The Atlantic

Indonesia’s Tsunami and the Problem of Human Empathy

As the death toll keeps rising, the compassion of faraway observers either can’t—or won’t—keep pace.
Source: Jorge Silva / Reuters

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.” 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.

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