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?
For example, he cites a study where soliciting $30,000 to help a 7-year-old girl from Africa raised money with far more success than soliciting for the same amount that benefited 8 people instead of just one.
He also acknowledges the diffusion of responsibility that occurs when there are billions of bystanders present in face of human suffering. When there are more people around us sharing equal responsibility, we individually feel less inclined to take initiative or to reach out to help -- whether it is a stranger falling down in the street, or a child dying of malaria on the other side of the world.
What does this mean for the rest of us who want to do good in this world? My conclusion is this: if it is true that human empathy works best in one-to-one connections between the individual with resources and the individual in need, then we need to work harder than ever before to bring those one-to-one connections all over the world.
Our natural human empathy is not wired to focus on a number, a region, or a cause. When we are given high death tolls or the complex geo-politics of the particular issue, we grow numb with a sense of helplessness. On the other hand, when we focus on specific people with names, faces, and families, and we are given a specific action step to ease their suffering, then our desire to help flows more naturally.
Mallika Chopra is the founder of Intent.com, a site focused on personal, social and global wellness