• Albert Park

Sparing a Dime: On the Scarcity of Empathy


Walking down the street of a crowded municipality like Montreal is an exercise in empathy, and a study in scarcity. An endless verse of desperate voices implore strangers for help as outstretched hands beg for change. Some stop to give, but soon enough, they find that their own wallets, time, and even their patience to listen, have depleted. The distinction of which one of these factors eventually cause them to walk away—although varying from case to case and ultimately garnering the same outcome—can illustrate the question of whether empathy, and the consequent willingness to listen to and engage with those in need, is a scarce resource in society, much like time or money.

In economics, “scarcity” is loosely defined as the case where demand for a good exceeds it’s supply. Based on this definition, empathy is certainly ‘scarce’ in modern society. To look at in the simplest sense, over half of the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day, while over 20 per cent lives on more than $10 (1). While there are numerous reasons behind this inequality, from inefficiency of charitable functions, to long-rooted systems of oppression and poverty that cannot be addressed in the short-term, it is unquestionable that if people were able to understand others’ pain more thoroughly, enough to incite the need to help them, such a gap could at least be shortened significantly. Yet, extreme poverty is perpetually widespread, pointing to either of these two possible reasons: (1) there isn’t enough empathy around, or (2) empathy, in any “quantity”, isn’t enough to address global inequality.

Supposedly, the truth lies somewhere in between. In a hypothetical scenario in which an average, middle-income individual encounters a starving child in the streets, they would most likely immediately do everything in their power to help them, through both financial and physical means. Yet, while starving children are dying every second globally, most people do not act with the same urgency; they might donate and support causes to alleviate their suffering, however, these charitable and voluntary undertakings come secondary to their everyday life and work. Following the mindset established in the hypothesized scenario, if they had the tools to truly grasp the stories of people suffering globally—although whether this is possible or not is a separate question to be addressed later—they should supposedly feel the empathy required to incite immediate action. However, the key distinction between the two scenarios lies in the physical distance and scale of the problem; most individuals feel that the situation is beyond them, leaving them doubting their ability to make an impact and responsibility to do so, at least in a timely fashion. In other words, they perceive “scarcity” regarding their own time, funds, energy, and most importantly, power to make a difference. In cases such as this, sentimental motivation at any level is not enough to directly address the issue.

The idea of depleting empathy is supposedly illustrated by the concept of donor’s fatigue- “a phenomenon in which people no longer give to charities, although they have donated in the past (2).” Numerous reasons have been posited to explain donors fatigue such as “donors becoming desensitized to the appeal,” or “donors feeling that there is no compelling reason or sense of urgency to provide their support (3).” Yet, consideration should also be given to people who ultimately feel that their aid is not making a marginal difference. Even in the most basic interpersonal interactions, if an individual feels that they cannot help someone who is sad or distressed, despite their best efforts to understand their feelings, they would eventually be forced to step back from the situation.

To see an inverse worldwide application of this idea, consider the outcome of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, after which there was a concern that hurricane relief would drastically cut into other charitable giving in America due to donor’s fatigue. However, according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals, “Some 76 percent of the 506 respondents said they had raised as much or more in 2005 than they had in 2004 (4).” While, there must be a number of explanations for this, it would seem that donations to hurricane relief came as a special priority triggered by a sense of emergency, hence not replacing general charitable efforts. One other reason behind this increased willingness to donate is that people are more likely to give to local relief efforts because it is easier to perceive and even witness their impact in these cases (5). There’s much validity to this idea, transportation and administration costs do indeed make charitable efforts less effective—at least in a purley dollar to dollar sense—when they are overseas. Therefore, the failure by many to answer to repeated calls for global relief of poverty has less to do with a depletion in empathy, but rather the perceived and real lessening of the productivity of empathy.

Much like the idea that physical distance influences people’s desire to donate, it is true that people are more likely to help those who they feel a personal connection to a circumstance which requisites at least some degree of personal communication and physical closeness. This claim finds basis in the idea of Dunbar’s number, which postulates that for any given person they can maintain a stable, relatable relationship with approximately 150 people (6). While this theory is far from refined and highly contentious, the basic idea is reasonable: no one is able to expand the same emotional energy for everyone they know, let alone people they have never met. Essentially, they cannot understand or relate to all the people they meet at the same level. Therefore, while some people would readily lend money to their friends or family in their times of need, they would be much more hesitant to extend the same generosity to a stranger in their community. This would then suggest that there is in fact a limit to the level of empathy one can conjure for fellow human beings, at least on a global level.

