When a 7.5-magnitude earthquake rocked the sea floor off the coast of Indonesia last week, the resulting tsunami devastated much of the city of Palu. The confirmed death count has soared to more than 1,700 and will almost certainly continue to rise. As of this writing, an estimated 70,000 people are displaced, with dwindling water supplies, in desperate need of help that might not arrive in time.
These numbers might sadden or alarm you; they might also leave you strangely unmoved. You wouldn’t be alone. For decades, social scientists have documented a troubling quirk in human empathy: People tend to care more about the suffering of single individuals, and less about the pain of many people. Such “compassion collapse” is morally backwards—dozens or hundreds of people, by definition, can lose more, fear more, and hurt more than any one of us; human concern should scale with the amount of pain in front of us. Instead, it dries up.
Compassion collapse may seem like just a (lack of) feeling, but its consequences extend further. Most important, it affects how and when people choose to help one another. In 2015, a 3-year-old Syrian refugee named Alan Kurdi, along with his brother and mother, drowned as his family tried to cross from Turkey to Greece along a narrow strait in the Mediterranean Sea. Images of his small body on the shore spread around the world. The tragedy, and his father’s anguish, moved millions of viewers, and donations to refugee-aid organizations poured in. Within days, and for a variety of other reasons, Angela Merkel made the fateful decision to open German borders to refugees. But within weeks, most people moved on, and the money stopped. Anti-migration politicians gained popularity across Europe; borders tightened again.