Why Don't People Act/Save the Darfur Puppy

This reading helps deepen our understanding of ideas presented in the documentary Reporter (approximately 8 minutes). In this clip, Stephen Colbert asks his guest on The Colbert Report, Nicholas Kristof, “Why should we pay attention to the rest of the world?” Kristof answers this question by referring to social science research about “the psychology of compassion” and explains how he applies this knowledge when writing about the genocide in Darfur.

According to the International Association of Genocide Scholars, in the twentieth century more people have died from genocide and mass murder than from all wars.1 After each atrocity, men and women in the international community cry “Never again,” but human rights abuses against innocent children, women, and men continue. In his job as a reporter for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof has been able to see these human rights abuses firsthand, winning a Pulitzer Prize for bringing attention to the genocide in Darfur. Yet despite the attention Kristof and others have drawn to this humanitarian disaster, the violence continues. Why is this the case?

Looking to history can help us address this question. In the 1940s, Jan Karski, a courier for the Polish resistance, publicized reports about Nazi atrocities to a mostly unbelieving audience. After the war, he spoke of his attempts to alert people to the mass murder of European Jews, explaining, “The tragedy was that these testimonies were not believed. Not because of ill will, but simply because the facts were beyond human imagination.”2 During the Holocaust, many people did not intervene to stop the genocide because they were not able to “imagine the unimaginable.” As Professor Larry Langer argues, “Even with the evidence before our eyes, we hesitate to accept the worst.”3

In his editorial “Save the Darfur Puppy,” Kristof provides another reason why many people do not respond when confronted with information about genocide or humanitarian disasters. Drawing on the work of Paul Slovic, a professor who studies the psychology of compassion, Kristof explains that “the human conscience just isn’t pricked by mass suffering, while an individual child (or puppy) in distress causes our hearts to flutter.”4 He refers to studies that demonstrate how people are more likely to help one person, or even one animal, than they are to help hundreds of suffering people. Both of these readings help us think about a concept called “psychic numbing.” Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton5 coined this term to refer to “a general category of diminished capacity or inclination to feel.”6 Writing about the “numbing of everyday life,” he explains, “We are bombarded by all kinds of images and influences and we have to fend some of them off if we’re to take in any of them, or to carry through just our ordinary day’s work....”7 In her book High Tide in Tucson, novelist Barbara Kingsolver affirms Lifton’s observation that people numb themselves to disturbing information:

Confronted with knowledge of dozens of apparently random disasters each day, what can a human heart do but slam its doors? No mortal can grieve that much. We didn’t evolve to cope with tragedy on a global scale. Our defense is to pretend there’s no thread of event that connects us, and that those lives are somehow not precious and real like our own. It’s a practical strategy, to some ends, but the loss of empathy is also the loss of humanity, and that’s no small tradeoff.8

Kingsolver writes about how the loss of empathy is also the loss of humanity: by closing themselves off to caring for others, people can allow horrible crimes to occur.

“It is possible to live in a twilight between knowing and not knowing. It is possible to refuse full realization of facts because one feels unable to face the implications of these facts.”9 – W. A. Visser’t Hooft, a Dutch theologian, explaining why he and many others discounted early accounts of Nazi crimes

While acknowledging the costs of psychic numbing, Lifton also identifies a benefit: sometimes numbing allows you to perform a task that would be challenging if you were distracted by strong emotions. He explains:

And yet, [psychic numbing] isn’t all negative. For instance, I realize that if you take the example of a surgeon who is performing a delicate operation, you don’t want him or her to have the same emotions as a family member of that person being operated on. There has to be some level of detachment where you bring your technical skill to bear on it.10

Supporting Lifton’s argument, Kristof reveals how he experiences a degree of psychic numbing in his own work as a journalist:

In a career [of ] reporting I heard a lot of really wrenching stories about murder and rape and everything else, and at this point, and see I’m not really proud of it, I may be a little embarrassed about it, [but] I can listen pretty dispassionately to the most inhuman stories. And they, most of the time, don’t, you know, really bother me. Maybe it’s that sort of clinical role of a—of a surgeon somewhere in [an] operating theater, but I can, you know, approach things normally as a journalist and treat it with a certain amount of professional distance.11

While on the one hand Kristof describes how he approaches his work writing about human suffering “with a certain amount of professional distance,” on the other hand he is bothered by these stories. While working in Cambodia, he was so affected by the plight of two young girls that he bought their freedom from a brothel.

Kristof’s dilemma—how to express compassion for the people he meets while also writing the most effective story—represents a dilemma many of us confront. We live in an era of endless access to information about human suffering around the world. What do we do with this information? What should we do with it? There are no simple answers to these questions, and in our attempts to address them we confront how we define our universe of responsibility—the individuals and groups whom we feel an obligation to care for and protect. For whom do we show compassion and empathy? Why? Under what conditions? In the following readings, Kristof and Slovic point out that all too often we define our universe of responsibility narrowly, making room for only one person. What would our communities—local, national, and global—look like if more people were in the habit of paying attention to those in need, rather than tuning them out?

The following editorial was written by columnist Nicholas Kristof and published in the New York Times opinion section on May 10, 2007.

Finally, we’re beginning to understand what it would take to galvanize President Bush, other leaders and the American public to respond to the genocide in Sudan: a suffering puppy with big eyes and floppy ears.

That’s the implication of a series of studies by psychologists trying to understand why people — good, conscientious people — aren’t moved by genocide or famines. Time and again, we’ve seen that the human conscience just isn’t pricked by mass suffering, while an individual child (or puppy) in distress causes our hearts to flutter.

