All These Simultaneous Disasters Are Messing With Our Brains

The earthquakes and wildfires and wars keep piling up. When does our empathy run out?

Firefighters in Haiti remove debris as they search for survivors of the August 14 earthquake.
Richard Pierrin / Getty

Last week, the psychologist Steven Taylor was at a socially distanced get-together with some relatives and their friends when the conversation turned to the chaos in Afghanistan. Someone mentioned the sickening footage of desperate Afghans clinging to American military aircraft as they departed. Then one man made a remark that caught Taylor off guard: The videos, he said, were funny. Others agreed.

Taylor was appalled. It was one of the most disturbing things he’d heard all week. Worse, he doesn’t think it was an isolated instance of casual sadism. Taylor studies disaster psychology at the University of British Columbia, and he knows how intense, sustained stress can desensitize the mind. What most concerned him about the incident was what it suggested about the pandemic’s effects on our experience of other disasters and, more broadly, our ability—or inability—to empathize.

For the better part of two years now, the world has been living through a pandemic. The suffering has not been parceled out evenly, but virtually everyone has felt the pain in one way or another. Meanwhile, the world’s baseline drumbeat of catastrophe has not faltered. Wildfires have filled the skies with smoke; earthquakes have leveled cities; buildings have collapsed without warning. It is worth asking, then, how, if at all, the most universal of disasters is changing the way we process these crises—and how we’ll react to disasters for the rest of our lives.

The question is really two questions: one about the victims of future catastrophes and the other about the observers who will watch those catastrophes play out from a safe remove. The first question, at least, has a fairly straightforward answer. After surviving a disaster, Taylor told me, a minority of people become more resilient, so that, should another disaster strike, they are better able to cope. For most people, though, the stress compounds: Surviving one crisis puts one at greater risk of having an unhealthy psychological reaction to another. In California, a state that now burns on an annual schedule, wildfire survivors I’ve spoken with have described feeling “haunted” by subsequent blazes.

“There is a sense in which people’s coping reserves are sort of finite entities,” says Joe Ruzek, a PTSD researcher at Palo Alto University. “So if you have to cope a whole lot”—as so many people have over the past year and a half—“you can kind of diminish your resources.” In this way, the pandemic has left everyone more vulnerable to the psychological effects of tomorrow’s earthquakes, mass shootings, and pandemics.

The second question is trickier. For those of us lucky enough to observe a disaster from afar, the experience of having lived through one before could make us more empathetic toward the survivors. Or it could leave us fatigued to the point of inurement, like the people who said at Taylor’s get-together that they found the Afghanistan videos funny. At this point, psychologists told me, which of those effects prevails is anyone’s guess.

In his research on post-disaster empathy, Kang Lee, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Toronto, has found that children as young as 9 can become more generous in the aftermath of disasters. The caveat, he says, is that most studies in the area have focused on short-term disasters with well-defined beginnings and ends, such as earthquakes. Few, if any, look at long, drawn-out disasters, like pandemics. “This,” he says, “is very new to psychologists.”

To gauge the pandemic’s effects on generosity, Lee suggests looking at data on charitable giving—an imperfect but nonetheless useful barometer. Sure enough, in 2020, despite a severe economic downturn and mass unemployment, donations in the United States hit an all-time high. But philanthropy experts predict a return to normal this year, which would mirror Lee’s findings on kids and shorter-term crises: Over time, he and his colleagues observed, children tend to revert to their regular levels of generosity. He suspects that in the later phases and aftermath of a pandemic, with its roller-coaster trajectory and vertiginous uncertainty, people may be less inclined toward empathy.

This could be especially true when the people in need of empathy are far away from the people with the resources to help—say, in Haiti or Afghanistan. In unpublished research, Lee has found that racial and national biases tend to sharpen after disasters. When humans’ reserves of generosity run low, we give what little we have to people who look like and live where we do. Perhaps when they run low enough, we can even laugh at fleeing masses clinging to an airplane on the other side of the world.

People “are just burned out,” Taylor said. “They’ve had enough atrocity and stress for the time being, and they just don’t want to hear any more of that.” He doesn’t think the people he encountered last week are unique. “My concern,” he said, “is that many people are just tuning this stuff out.” If that is the case, if fatigue is in fact swamping empathy, it would be a darkly ironic outcome: the disaster survivors more vulnerable than ever to trauma, the onlookers less willing than ever to help.

Whether this comes to pass in the immediate future, Lee, for one, does not much worry about more extreme coldheartedness calcifying into the norm. In his research, he has found disasters’ effects on empathy to be short-lived. If he’s right, then the pandemic is unlikely to change us, at least in this particular way. We will neither be more inured nor more attuned to the suffering of others. And that is both very reassuring and not reassuring at all.