COVID and Compassion: 'Our Brains Aren’t Apathetic, They’re Lazy'

Experts say human brain's limited capacity for numbers, enormity of pandemic can cause less empathy.
Posted at 4:52 PM, Feb 09, 2021

How important is compassion in the fight against COVID-19?

Compassion is the motivator for behavior. This is what drives us.

We spoke with a compassion researcher and expert Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, and also president of a small research institute called Decision Research, which studies decision making.

And he says, when it comes to math, our own minds deceive us. Slovic has found humans react most strongly to seeing just one person in distress. Not only that, as the number of people impacted goes up, the brain responds with less empathy and action. 

He calls it the flawed arithmetic of compassion. 

"OK, so what's the problem here? The problem is that we trust our feelings as a guide to how important something is. Our feelings can't count," Slovic said. 

Slovic says we can only hold so many numbers in short-term memory before we have to write them down. So when cases trend downward, we can’t identify them beyond up or down. This brain math doesn’t just pertain to pandemics. 

For example, studies show short-lived immediate outpourings years into Syria's civil war crisis in 2015 after a photo of a drowned 3-year-old refugee went viral. Donations to a Red Cross campaign for Syrian refugees were 55 times greater the week the picture published. In the weeks following, it dramatically dropped off.

"The human brain is lazy. And if we think we can do the job the easier way with our gut feelings, we go that way," he said. 

There are some ways experts say you can “hack your brain” to work out that compassion muscle more. For COVID-19, it could be focusing on one person or case story, trusting health experts, or taking up meditation or mindfulness.

"Mindfulness practice. People hear this word. It sounds kind of nebulous, but it's really quite simple. And it's just a means of slowing down thoughts from going all over the place to something singular, like just following our breathing," said Dr. Eric French, medical director of adult psychiatry for HCA Healthcare.