Lives lost are met with dramatically different responses in the media and in the general public. One child abducted and killed in a wealthy country can keep the front pages for weeks, while tens of thousands of children perish in humanitarian crises without much notice. Many of the political conflicts dramatically enhanced by the recent US elections boil down to which lives people care more about and which ones less. The unborn vs. the already born, the black youth vs the white policeman, the European native vs the Syrian refugee.
Racism fuelled by vicious scapegoating favoured by certain politicians and media outlets is one obvious reason for distributing empathy inequally. However, there are also some other, more surprising mechanisms at work, like the identified victim effect, which is measurable in that people donate more money to help a single identified victim of crisis than they would if there are several in the same situation. This effect is also one of the reasons why empathy is not always a good guide to sensible political decisions.
I have looked into these issues for my latest feature which is out now:
Caring about humanitarian crises
Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 4, pR123–R125, 20 February 2017
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Research shows that empathy responds better to images of a single identified, or at least identifiable, person. While groups of victims may need more support, their numbers rather subtract from our empathy. Charities and political organizations have long used this effect, with ads and posters of individuals, like in this charity campaign from 1918. (Image: United States Government/Wikimedia Commons.)