"One death is a tragedy; 1 million is a statistic," Joseph Stalin is supposed to have said. The more people we see suffering, the less we care. It's an unfortunate quirk that psychologists so far have blamed on our brains: Humans are tuned to individuals, the thinking goes; we are just not capable of feeling compassion for whole groups.
A new study calls that comfortable conclusion into question. "The collapse of compassion is an active process," says Daryl Cameron, a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "It's not some passive limitation on human experience. It's the end result of an active choice not to feel something."
Cameron designed a series of experiments to find out why four people in pain don't get quadruple the sympathy of one. In one test, he had 60 college students read about one, four, or eight children from Darfur. The students who said they were better at regulating their emotions-who don't easily lose focus or control, and usually know how to make themselves feel better-reported being less upset by multiple Darfur children in crisis than by one. In another experiment, different students reading about these same children were told either to let themselves fully experience their emotions or to think objectively and be detached. Again, those who proactively regulated their emotions showed a collapse of compassion when viewing eight victims …