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The Hardwiring of Human Empathy: How We Can Save One Child at a Time

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.

You can see the success of these one-to-one connection principle in other organizations and businesses that have built their strategies around this rule of human empathy. Kiva Microfund (www.kiva.org), a non-profit organization that started in 2005, connects individuals in developed countries to specific business owners and families on the other side of the world. Individuals with money to spare can choose from a number of business owners and families to donate a microloan to help start their businesses, and these online profiles are complete with personal life stories and photographs. Donating $25 to a man or woman with children who wants to start a business feels extremely rewarding in this case because you know with absolutely certainty that your money will contribute directly to the well-being of a specific person or group of people. I also suspect this is the reason why TOMS shoes has been doing so well, famous for its promise that for every TOMS shoes you buy, a pair of shoes will be donated to a child in Africa. Giving a certain percentage of the shoe price to a large charity organization is not as personable as the mental image of a poor child overjoyed at the prospect of receiving a new pair of shoes. We get that instant mental gratification when we choose to buy TOMS shoes.
 
Thanks to the power of the internet, our ability to create one-to-one human connections between the giver and the receiver is greater than ever. As citizens of a new technological century where anyone literally can be connected to anyone else within mere seconds, it up to us to concoct new and creative possibilities to decrease human suffering as much as possible. UNICEF's goal is to reduce the daily number of children dying from preventable causes from 26,000 to zero. We cannot stop until every child in this world is safe and healthy. I hope that Nicolas Kristof's column sparks constructive dialogue within non-profit organizations and charities around the world -- and also within every global citizen with a desire to help. Though we cannot change the strange hard-wiring of our human empathy, we can work with it by its own terms to bring as much peace and relief to as many people as possible -- one child, one person, one family at a time.
 
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Mallika Chopra is the founder of Intent.com, a site focused on personal, social and global wellness