...

This is an issue that has been around forever. There will never be a solution that will set it right.
But we do have to do whatever we can in order to fulfill our own sense of goodness. Fairness does not enter the picture.
As far as the oxytocin effect, might I add that not all people have a positive nice feeling. The hallucinogenic side effect can be very disturbing to some. My hubby just went through hell when it was given to him as a pain med after the bypass. And he finally refused the drug.

Kay Dennison said...

I have a few charities that I support in a small way because I'm legally poor. My favorite way is to volunteer my time. My priest comments about my "hard work" (I think of it as fun) at our parish's soup kitchen and tells me to stay and eat but I never do. I'm careful with my small income and there's always food in my house. I don't do it to feel good although it's a nice side effect. It's also payback for a time in my life where I was at rock bottom and some good folks helped me rebuild my life.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent> I agree with you on both accounts.

KleinstMotte You may be confusing oxtocin with Oxycodone which is a strong pain reliever. I've had it and find it fairly "doping" and avoid it when I can.

Kay You know, giving or donating your time I think is highly more valuable than money and goes further. Plus you can have a direct effect on people, and realized the effect yourself. Good way to go.