Collapse of compassion

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The collapse of compassion is a psychological theory termed as the human tendency to turn away from mass suffering. This theory was proposed by Paul Slovic and Deborah Small.[1] This theory is directly linked to that phenomenon which states if the number of people in need of help increases, the amount of compassion people would feel toward the people decreases. Psychic numbing is also directly linked to the collapse of compassion as well. Slovic introduced the concept of psychophysical numbing, which is the diminished sensitivity to the value of life and an inability to appreciate loss.[2]

Researchers proposed that in the human mind, large groups are almost staggering and therefore they rather participate in regulating their emotions to limit their overwhelming levels of emotions due to their experiences. This is because individuals tend to draw out no emotion regulation compared to that of the groups.[3]


The collapse of compassion happens because people actively, perhaps subconsciously, regulate their emotions to withhold the compassion they feel for the groups of people who suffer. It is not because people are less capable of caring about plenty suffering rather than individuals who suffer. This can also be put as withholding our compassion for a wide range of sufferers not being a part of us from birth, rather it is something we do almost actively, in that moment people actively reduce or remove their affection.[4]

Economic and political views[edit]

The phenomenon of the collapse of compassion has also been written about in modern journalism and media reports. On 13 January 2015, Mark Hay reported that the massacre carried out by Boko Haram received almost no immediate media attention. However, on 7 January 2015, when 12 satirists from Charlie Hebdo magazine were killed in Paris, "the media erupted (and continues to erupt) with heartfelt outrage and constant coverage."[5] Journalists like Simon Allison of the Daily Maverick have clarified bias media coverage as a sign that the media and the world do not mourn deaths in Africa the way they do in the West, this obvious bias in media coverage also points towards a more understated failure in our natural human ability to gather any empathy as the number of victims rise following a mass killing or to see past the fact that numbers of people are not people, but that they are numbers.[6]

Economic theorists argued that emotions and helping behaviour should track the number of people in need of help, we should respond more strongly when more people are suffering, whatever the context.[7] Yet when psychologists measure actual emotion and helping behaviour, this is not the observed result. People tend to experience strong emotion in response to one individual in need of aid, and this translates into a strong desire to help. But when there are many individuals, people actually feel less emotion and act less charitably.[8]

Compassion fatigue[edit]

The collapse of compassion may be linked to that of compassion fatigue as well. Individuals with a higher capacity or responsibility to empathize with others may be at risk for compassion fatigue or stress, which is related to professionals and individuals who spend a significant amount of time responding to information related to suffering, according to Figley.[9] However, newer research by Singer and Ricard suggests that it is lack of suitable distress tolerance which gets people fatigued in compassion activities.[10] Research suggests that practice of nonjudgmental compassion can prevent fatigue and burnout.[11]


Ka Ho Tam

Ka Ho Tam hired 242 undergrad students to participate in his study, they read stories of people from different parts of the world who shared their experiences (e.g. having a family gathering) or specific to a particular culture (e.g. celebrating an Ethiopian festival). Thereafter participants of 1 to 8 poverty-stricken Ethiopian children, along with a description of how people from that part of Ethiopia are suffering. Lastly, these participants did questionnaires to measure similarity with and compassion toward the Ethiopian children. He found that, the reading of the shared experiences drew out compassion toward a single victim and not multiple victims. This can be further explained by saying that people actively suppress compassion when they think it might be overwhelming; this means that humans respond to the suffering of others based on their own self-interest.[12]

C. Daryl Cameron and B. Keith Payne

Cameron and Payne's experiment tested whether removing a source of motivation to regulate would reduce the collapse of compassion.Other researchers like Kogut and Ritov and Small et al. who also did studies included measures of three alternative explanations for the collapse of compassion: psychological distance, diffusion of responsibility, and success in helping the victims. People might experience less emotion toward multiple victims because they feel a greater psychological distance from these victims; because they feel less responsible for helping; or because they feel that their helping will not matter much. If these alternatives were to be eliminated however, these explanations would more support the financial cost as a critical factor in the collapse of compassion.

The nine items measuring compassion were averaged together. A two-way between-subjects analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted to examine the effects of help request and number of victims on compassion. There were no significant main effects of help request, or number of victims. However, there was a significant interaction between help request and number of victims. The pattern of means for the interaction between compassion, help request, and number of victims was displayed, this interaction suggests that the difference in compassion toward one versus eight victims depended upon whether participants expected to be asked to help those victims. They probed the interaction by first examining the effect of the help request separately in the one-victim and eight-victim groups. In the one-victim condition, there was not a significant effect of help request on compassion. In the eight-victim condition, by contrast, participants reported significantly greater compassion when they would not be asked to help than when they would be asked to help. They also examined the effect of number of victims separately in the help-request and no-help-request conditions. When help was requested, participants reported numerically greater compassion toward a single victim than toward eight, although this simple effect was not significant. In contrast, when help was not requested, eight victims elicited significantly more compassion than one victim. By removing the expectation that participants would be asked to donate money, they were able to reverse the typical collapse of compassion pattern.[13]


  1. ^ Coviden, Kaelin. "The Collapse of Compassion". Thoughts of Ascent. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  2. ^ Slovic, Paul; David Zionts; Andrew K. Woods; Ryan Goodman; Derek Jinks (August 2011). "Psychic numbing and mass atrocity". New York University School of Law: 1–17. SSRN 1809951 Freely accessible.
  3. ^ CD, Cameron; KD, Payne (2011). "Escaping affect: how motivated emotion regulation creates insensitivity to mass suffering". 100 (1): 1–15. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ Liebman, Matthew. "Mass Animal Suffering and the Collapse of Compassion". Animal Legal Defense Fund. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  5. ^ Hay, Mark (13 January 2015). "Why Journalists Don't Seem to Care About the Tragic Massacre in Nigeria". Retrieved 22 December 2017.
  6. ^ Coviden, Kaelin. "The Collapse of Compassion". Thoughts of Ascent. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  7. ^ Schelling, T. (1968). The life you save may be your own. In S.B. Chase, Jr. (Ed.), Problems in public expenditure analysis (pp. 127-162). Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.
  8. ^ Dunn, E.W., & Ashton-James, C. (2008). On emotional innumeracy: Predicted and actual effective response to grand-scale tragedy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 692–698.
  9. ^ Figley, Charles (1995). Compassion Fatigue: Coping With Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder In Those Who Treat The Traumatized. London: Brunner-Routledge. ISBN 978-0876307595.
  10. ^ Ricard, Matthieu (2015). "IV". Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. Brown and Company. pp. 56–64. ISBN 978-0316208246
  11. ^ Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training, Olga M. Klimecki, Susanne Leiberg, Matthieu Ricard, and Tania Singer, Department of Social Neuroscience, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences
  12. ^ Tam, K.H. "The Collapse of Compassion". Northeastern University Program. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  13. ^ Cameron, Daryl C.; Payne, Keith B. Escaping Affect: How Motivated Emotion Regulation Creates Insensitivity to Mass Suffering. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.