13th January 2020 0 Comments Human Insight

Is there a limit to human compassion?

Young girls with arms around each other walking with back to camera

Compassion Fatigue

There are 320,000 homeless people in the UK. How can we get people to care?

The harsh reality is that we can’t, not with a statistic. 320,000 homeless people is just a number – it’s an abstraction. 

The human mind is not good at making sense of suffering when it relates to large numbers of people, particularly when represented as a number. 

In 2007, psychologists conducted an experiment, giving one group of participants the chance to donate to feed a seven-year-old African girl named Rokia, and another to the same organisation working to save millions of Africans from hunger. The results were striking. Individuals in the first group donated over two times more generously to Rokia, than those in the second group, presented with alleviating the hunger of millions. 

Psychologist, Paul Slovic, refers to this cognitive bias as ‘compassion fade’. Numerically large sums of people are difficult to envision, so our brain shuts off from it. 

But how many people does it take for this decline in compassion to occur? 

Shockingly: two. As revealed in a study conducted three years later, participants donated less generously to Rokia alone, than if they would also be helping another starving child, Moussa. 

The human mind is not good at making sense of suffering when it relates to large numbers of people, particularly when represented as a number. 

Connecting with the individual

How can we utilise what we know from psychology to combat large-scale suffering, to give a face to the 320,000 individuals without a home in the UK?

The first challenge when communicating large-scale tragedy is getting people to think in terms of individuals, not numbers. 

“Probably the most important image to represent a human life is that of a single human face,” Paul Slovic explains.

As concluded in the co-authored paper, ‘Psychic Numbing and Mass Atrocity’: 

“in-depth narratives and visual personal stories describing the predicament of individual victims should be emphasized instead of more abstract descriptions of the scale of abuses-that is, stories over statistics.”

Working with homeless support charity, The Passage, The Beautiful Truth created a film about one man’s experience of homelessness.

Director, Jack Gyori unpacks his decision to situate the narrative before Kamal fell to homelessness, creating a montage of recreated photos to construct a vivid narrative of his past. 

We connect with Kamal as an individual; we empathise with his isolation, anxiety and sorrow, but also his desires, ambitions and hopes. 

Overcoming pseudodeficiency

Where do we go from here? In order for an empathetic response to be beneficial, viewers need to feel that something can be done. This helps overcome the feeling of pseudoineiffency – the feeling of infectivity given the number of people that are inevitably not being helped. 

Kamal’s trajectory is one of hope. Rather than painting a picture of desolation and despair, ‘Kamal’s Story’ follows his support into stable employment and a place to call home. It hones in on a feeling of collective optimism by showing what a community can do together, telling the story of one individual, but connecting it to a higher cause.


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