July 22nd, 2009
08:36 AM ET

The hardwiring of human empathy: How we can save one child at a time

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/07/22/art.africahungry.jpg]
Mallika Chopra

An 8-year-old girl is drowning in a pond. Her head is bobbing up and down the surface of the water, and she is clearly struggling to stay afloat. You happen to walk by this pond. There is no one else around.

Would you save this girl?

Of course you would. Most people will drop what they are doing to save this child without a moment's hesitation.

26,000 girls are drowning in 26,000 ponds all around the world. You are on the other side of the world, with your own daily problems and everyday tasks to worry about.

Would you save these girls?

If you are like most people, probably not.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof presents this theoretical scenario in a recent column "Would You Let This Girl Drown?" Why is it that people are less inclined to help others when it involves a large number of people?


Filed under: 360° Radar
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Mike in NYC

    It was only upon the advent of modern communications that humans could learn what was happening to an individual halfway around the world. Our altruism evolved - or was designed, if you wish - to benefit those close to us, geographically and genetically.

    This may sound harsh, but the Earth only has so much carrying capacity. First World advances in medicine and food production have led to populations in many Third World areas increasing far beyond what Nature would have permitted before starvation and disease brought human numbers down to naturally sustainable levels.

    Modern "empathy," with its unlimited geographical reach, will keep the treadmill of aid and dependency rolling along.

    July 22, 2009 at 11:52 am |