Sarah DeVries
A group of migrants makes their way through Chiapas on a hot day in August of this year. A group of migrants makes their way through Chiapas on a hot day in August of this year.

Where we run out of empathy, compassionate policy must take over

Humane rule of law can protect us from our own 'caveman brains'

Though it’s been published for several days now, I can’t stop thinking about the article I wrote last week about migrants trying to make their way, at any cost, to the United States.

Migrants are suffering, a lot, from violence, hunger and illness. They’re suffering on their journeys. They’re suffering in detention. And even with all that, there are those who say they’d prefer to risk dying where they are rather than going back to their home countries and almost certainly being killed.

I received several emails about the article, mostly of the “if you hate America so much, then you don’t understand anything, plus you suck” variety (sigh). That’s not really what’s been bothering me about it, though, as those types of messages are par for the course in this profession.

What’s had me frowning and mulling these past few days is the difficulty for humans in general to sustain compassion for lots of people at the same time, which I believe is at the root of some pretty heartless immigration policies and practices. Large groups of people are obviously overwhelming, yes. But the homeless guy passed out drunk on the sidewalk that I walked past the other day was also overwhelming, and there was just one of him.

If we can’t achieve empathy for one another – not even for someone right in front of us – what’s to become of us as a species? Are we simply doomed?

Trying to find the answer to that question led me down a rabbit hole of anthropological theories and studies on our psychological limits of empathy.

My first stop: Dunbar’s number. This is a theory that states that humans can only maintain around 150 relationships at a time; it also happens to be the number of most stable and sustainable human groups throughout history. The number correlates to brain size in primates, and though our societies and communities have become exponentially larger than this through the relatively recent events of urbanization and industrialization, our physical and mental ability to open our hearts to others in a meaningful way has not.

What this means is that our minds are essentially still those of cavemen. And once we get beyond another significant number, about 1,500 (according to Dunbar, the number of people’s faces and perhaps names one could recognize), all the rest simply become a mostly indistinguishable sea of humanity.

This is why journalists — and, really, all storytellers — zoom in on individual experiences of individual people if they want to elicit any kind of sympathy. If they write in such a way that makes us feel that we know the subjects — in a way that makes us see part of ourselves in them or that makes us imagine ourselves in their situation — then it helps to bring their plight into personal focus. It reminds us that they, like us, are also human.

If we only write about gigantic groups of traveling people without including individual stories, then we might as well be writing about swarms of bees or locusts. Add in language like “gathering,” “pouring into” and “releasing,” and it’s easy to see how some already jumpy people would be in favor of simply slamming the door on the needy masses once and for all.

More bad news was found on my second stop: the real, measurable limits of human empathy. Apparently, it’s not a renewable resource (at least not at the rate that it would need to be to achieve universal warm feelings for all). The same part of our brains that makes us feel close to some makes us feel markedly separate from others.

As social psychologist Adam Wayt puts it, “… in principle, if we eliminate out-group hate completely, we may also undermine in-group love. Empathy is a zero-sum game.”

We can care about a few things at a time. We can’t care about everything all at the same time. And, of course, we get tired. We get frustrated. I sometimes lose patience with my little human child, and I love her more than life itself. Now imagine a bunch of strangers!

So here we are with a multitude of humanitarian crises going on all the time, which is the norm in our modern world of over seven billion miracles of human life.

People are constantly being asked to do impossible things without the resources with which to do them — I’m thinking specifically of those tasked with enforcing immigration rules on the ground — so of course they’re getting frustrated and expressing that frustration, which is a very human thing to do. (I’m not excusing the behavior; I’m simply recognizing it as a normal human reaction.)

The safeguard we have against these limits on our empathy are laws, policies and procedures. Where our empathy ends, humane rules and procedures must take over. When those rules and procedures aren’t humane or they are dysfunctional or they are overwhelmed with unexpected problems, we get into trouble and people suffer.

But I’m an optimist. I believe in our collective ability to come up with humane and compassionate laws and policies, which is the only thing that I believe can collectively save us. It’s the only way to protect ourselves from each other and our caveman brains.

My sister put it simply: “It’s because we’re too closely related to chimps.” She’s right, of course. In the end, we’ll always be animals that think we’re good enough to be gods. But the only effective gods are those just institutions that we create through collective effort.

So, time to rally, my fellow chimps. We can do this!

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com and her Patreon page.

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