Humans aren’t rational. What will get an emotional response out of us doesn’t always make any sense. We’ve talked about this before, but remember when the dentist shot and killed Cecile the Lion in Zimbabwe? People were outraged. Human beings died that week. Let’s say a child was shot by a stray bullet in Chicago, yet that got little to no response in the press. No outrage.
Dan Ariely talked about that on his blog.
Your question hinges on what we mean when we use the term caring. When you look at the volume of public outrage and the amount of ink spilled, it can sometimes seem that the loss of an endangered animal matters more. Sadly, that’s because, at least for some of us, the news of an animal’s death can have more emotional impact than the news of a person’s death.
Of course, this isn’t true for those who were close to the deceased, have personally experienced similar tragedies or have worked to fight similar injustices. But for those who experience such tragedies only via the news, the human loss sometimes doesn’t pull as much at their emotional strings.
This tendency has limits, though. If you gave most people two buttons, told them that pressing one would kill an endangered animal and pressing the other would kill a random fellow citizen, and ordered them to push one, very few would press the kill-a-person button. In this sort of direct comparison, I’d predict, almost everyone would prefer to kill the animal. Comparing lives more directly engages our cognition, not our emotions—and so the type of caring that emerges reflects our higher empathy for human beings and their families.
In other words, when we really think about it, we care more about humans—but we are often called to act based on our emotions, where our caring works quite differently.
The more the victims seem like us then the more likely we are to be able to empathize, put ourselves in their place. I sometimes see this in myself. I’m more likely to relate to and really stop and care about some Coptic Christians being killed in their church, because they are fellow Christians. That’s not rational. Or I will stop and care more about a little child washed up on a beach, because I have children and so it’s easier for me to visualize my own kids in that situation. I suspect that the more similar we see the victims to ourselves, the more likely we are to have an emotional response.
@ Race. Historically, humans have been very good at dehumanizing “the other” or the people not of our tribe. The Vietnamese were “gooks.” In that respect, yes. I agree with you.
I think these are cognitive biases that we all have. I remember this when reading about Anne Frank as a young girl. I could relate. She was about my age, so I probably cared more about Anne, than if the story were about an older woman, for example.
What will trigger our emotions is not always rational.