The Numercy of Caring

Today I was listening to NPR’s On the Media, a great show that I sum up as “how is the media lying to us this week?”. It is an analysis of the weekly top media stories from a more critical perspective and I highly recommend everyone give it a listen some times. It’s funny, interesting and eye-opening in all too many ways.

The one that got me today was this segment (OTM tends to be broken down into 10-minute segments) about the psychology of getting people to care, and this particular piece of the interview with Nicolas Kristof:

Well, I came across social psychologist Paul Slovic who has done a great deal of work in this area, and the experiments typically involve exposing people to a particular scenario and then seeing if they will contribute.

One of the classic experiments involves a seven-year-old girl from the country of Mali who’s starving and asking if people will help her out. Everybody wants to help Rokia. But if you ask people to help 21 million hungry people in Africa, nobody particularly wants to help them.

Maybe what I found even more depressing is that the moment you even provide more background information to Rokia, if you say that she is hungry because of a famine in her country, then interest in helping her tends to drop.

You know, we all know that at some point people tend to get numbed and tune out, but [LAUGHS] one of the things that I found fascinating was the number at which we tend to tune out. It’s not a million, it’s not a thousand, it’s not even a hundred – it’s two.

(Find the whole thing here)

Can you imagine that? We tend to stop caring as soon as more than two people are involved. As soon as it hits a number higher than one we decide it’s not worth the time and effort to help our fellow man and just shut down. Another piece of the curtain torn aside.

I have to wonder, though, if this can also be applied to writing. As the interview notes, we tend to find it easy to care about individuals, but groups quickly become too abstract. I guess this is why we often need an “anchor” character to make a story work- a focus on whom the audience attaches themselves and views the world from. This is also probably why it’s hard to make large-cast dramas work unless there’s a clear focal character as I talked about in this post a while back.

We need someone to care about, or simply put- we don’t care. And we care about individuals, not groups.