Do you ever feel overwhelmed by all the people who need help? We’ve been deluged with one disaster after another—from hurricanes to mass shootings to the crisis of migrants seeking asylum. How can we remain compassionate and helpful?
Researchers are discovering clues. Northwestern University’s David DeSteno, a psychology professor, uses the example of the Cajun Navy. These are a group of boaters who survived Hurricane Katrina, and then traveled from Louisiana to rescue others during Hurricane Harvey. They’ve also travelled to North Carolina and Florida to rescue people during floods. What motivated them to risk their lives, going back into a dangerous situation, rather than hiding in their current safe homes?
Many people who have survived adversity come to believe they might be able to help others, by similarly helping others. The Northwestern researchers call this having a “sense of efficacy.” Most of us might describe it as “paying it forward.” Because of their experiences, they have recognized how even small kindnesses have helped them. Cajun Navy member Ben Theriot was quoted in the NY Times during Hurricane Harvey explaining, “The best way you can thank somebody for helping you is to go help somebody else.”
In one survey study by DeSteno and David Lim, people who had experience more hardship and trauma expressed more compassion. They were both more willing to help an individual in need or to donate to the Red Cross.
People are more likely to help one person in need than large numbers—this is well known and used by worthies seeking charitable donations. “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic.” DeSteno and others call this “compassion fade.” They suggest it can be reduced when people feel empowered and their actions can make a difference. So the best tactic to mobilize others to help is to convince them that their efforts to aid others can make a difference.
Long before these studies, Dr. Ervin Staub, himself a childhood Holocaust survivor, has written on this psychology. He describes this caring, or “prosocial” behaviors, as “altruism born of suffering.” He writes, “Having been rescued, or even given limited help like food, can say to a person that there is kindness in the world and that the world does not have to be as the perpetrators made it to be. Having been able to act in one’s own or in others’ behalf…can also contribute, by empowering a person.” One of his most interesting findings was that Holocaust survivors in Israel who had been helped were “more likely to engage in activities aimed at making peace with Palestinians.”
One of the lessons is that teaching and engaging children in helping other people tended to increase later helping. I suspect that rather than active shooter drills, if we were to have children help those less fortunate—feeding people, sharing care packages, visiting elderly—we might make strides in boosting compassion and tempering the growing divisiveness in our society.