Ask any humanitarian volunteer you’ve walked past on a sidewalk or at a street fair — it's an incredibly difficult job to get people to commit to a cause or relief effort in another part of the world.
The way we receive information about suffering is a key factor. A University of Bradford study shows consuming an overwhelming amount of violent imagery can desensitize people by shutting down the part of the brain that activates empathy in order to protect itself. As the number of victims increases, empathy can plateau or even go down, a phenomenon the Arithmetic of Compassion project calls psychic numbing. As psychologist Paul Slovic explains it, our brain is better able to process information and develop complex impressions about one person suffering than it can for larger numbers.
And although we’re capable of feeling empathy for anyone, behavioral research shows increased neural responses to the perceived pain of individuals of the same race.
Being able to override roadblocks to empathy is critical for aid groups who depend on awareness efforts to inspire people to act or donate. Starting in the 1980s, charity videos were saturated with guilt-driven imagery often called "poverty porn," a reputation these groups are actively trying to shed. “A lot of people now have a predisposition toward humanitarian messaging that is something that is going to make them feel bad,” said Giless de Gilles, a tour coordinator with Doctors Without Borders.
But in the last five years, there's been a surge of ethical storytelling through experimentation with virtual reality, dubbed by VR creators as the “empathy machine.” Veteran aid groups like Doctors Without Borders are rallying behind the technology, turning it into a mobile exhibit tour across U.S. cities.
“Novelty matters. So, the first few instances of this inevitably have a much greater impact than the next hundred, the next thousand, next million,” said Sam Gregory, a program director for WITNESS, a human rights organization focused on video advocacy. And the search for a direct line to the empathy region will continue.