Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Facebook and Compassion Fatigue

If you're on Facebook and generally an open-minded person that prefers the company of other open-minded people, you have probably noticed a deluge of profiles changed to some sort of red icon. Despite being sympathetic to the cause in question, I noticed that the icons really set me off this morning. It wasn't the first time I've observed the icon-as-statement phenomenon. In fact it's happened so much that I knew what was coming: having ten or twenty or more people with identical icons, making it impossible for me to utilize my preferred visual shortcut for seeing who is showing up in my feed. What was notable to me was the profound detachment I felt from the cause. Not that I don't, on some level, care, but it had the same psychological effect as a dozen posts about Christmas or the Super Bowl.

It got me thinking, though, I wonder how many other people have the same reaction as me? If so, could it be that such memes not only don't help anything but may do harm in the form of compassion fatigue?

Compassion Fatigue has been most commonly associated with the pessimism, nihilism and uncharacteristic apathy that occurs in the helping professions. Nurses, social workers and other caretakers commonly struggle with it. It's been identified with lawyers as well. However, more recently, it's been cited as something that occurs in the general population. Compassion fatigue has been identified as an issue with donors to charitable organizations. It's frequently cited as being sparked by over-exposure to tragic events in the media. In short, over-exposure to the problems of the world can lead to a sense of helplessness and desensitization.

Benedict Carey of the New York Times asks:

Are people today — are societies — really becoming somehow more callous?

The answer is no, of course not — at least not in any fundamental sense. But compassion is a limited resource, a system rooted in cognitive networks that tire and need refueling. And it’s not always rational.

Now, some people may express revulsion at the suggestion that compassion seems to be in limited supply. However, Carey cites evidence to indicate that this is an important survival instinct, and just as there's an evolutionary basis for compassion, there's an evolutionary basis for the overload. It's this ability that helps us to reason our way through a truly horrific crisis situation, but also to save our reserves for those close to us. Indeed, we seem to be more responsive to an individual than a group or a whole country. Carey goes on to state:

Still, even when rested and ready, people generally find it far harder to extend empathetic concern to a nation than to a neighbor. The helping instinct evolved to protect the household, the clan. Some psychologists make a distinction between moral intuition, the physical horror at seeing someone hit by a car or the tears of a parent whose son is kidnapped; and moral reason, the more intellectual process of grasping larger tragedies, like floods and famine.

As you can see, compassion fatigue, although a problem, also has its benefits. Namely, helping us to reason properly when emotions might cloud our judgment as well as ensuring that we care first for our immediate kin. However, the potential for compassion fatigue ought to be measured in deciding which tactics to use to influence change.

In the case of Facebook, care should be taken when passing on political memes. Granted, I think there are other factors (such as group acceptance/affiliation) that motivate this behavior. That said, if you do want to influence others' attitudes or awareness consider the following point: compassion fatigue is tied to both a sense of helplessness and desensitization. Both of these seem to be the by-product of over-saturation. In the case of charitable donations, one of the biggest culprits is just that so many people ask us for money, and even when we donate, that seems to increase rather than decrease the pleas to help. If frequent exposure to a problem does this, what does seeing the exact same image over and over again do?

I suspect that news articles are another source of fatigue, especially from more provocative blogs that are designed to stir up emotions. The stirring up of emotions, when done often enough, by enough people, can in fact evoke emotions in others, but that's precisely the problem: if I see ten people in a given day posting articles from the Huffington Post (for example), I will first feel sad or angry, but I will quickly move to feeling overwhelmed, and from there I'll move to weary...particularly if all I'm exposed to is others' outrage and not, say, any brainstorming about possible solutions. It's only a matter of time before I start skipping the articles, and it's only a matter of time after that before I start scanning for links and moving my eyes elsewhere. I suspect it's worsened by the short-lived reaction: today everyone is concerned with gay rights, tomorrow it will be something about unions, the day after that it will be about rape. This intensifies the feeling of helplessness, because not only does the over-saturation occur with the deluge of the same icon or article, but it gets seemingly forgotten when some other injustice crops up and suddenly there's a whole new problem to attend to.

Perhaps the icons and articles are how others fight off compassion fatigue. If the fatigue emerges, in part, from helplessness over suffering in the world, "slacktivism" may provide temporary relief through the delusion that one is having an influence. Still, if it really is a delusion, and if it could actually be inducing apathy in others, shouldn't it as a practice be abandoned?

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