disaster in Puerto Rico. We will mobilize all available resources to save a single stranded whale but not spend a dollar to save that whale ’ s entire species from harpoons, pollution or military sonar. It seems we have an exponential decay of empathy when thinking about a group as opposed to an individual, which leads to some pretty lackluster responses to the plight of the modern world. Again, this gets back to abstract versus concrete. We are hardwired to make emotional connections with individuals, not numbers. It ’ s not yet known why this paradoxical behavior exists, only that it does. Your authors speculate that it may have to do with the “ mirror neuron ” system, which seems to underlie part of the biological basis for empathy: if we see someone feeling pain or other stress, our brains tend to light up as though we feel it too. However, as tribal primates, there was never a need to feel empathy for vast numbers of others, and so no value to inheriting such an ability. It also could be related to “ psychic numbing ”, which is a tendency for individuals or societies to withdraw attention from past traumatic experiences. Psychic numbing also results in not preparing for future threats that are perceived to have massive consequences but low probability, such as a pandemic. (One wonders what we ’ d call an emergent bias linked to massive consequences and high probability.) TaaL: I will occasionally refer to the trillionth human child to be born. I do that for a reason. The next human child born on Earth will be roughly the hundred-billionth one to come into existence. There should be – at the very least – another 900 billion childhoods for your species yet to come. But these 900 billion, in all their multitudes, fall into your enormous blind spot regarding the future, which puts them into existential peril. Perhaps you should name the trillionth child in advance, to make her “ real enough ” to be worth saving... and by extension, the other 900 billion children you don ’ t yet explicitly care about or include in your calculations of “ fairness ” .
The Bottom Line: The more there are, the less we care. Empathy, by default, is inversely proportional to the need for it.
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