Is Eight More Than One?

Imagine seeing a photograph of a suffering child in the war-torn region of Darfur, in Sudan. Most of us would feel compassion towards that child. Now imagine seeing a photo of a group of eight children in the same terrible predicament. You’d feel correspondingly more compassion towards this larger group… right?

Well, probably not. Plenty of studies have demonstrated what’s known as the “numeracy bias” in compassion—that people’s feelings of compassion do not tend to increase in response to greater numbers of people in distress. This “leads people frequently to experience a disproportionate amount of compassion towards a single suffering individual relative to scores of suffering victims that are part of a larger tragedy,” write Daniel Lim and David DeSteno at Northeastern University, in their new paper, published in the journal Emotion. However, they’ve now found that people who have experienced adversity in their own lives are resistant to this bias—and they have some suggestions for how the rest of us might avoid it.

Across a series of four experiments, the researchers recruited a total of almost 700 participants, who reported their own levels of past adversity (illness and injury, bereavement, exposure to disasters, and so on). For each study, the researchers discarded the middle-ranking third, leaving “high-adversity” and “low-adversity” groups, who went on into the experiments proper.

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