What the Chilean Miners Tell Us about the Limits of Compassion

By Harold Pollack

The other morning, I woke to two National Public Radio stories which exemplify both the exhilaration and the challenge facing anyone concerned with global development.

The first depicted the gripping rescue of Chilean miners who had been trapped underground since early August. This fantastic story included the cheers of emotional onlookers, including many wives, girlfriends, and children of the 33 men.

The elemental human drama was inescapable—as was the courage and ingenuity of the rescue. NPR’s normally-staid website captured the mood of the moment, including profiles, pictures, and videos of each of the 33 miners. Victor Zamora, the 14th miner to be rescued, worked at the mine for five years. He sent poems to his pregnant wife, and he is the father of a 4-year-old boy. A short video shows Raúl Bustos kissing his beautiful wife moments after he was brought up to the surface. Pedro Cortez, the next to be rescued, is shown hugging a beautiful little girl. On it went.  This was an amazing story, watched by a reported one billion people around the world.

The second excellent story, by Jason Beaubien described Haiti’s efforts to recover and rebuild nine months after its devastating earthquake wrecked the economy and government, leaving 1.5 million people homeless. Beaubien does his best to describe the human impact of the disaster, even as he accurately describes the policy challenges Haiti faces in mounting a successful recovery effort. Despite Beaubien’s evident craftsmanship, many listeners surely heard  “it’s still a mind-numbing problem,” as the main point.

The contrast between these stories highlights the challenge facing anyone working in development or public health. It’s easy to get people to pay attention and to help 33 identified people who require a single dramatic rescue. It’s much harder to get the same level of attention and action when millions of people face larger, complicated, and chronic challenges after a mass disaster.

It’s not that there are no human faces to the Haitian crisis. It’s that there are too many: too many people, too many varieties of intense suffering, too many issues to address. No single dramatic act will rescue Haiti. What’s needed is a huge, sustained effort that is as boring to watch as the construction of a new flood levee or a new public housing project, but quite important.

These two stories highlight aspects of human psychology, which consistently distort public policies. Researchers such as Paul Slovic and George Loewenstein have documented these biases, often through ingenious but depressing psychology experiments which explore people’s willingness to help needy others under varying circumstances. Nicholas Kristof has brought this work to public attention, among other places in a sardonic column titled “Save the Darfur Puppy.”

One aspect of the problem is that people are so much more willing to act on behalf of specific identified people than they are to act on behalf of even much larger numbers of unknown or as-yet unidentified people, even these latter human beings face precisely the same risks. (Before the accident, what could be more boring than discussing the finer points of safety regulations in an obscure coal mine or whether some backyard well has the proper childproof barriers?) These biases pose special problems for public health prevention. It’s always a whole lot easier to get public funding for an advanced lung cancer treatment than it is to secure these same funds for tobacco control efforts that would prevent many more, equally agonizing lung cancer deaths.

The same research indicates something even more depressing: How quickly people succumb to compassion fatigue and fatalism when confronted with the full scale of a problem such as Haiti’s. Problems that huge are literally mind-numbing. It’s just so easy to believe that there is nothing we can do. It’s also easy to believe that to really address these problems would require correspondingly huge actions on our part, beyond what we can realistically be expected to do. Thus, in the public mind, events like the Haitian earthquake travel a predictable pathway from crisis to problem to condition. In the end, we do much less than we can very little, comforted by the lazy belief that our efforts wouldn’t help much anyway.

In one of several lab studies cited by Slovic, Swedish students were given the chance to donate to Save the Children to help a needy 7-year-old child named Rokia. A second group was offered the same opportunity for another child named Moussa. A third group was given the same information as the first two groups, and was told that any donation would help both Rokia and Moussa. The third group gave less money than the first two. As Nicholas Kristof notes: “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.”

Such biases are pretty stupid, but they are also deeply human. Kristof tries to address them in his own writing by showing real human faces of people affected by genocide, mistreatment of women, and other maladies. That’s essential.

It is also essential to resist the pessimism by focusing on humanitarian and development efforts that are actually working. The Chilean rescue is inspiring, in part, because it is an obvious achievement with a picture-perfect happy ending. We can’t solve global health and development problems with a single victory as they could in Chile. Yet we can offer specific and credible strategies that markedly relieve famines, reduce maternal and infant mortality, bring girls into school, curb HIV, river blindness, and other diseases.

Over the past decade, the quality of development aid has greatly improved, and such efforts are much more rigorously evaluated than they used to be. Organizations such as MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab have produced prize-winning evaluations of well-designed, well-implemented interventions.

Advocates for global health and development often mobilize public support in wealthy countries by highlighting the sheer magnitude of human suffering that must be addressed, and the urgency of doing more. These news stories provide a timely reminder that we must balance sobering messages with more optimistic and empowering ones that energize people in difference ways.  In many areas, global humanitarian and development assistance is more effective and more successful than ever before. There is so much more to do, and hundreds of millions of people desperately need help. And life rarely resembles a TV movie.

In a better and smarter world, arguments for global aid would speak for themselves. In this world, giving donors more stories to smile about on an individual human scale seems essential to secure the needed help.

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration, and Faculty Chair of the Center for Health Administration Studies at the University of Chicago.