In one experiment, psychologists asked ordinary citizens to contribute $5 to alleviate hunger abroad. In one version, the money would go to a particular girl, Rokia, a 7-year-old in Mali; in another, to 21 million hungry Africans; in a third, to Rokia — but she was presented as a victim of a larger tapestry of global hunger.

Not surprisingly, people were less likely to give to anonymous millions than to Rokia. But they were also less willing to give in the third scenario, in which Rokia’s suffering was presented as part of a broader pattern.

Evidence is overwhelming that humans respond to the suffering of individuals rather than groups. Think of the toddler Jessica McClure falling down a well in 1987, or the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932 (which Mencken described as the “the biggest story since the Resurrection”).

Even the right animal evokes a similar sympathy. A dog stranded on a ship aroused so much pity that $48,000 in private money was spent trying to rescue it — and that was before the Coast Guard stepped in. And after I began visiting Darfur in 2004, I was flummoxed by the public’s passion to save a red-tailed hawk, Pale Male, that had been evicted from his nest on Fifth Avenue in New York City. A single homeless hawk aroused more indignation than two million homeless Sudanese.

Advocates for the poor often note that 30,000 children die daily of the consequences of poverty — presuming that this number will shock people into action. But the opposite is true: the more victims, the less compassion.

In one experiment, people in one group could donate to a $300,000 fund for medical treatments that would save the life of one child — or, in another group, the lives of eight children. People donated more than twice as much money to help save one child as to help save eight.

Likewise, remember how people were asked to save Rokia from starvation? A follow-up allowed students to donate to Rokia or to a hungry boy named Moussa. Both Rokia and Moussa attracted donations in the same proportions. Then another group was asked to donate to Rokia and Moussa together. But donors felt less good about supporting two children, and contributions dropped off.

“Our capacity to feel is limited,” Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon writes in a new journal article, “Psychic Numbing and Genocide,” which discusses these experiments. Professor Slovic argues that we cannot depend on the innate morality even of good people. Instead, he believes, we need to develop legal or political mechanisms to force our hands to confront genocide.

So, yes, we should develop early-warning systems for genocide, prepare an African Union, U.N. and NATO rapid-response capability, and polish the “responsibility to protect” as a legal basis to stop atrocities. (The Genocide Intervention Network and the Enough project are working on these things.)

But, frankly, after four years of watching the U.N. Security Council, the International Criminal Court and the Genocide Convention accomplish little in Darfur, I’m skeptical that either human rationality or international law can achieve much unless backed by a public outcry.

One experiment underscored the limits of rationality. People prepared to donate to the needy were first asked either to talk about babies (to prime the emotions) or to perform math calculations (to prime their rational side). Those who did math donated less.

So maybe what we need isn’t better laws but more troubled consciences — pricked, perhaps, by a Darfur puppy with big eyes and floppy ears. Once we find such a soulful dog in peril, we should call ABC News. ABC’s news judgment can be assessed by the 11 minutes of evening news coverage it gave to Darfur’s genocide during all of last year — compared with 23 minutes for the false confession in the JonBenet Ramsey case.

If President Bush and the global public alike are unmoved by the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of fellow humans, maybe our last, best hope is that we can be galvanized by a puppy in distress.12

  1. Citations

    • 1 : Gregory H. Stanton, “About Genocide,” International Association of Genocide Scholars, Genocide Watch, 2002,".
    • 2 : Quoted in Macief Kozlowski, “The Mission that Failed: A Polish Courier Who Tried to Help the Jews,” in My Brother’s Keeper? Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust, ed. Antony Polonsky (Routledge, 1990), 83.
    • 3 : The reading “Is Knowledge Enough?” (pages 367–370) in Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior provides more information about why people may have ignored or discounted information about Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust.
    • 4 : “Save the Darfur Puppy,” by Nicholas Kristof, from the New York Times, May 10, 2007. Used with permission.
    • 5 : Lifton found evidence of psychic numbing in the survivors of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and in Nazi doctors who performed inhumane experiments on concentration camp prisoners.
    • 6 : Robert J. Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (Basic Books, 1986), 442, .
    • 7 : Conversations with History, Robert Jay Lifton Interview, Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley, November 2, 1999, .
    • 8 : Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never (New York, Harper Perennial, 1996), 232.
    • 9 : Leni Yahil, Ina Friedman, and Haya Galai, The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932–1944 (Oxford University Press, 1991), 545.
    • 10 : Kreisler, Harry, Evil, the Self, and Survival: Conversation with Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.,” Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley, Nov. 2, 1999.
    • 11 :  Reporter, (00:36:25).
    • 12 : “Save the Darfur Puppy,” by Nicholas Kristof, from the New York Times, May 10, 2007.

Connection Questions

  1. What is empathy? What is compassion? When have you felt empathy and/or compassion for something or someone? What provoked this feeling in you? Did you do anything as a result?
  2. What does “universe of responsibility” mean? What individuals and groups do you include in your universe of responsibility? Why? How does your universe of responsibility influence the choices you make about how to treat others?
  3. Philosopher John Ruskin said, “What we think or what we know or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.” How might Nicholas Kristof respond to Ruskin’s argument? What do you think of this statement?
  4. Historian Leni Yahil divides knowledge into three parts: receipt of information, acknowledgment of information, and action based on that information.13 How does Yahil’s division of knowledge apply to the way people have responded to more recent humanitarian crises, such as the genocide in Darfur? What do they think can be done, if anything, to move people from receiving information to acting on that information? How would Nicholas Kristof and Paul Slovic answer this question?

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