An article in Foreign Policy lays out some of the empirical research behind these arguments.
Psychologists have found that the statistics of mass murder or genocide—no matter how large the numbers—do not convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The numbers fail to trigger the affective emotion or feeling required to motivate action. In other words, we know that genocide in Darfur is real, but we do not “feel” that reality. In fact, not only do we fail to grasp the gravity of the statistics, but the numbers themselves may actually hinder the psychological processes required to prompt action.In fact, it turns out that the problem is even worse than one might have thought.
[In a recent study,] donations to aid a starving 7-year-old child in Africa declined sharply when her image was accompanied by a statistical summary of the millions of needy children like her in other African countries. The numbers appeared to interfere with people’s feelings of compassion toward the young victim.This doesn't mean that it is not possible at all to appeal, for example, to people's sense of fairness in a more general sense.
Other recent research shows similar results. Two Israeli psychologists asked people to contribute to a costly life-saving treatment. They could offer that contribution to a group of eight sick children, or to an individual child selected from the group. The target amount needed to save the child (or children) was the same in both cases. Contributions to individual group members far outweighed the contributions to the entire group. A follow-up study by Daniel Västfjäll, Ellen Peters, and me found that feelings of compassion and donations of aid were smaller for a pair of victims than for either individual alone. The higher the number of people involved in a crisis, other research indicates, the less likely we are to “feel” for each additional death.
When writer Annie Dillard was struggling to comprehend the mass human tragedies that the world ignores, she asked, “At what number do other individuals blur for me?” In other words, when does “compassion fatigue” set in? Our research suggests that the “blurring” of individuals may begin as early as the number two.
For example, a few years ago, our local organizing group was part of an effort that successfully increased the number of low-income schools with extra funding to support smaller class sizes. A legislature dominated by republicans and rural legislators not generally sympathetic to my city actually ended up funding more schools than we had asked for or expected.
I have no direct evidence of this, but it seems possible that the image of forty kids in a classroom was a compelling enough story to make these votes "common sense."
There is a difference, however, between a sense of fairness and actual compassion for the victims of oppression. This is why organizing groups generally present testimonies from individuals in their efforts to encourage their own constituency and responsiveness from those they seek to target. But this research indicates that there may actually be a conflict between the compassion these testimonies generate and the necessary presentation of statistics that accompanies them as justifications.
Of course, this barrier to compassion is only magnified by the intense racial and class segregation that afflicts our society.
If these studies are accurate, the problem is not that people don't care, it's that people can't care. And they indicate that the appeals to "reason" that are at the center of most academic scholarship about inequality may actually reduce readers' ability to feel compassion.
What do these findings mean for efforts to foster equity in education?