Yesterday morning, I found in the New York Times an editorial by Nick Kristof. The article, “Save the Darfur Puppy,” tries to grasp at some of the issues revealed by psychological research and “the implication of a series of studies by psychologists trying to understand why people — good, conscientious people — aren’t moved by genocide or famines.”
The research found that people were more likely to want to help individuals, rather than groups — even groups as small as two. By coincidence I was about to write a little on this topic here myself, as something of a followup to the previous posts, in large part spurred by a recent post by Jim Johnson entitled “Photographic Conventions & Their Vicissitudes: The Irony of ‘Vividness’,” in which Johnson challenges the convention, common among photojournalists and other documentary-styled photographers (and TV) that mass-scale social issues are best shown by revealing the stories of individual persons (often the suffering of those people: think Salgado, think Abu Ghraib, think Smith’s Spanish Village). In that post’s comments, another reader mentioned a recent Situationist article, “Too Many to Care,” which likewise cites the same research referenced by Kristof.
Personally, I think that such research validates the usefulness of these photographic conventions: that a direct appeal to people’s emotions comes from proximity (perhaps by engaging the “mirror neuron” regions?) and that emotion is far more important in driving action than is reason. Is this something of a bitter pill, does it reveal something in human nature that we’d wish were not true? Yes. Does it mean that there can’t be better approaches? No, and Johnson’s to be lauded for proposing alternative photographic solutions, approaches that photographers could make to large-scale social issues that convey both emotional power and yet a sense of larger scales and stories.
My inclination is to think that humans, who evolved over most of their history in very small bands, have a hard time feeling direct-affect compassion towards groups larger than their own atomic families. We can reason that a compassionate stance is a good one, but that reasoning is less immediate. So far we have had some bits of luck in our large social systems. After all, isn’t democracy itself a large-scale form of “love thy neighbor”?
As humans, we are not perfect animals. Our inability to grasp at large-scale problems on an emotional level is, as Paul Slovic writes, a “deeply unsettling insight into human nature.” What’s positive is the notion that it is an insight, and that we do find it unsettling. It means that we know we can do better. And if we know it, we can seek better-informed ways to act on that knowledge.