Compassion Is More Than Niceness
The new science on human goodness
I ditched my cable subscription in May. If I had to hear one more antagonistic screaming head or screaming politician or screaming anything who pits one person or one side against another purposefully for ratings or dramatic effect, I was going to lose it — seriously. It was either the black metal box beneath the television or my sanity and soul — I chose the latter.
I also didn’t like what was happening to me. In watching 24-hour “Breaking News” or, for that matter, doomscrolling social media about the COVID pandemic, political polarization, misinformation, disinformation, race and culture wars, economic insecurity, and the general daily uncertainty that has been dominating our lives for eighteen months, I was sliding into indifference — about others, life, and the hope of society ever regaining some modicum of goodwill, decency, and kindness.
“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
The words are Mother Teresa’s, arguably one of history’s greatest fonts of compassion. But in social science this phenomenon of mass indifference is called psychic numbing.
Psychic numbing is a lack of feeling associated with information. Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon who has for decades been studying collective responses to mass atrocities, told WebMD, “If some information conveys a positive feeling, that’s a signal to approach whatever the situation is. If it sends a negative feeling, it’s a signal to retreat. The meaning of information is heavily determined by the feeling that information creates in us.”
The tsunami of information we have been receiving in recent years is filled with fear, stress, anger, and indignity in a society that feels increasingly cruel, callous, and disconnected. It is no wonder then that I, like many Americans, are experiencing a compassion deficit — a trend that was already on the rise. For instance, a 2010 study found that younger generations in particular are less empathetic and more narcissistic.
Compassion is the recognition of suffering in self and others, with a desire to try to alleviate and prevent that suffering. Compassion…