Friday, September 9, 2011

The Calculus of Compassion

In a bystander apathy study conducted by psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané, it was discovered that the more witnesses there are to an event, the less likely people are to help, "people watch the drama in helpless fascination." 

Perhaps this is because people really do believe in Batman coming to the rescue. 

Imagine your car breaking down on a busy freeway. According to Darley and Latané, it's less likely that someone will stop and lend you a hand because the need is spread over all the onlookers. Basically, people figure, "I don't have to stop and be inconvenienced because someone else will do it." 

Contradictory, if you're on the Alaskan Highway and your car breaks down on the side of the road, there's a higher probability that a passing driver will stop and help you out. Basically, if you're the only person around, there's a much higher probability that you'll take responsibility for a positive outcome to a situation. 

What goes through our minds when we witness an emergency? First off, you have to notice the emergency (not everyone pays attention). 

Second, you have to decide if you have a responsibility to act, and if so, how. Do you help directly or call the police? Since emergencies are technically unusual events, reactions are untrained and unrehearsed. People without emergency training do not have responses to fall back on. 

Third, there's also a probability that you can get sued or hurt for helping someone else (or fall down and break your neck and back). 

Can compassion really be measured by thought experiments? If you ask someone to fill out a "compassion sheet" questionnaire, most likely they'd answer, "Yes," that they'd help out a stranger in need - but when put to the test, it appears as if the situation has to be just right for someone to take ownership over an emergency and help out. The more connected you feel to the person in need (a mom passes another mom with kids stuck on the side of the road), the more likely you are to help. Values also come into play. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." 

The values of all these factors result in our choice to help - or not. 

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