There is no real argument to this idea, but rather a glimmering hope that just as levels of productivity for tangible goods have grown exponentially over the years with the improvement of technology and communication, charitable organizations and the media will be able to more effectively incite empathy in their audience, even for those far away. Through a combination of effective communication and meaningful campaigns, they can help individuals relate more to the people they are trying to help and realize the impact of their efforts (7).

Furthermore, the effects of empathy are impossible to truly quantify. The act of giving takes many forms, not just financial donations. Some people may choose to volunteer physically, while others advocate for change to target poverty and injustice from a grassroots or political level. What’s more, these different avenues of impact are synergistic, not exclusive. In 2010, 91 percent of Canadians who had performed 60 or more hours of volunteering made donations averaging $784, compared to 79 percent of those who had not volunteered, who made donations averaging $288 (8). While this could simply point to the fact that some people are more generous than others, there is also room to believe that taking part in charitable activities continuously motivates people to give, essentially creating a positive feedback loop of empathy and action.

There is also evidence that seeing friends and colleagues give to charities encourages others to follow suit, meaning that empathy is contagious (9). In essence, seeing others work towards helping those in need can help bystanders recognize the need for action. There is also something to be said about the power of art, literature and music in increasing empathy. If indeed the barrier to global action lies in people’s inability to connect to people outside their immediate circle, then the variety of perspectives, ideas, cultures, and feelings introduced by the arts could go a far way in helping them find more relation to others and synthesize empathy for their situations. In short, there are many ways in which the society can induce individuals to to grow their reserves of empathy.

Ultimately, even if empathy could be compared to a scarce resource, this is not an indication that inequality cannot be solved, or that current charitable efforts are futile. Much like the growth in economic productivity has lead to improved living standards in many nations, an extension in people’s ability to feel empathy is required to create a more equal society. Even more, empathy must be utilized and divided efficiently, which requires us to constantly practice and analyze charitable actions. It must also be stated, that more than any other form of “spending,” empathy has a far more consequential impacts and implications: human life is immeasurable, and one person who is lifted from poverty or other difficulty, even temporarily, may go on to help improve the lives of many others.

  1. "Poverty Facts and Stats." Global Issues. Accessed December 19, 2017. http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats.

  2. McMahon, Mary, and Bronwyn Harris. "What is Donor Fatigue?" WiseGEEK. December 05, 2017. Accessed December 19, 2017. http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-donor-fatigue.htm.

  3. Pawley-Boyd, Shirlanne. Mitigating Donor Fatigue. Flemming College. http://www.cfgp.ca/downloads/MitigatingDonorFatigue.pdf.

  4. Strom, Stephanie. "Many Dismissing 'Donor Fatigue' as Myth." The New York Times. April 30, 2006. Accessed December 19, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/30/us/many-dismissing-donor-fatigue-as-myth.html.

  5. "Close to home: Why you are more likely to donate to a local charity than a distant one | Media Relations and Communications | The University of Chicago." Media Relations and Communications. Accessed December 19, 2017. https://newschicagobooth.uchicago.edu/newsroom/close-home-why-you-are-more-likely-donate-local-charity-distant-one.

  6. "Maintaining Relationships With Large Networks." FullContact. June 19, 2015. Accessed December 19, 2017. https://www.fullcontact.com/blog/maintaining-relationships/

  7. Lauth, Ian. "16 Fundraising Best Practices for Preventing Donor Fatigue." 16 Fundraising Best Practices for Preventing Donor Fatigue. Accessed December 19, 2017. http://blog.winspireme.com/16-fundraising-best-practices-for-preventing-donor-fatigue.

  8. Turcotte, Martin. "Charitable giving by Canadians." Statistics Canada. November 27, 2015. Accessed December 19, 2017. https://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11-008-x/2012001/article/11637-eng.htm.

  9. Tamma, Michael Sanders and Francesca, and Both Writers Work for the Behavioural Insights Team. "The science behind why people give money to charity." The Guardian. March 23, 2015. Accessed December 19, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2015/mar/23/the-science-behind-why-people-give-money-to-charity.


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