Bias number 24 is known as compassion fade. This is a social cognitive bias that has a significant affect on people’s willingness to help others in need.
Compassion fade generally arises as the number of people in need rises. It could be seen as a way in which a person regulates and maintains the balance between the desire to be of service to others and the desire to manage emotional overwhelm.
When the numbers of people in need reach a certain point, human beings activate a process known as “psychic numbing” to handle the scale of the issue. The effect of psychic numbing is depersonalisation and therefore a decrease in the empathy shown for the suffering.
As Joseph Stalin once said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Hmmm, is that how he justified the killing spree inflicted upon his own citizens, I wonder?
Is this how world leaders throughout the ages justify war? A pause for thought, methinks.
Consider that it’s easier for us to relate to the story of a single human being. Our hearts can bleed for the individual’s suffering, and we are more compelled to take action to help as a result. This is why charities tell the stories of individuals in their marketing campaigns, the net effect of which is to increase donations.
However, flood social media or advertising campaigns with throngs of people writhing in pain, and we switch off. Overwhelm explains a part of what we experience. Another side of the coin is futility.
As self-serving individuals, we want to feel that our contribution makes a difference. We can envisage helping one, perhaps two individuals. Any more than that, and our own sense of agency and efficacy diminishes, the compassion for human suffering fades as the bias suggests, and we pull back.
If you work as a healthcare or healing professional, you may notice this bias operating in your life. I certainly do. There is a part of me who sees myself as Wonder Woman, being able to solve the world’s mental health crisis, one person at a time. On the other hand, I recognise the times when the scale of the problem feels so massive that I get lost in daydreams of running away to a snow-covered mountain, living out the rest of my days as a ski bunny.
This is natural and perfectly normal. Human beings are, by nature, social creatures. When our social faculties function properly, we do want to put an end to suffering of others. The desire to help others, though, has got to be balanced with self-preservation. We all want to see ourselves as good people. But what does being a good person really mean? Is martyrdom something to admire?
Personally, I think martyrdom is foolhardy. It’s a way of being that arises when a person gets tangled up in the compassion trap, operating from the heart without giving proper consideration to the impact of heart-led actions. I often find myself asking clients to consider what their purpose here on earth is: to alleviate the world’s suffering at the expense of one’s own, or to find a way to alleviate one’s own suffering and then sharing the way with others so they can use it for themselves.
Which one is more empowering, do you think?
The second approach — teaching people to fish — is exponentially more empowering than fishing for people. The challenge with being a person in a supporting or guiding role is that, in certain circumstances, you have to be willing to challenge people to be adults and find a solution for themselves. In these moments, the struggle to attain mastery can occur as suffering, and it can be difficult to witness.
However, as any good supporter or guide knows, the joy that accomplishment brings far surpasses any suffering experienced as skills develop. In fact, I would say this is one of the best parts of my job as a mindfulness master. It’s that moment of victory, when people's eyes light up at their achievements, that is priceless for both them and me.
How can you mitigate compassion fade in your business life? If you’re in the healing professions, consider taking a step back. Being too helpful can undermine the learning potential of the people you’re trying to serve. It can create overwhelm in you, sabotaging all those good intentions in the process. And it's important to appreciate your limitations as opportunities to focus on building your own mastery in a few key areas.
If you’re creating a marketing campaign to promote your work, ask your clients or service users to provide testimonials and case study material. Your future potential clients will find it easier to relate to an individual’s story than to statistics that demonstrate the number of people you have helped.
Remember, too, that you are a customer and consumer of other companies’s products and services. Notice when clever marketers familiar with compassion fade attempt to draw you in with a compelling personal story. You will be just as influenced by the compassion fade bias as others. See if you can detach yourself from the emotional heart strings being tugged to ensure you are sharing the decision-making weight equally among your heart, head and gut.
Finally, allow yourself to be human, compassion fade bias and all. Appreciate your own struggle, and celebrate the victories no matter how big or small. You don’t need to prove your brilliance to anyone. You simply are brilliant.