13 min read

Why Is It So Hard To Care About Large Groups Of Animals?

Earlier this month, animal lovers across the nation gathered in sympathy for Smurf, a rescued kitten who was the victim of severe animal abuse. He arrived at a California animal shelter weighing one pound, 10 ounces, his fur dyed a deep purple, with many bite marks and lacerations. The veterinarians recognized this treatment ― Smurf was used as live bait or a chew toy for the deplorable practice of dogfighting.

The remarkable news is that caretakers expect Smurf to make a full recovery. Veterinarians at the Nine Lives Foundation (NLF) animal shelter performed emergency surgery, and hundreds have since offered to adopt him. The flood of compassion on social media and in the news has been truly inspiring. It shows something wonderful about humanity and our capacity to care about the animals who share this world with us.

Facebook/Nine Lives Foundation

The unfortunate news, as many animal lovers know, is that countless animals are still suffering like Smurf did. Other young animals are abused and killed for sport in dogfighting rings and fox hunts. Beagles and primates are subjected to cruel experimentation, for both medical reasons and cosmetic. And billions of intelligent animals like pigs and chickens endure confinement, chronic health issues and violence in our food system. Even while we help one animal, many others are still suffering.

Take a moment to reflect on your feelings after reading that last paragraph.

Does it feel bleak? Do you feel less anger and empathy than you did when reading about Smurf's story? Do you feel hopeless?

You're not alone. Psychologists refer to the human tendency to feel less concern when presented with a larger problem as the collapse of compassion. It's been documented in experiments studying our reactions to both human and animal issues and is well-captured in the saying, "A single death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic."

Many of the people who care about Smurf may not adopt another animal, even though local shelters are full to the brim in many areas. But surely these animals deserve just as much compassion.

So why don't we feel just as compelled to help those larger groups of animals, and what can we do about it?

If we feel too much compassion, we'll spend too many resources trying to help.

Emotions motivate us. They get us out of the bed in the morning, whether it's excitement for the day ahead or stress at the thought of not arriving at work on time. Our minds are trained to trigger our emotions only when they'll lead to good outcomes. Too many emotions at the wrong time can lead to bad outcomes, such as angry outbursts, debilitating depression or an investment of money or other physical resources on an unsolvable problem.

Does this mean our minds could prevent us from feeling compassion when we hear about an abundance of animals who need our help? Psychologists Daryl Cameron and Keith Payne conducted a series of experiments to answer this question. Among other results, they showed that the collapse of compassion occurred only when participants expected a request for donations.

Although much more research is needed to fully understand and confirm this mechanism, in practice, these findings suggest we feel less compassion for large groups of animals because we worry about having to spend too many resources on helping them.

It's hard for us to intuitively understand large numbers.

Scientists have conducted experiments that investigate how we think about large numbers when it comes to helping others, both humans and animals. In one study, researchers told participants about the issue of waste-oil holding ponds, created by the oil and gas industries, that cause the deaths of many migratory birds in the southern United States.

Participants were divided into three groups and told that a new project could save either 2,000, 20,000 or 200,000 of these birds. Researchers asked them how much their household would be willing to pay to help these animals. From an outside perspective, it seems like our willingness to pay should increase linearly with the number of individuals being helped, right?

Unfortunately, the willingness to pay for each group was $80, $78 and $88 respectively. That means participants who were told 10 or 100 times as many birds could be saved failed to adjust for that huge difference in the amount they were willing to contribute.

This is known as scope insensitivity. Together with the collapse of compassion, it makes it difficult for us to feel as much empathy as we should for large groups of animals.

Tell a story before describing the larger issue.

How can we overcome this bias and help ourselves, and others, feel more compassion for large groups of animals?

One way might be by telling stories. We usually shouldn't introduce a large issue by describing its scale, even though this might be its most compelling feature from a rational perspective. Instead, it's probably more compelling to begin with a story or description of the individuals involved to establish empathy and a moral connection.

This works especially well when you know of an animal who has been rescued from abuse and now lives at a sanctuary or in a loving person's home, because it shows animals aren't inherently miserable and one-dimensional beings only capable of suffering about which we can do nothing, but complex individuals with a desire for happiness and a good life.

Our chickens, Snow and Dualla, were rescued from battery cages in 2014. Snow even has her own Facebook page.Jacy Reese

Our chickens, Snow and Dualla, were rescued from battery cages in 2014. Snow even has her own Facebook page. | Jacy Reese

For example, my girlfriend and I recently adopted two hens we rescued from a battery cage farm. Our chickens live with us now, just like other pets. We feed them. They sit in our laps and purr. And when friends come over, they see these animals have the same capacity for emotion as the dogs and cats we're more familiar with.

The issue of battery cages used by most U.S. egg farms, which are so small that the poor hens can't even spread their wings, is a tough sell even for many animal lovers. The tight confinement leads to chronic stress because the hens are unable to get away from their aggressive neighbors, nest to lay their eggs or engage in other natural behaviors. This suffering is well-documented thanks to the brave work of undercover investigators.

Getting to know these individual chickens is one of the most promising ways to prevent the collapse of compassion when it comes to such a large and tragic issue.

Show someone how they can help, not just why.

Even if one recognizes the sentience and moral importance of animal welfare, hopelessness and apathy can still set in if we feel we can't make any progress.

So it's not enough to only tell stories of the suffering. We also need to communicate how we can improve the lives of animals as much as possible. We're fortunate in this regard because there exists a community of dedicated and strategic animal advocates who are making progress on a variety of issues. For the example of cruel battery cages, organizations like The Humane League have successfully inspired many companies including Costco and Subway to make public cage-free commitments.

Next time you discuss the big issues facing animals, keep these two approaches in mind: Tell stories of individuals, such as rescues, and be sure to describe how we can fix the problem, not just why we should.