Smells Like Team Spirit: Master the Art of Collaboration
Director Diane Paulus delivers a crash course in team dynamics, how to nurture creativity, and the importance of obsession in a good leader.
Diane Paulus is the Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University, and was selected for the 2014 TIME 100, TIME Magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Paulus is the 2013 recipient of the Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical (Pippin). A.R.T.: Eve Ensler's In the Body of the World, Waitress (currently on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theater), Crossing Finding Neverland, Witness Uganda, Pippin (Tony Award, Best Revival and Best Director), The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (Tony Award, Best Revival, NAACP Award, Best Direction), Prometheus Bound, Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera, Best of Both Worlds, Johnny Baseball, The Donkey Show.
Her other recent work includes Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna, Invisible Thread At Second Stage, The Public Theater’s Tony Award-winning revival of HAIR on Broadway and London’s West End. As an opera director, her credits include The Magic Flute, the complete Monteverdi cycle, and the trio of Mozart-Da Ponte operas, among others. Diane is Professor of the Practice of Theater in Harvard University’s English Department. She was selected as one of Variety’s “Trailblazing Women in Entertainment for 2014” and Boston Magazine’s “50 Thought Leaders of 2014.”
Diane Paulus: When you work in the theater you always begin privately. There isn't always an audience. But interestingly there is always a test of what that relationship to the audience is going to be. So you begin with your team of colleagues. On a musical you have a big village of people. You have a choreographer, a writer, a conductor, a musical supervisor, and I've always felt the job of a director is to get so obsessed with the subject matter and then your job is to spread the obsession and you've got to do that in phases. So initially you do it to your inner team. And then there's a moment where you bring actors into that process and you have to transmit it to your actors. And then ultimately as a collective we transmit it to the audience. So my job as the director, even though we don't get in front of the audience until the baby is born and has learned to walk and has done some test experiences, I almost have to stand in for the audience at every phase of the process. And I often use this expression of you've got to wash your eyes clean and you have to dare to be what Peter Brooke called naïve, you have to be a naïve spectator. And you have to see without desire, which is something I often talk about, you know, how can you look at what you've done and not just get hung up on oh God the actor didn't do the line the way I wanted them. No, you can look with a lot of desire but you can also look without desire.
So you are trying to stand in for that audience at every phase and by doing that I think you cast that audience in your head and you can make a choice about how you're going to cast that audience. And I'm a great believer in the audience being a great partner and the audience wanting to stretch you and the audience wanting to learn. I just think their human needs and we want to learn; we want to be moved; we want ritual; we want to go through and experience together in life; we want spectacle. There's a human need for spectacle, and I spectacle I mean to be in the presence of something larger than yourself. It's why we stand on a beach and look at a horizon line and get lost in it or stand on a mountaintop and look at a vista. That's what we recreate in the theater is an idea of awe and spectacle so you can feel yourself in the presence of something greater than yourself.
So you can make a choice about how you're thinking about the audience and wanting to aim high with your audience. As I say that I also believe an audience needs to be diverted. This French word divertismall, entertainment gets a bad word it's like oh it's just fluff, it's just entertainment. Like no, we also have a human need to be entertained, to laugh, to leave our current situation and divert from that. So I guess I try to make a show, the ultimate dream show is something that touches on all of those that you can be challenged in your mind, you can be challenged in your heart. I actually also believe in the body. I'm so fascinated with all these studies of I have a young daughter and I remember being told when she was in kindergarten that she might need to see a specialist because she can't sit still. And then all these studies that have come out that now actually moving helps you learn and now we know we stand at desks. So this idea that the theater is a form that actually also engages your body and vibration.
The other thing about audience is I always like to think about with the audience as a creative partner. And what I mean by that is that the audience can meet you more than halfway and they can help fulfill the moment. So you actually don't have to micromanage and deliver everything, actually the space that you leave for the audience to tap their imagination, to complete something, to bring themselves is as important as what you provide for an audience. And I think that's also really important in my work with actors, when I direct a show not only am I trying to, with the actor and the play writer or the composer, make all the decisions about how we're going to tell the story, but I'm also trying to engage the actor to be creative because if they are just following directions it won't be fulfilling. And I think this is something that can be applied to anything you do in life, any kind of business, any kind of group endeavor. In our business sometimes actors feel they're a good actor if they say to the director just tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it. What do you want me to do? And to me that is like the death of a process is like it's so not about what I want. Actually I start every process with this statement: I say I'm going to come with an idea and I'm going to expect you to come with an idea. And I know that together we will make a third idea that is better than both of our ideas.
And that's a really important thing to say upfront because we live in a hierarchy and people tend to feel that they don't have space to have an idea, that they need to execute or they need to just deliver what is expected. And I think in the arts we all know the art is going to be great when you get to the unexpected. So we actually are in a profession that values that, but I think that that idea of giving agency and empowering anyone, whether you are an actor in a show or whether you sit in the box office, whether you're a receptionist at the desk to a company like at my theater, I want everybody the whole endeavor is going to be better if everyone is as invested and as engaged in the big picture. So you have to do a lot of talking about the big picture. It can't just be an execution because people don't understand. People get resentful when they don't understand why they're being asked to do what they're doing, especially if it's hard work. So I always feel my job as a director is to constantly point to the top of the mountain and remind people like we're going there. And guess what, and this is also an important lesson that I've learned and I always tell this to young directors, you don't have to have the answers. A lot of young people feel like I can't be a director; I don't have a vision; I don't have the answers. I say it is so not about the answer. In fact the whole process is finding the answer together. If you have the answer you have the wrong answer or you definitely have not asked a big enough question. The idea is together we're going to find out how we get to the top of the mountain. I don't know how we're going to get there but I know that's where we're going. And then definitely the job of the director is when everybody is tired and people are cranky and they're immunities because that happens and people just want to give up and go down the mountain, you have to find a way to engage people to say come on we're going to keep going, we're going to keep going. And that's I would say 75 percent of what I do as a director is keeping people motivated, keeping people engage and inspiring people to have a some kind of faith.
And you can only do that if you believe in where you're going. So that's so important and for me it has defined my investment. And what I do emotionally, spiritually is I will not take on a project that I don't believe in because it's too hard and it won't be authentic that investment of my personal energy and my personal blood, sweat and tears if I don't believe in where we're going.
In the arts, and particularly the not for profit arts movement there can be a lot of blaming the audience for the lack of engagement. The audience has left the building. Nobody wants culture anymore in America. We're depraved. We have no more attention span. The Internet has corrupted our minds. No one wants to sit in a theater anymore. And I remember hearing all this and thinking very strongly, well we're just blaming the audience. And I'm a producer and an artist, I actually have a chance to take a little responsibility for maybe why the audience has left the building. So I want to do everything I can ahead of time before the audience is ever invited into the process to make something that I think an audience is going to want to be in the presence of. And by want I mean they want it, they need it and they need it now. So I think in a process with my team in a creative process we're constantly asking big questions. Why are we doing this? What story are we telling? Why do we care? What are we identifying with? Should an audience even bother to stay interested at this point?
And those can be very scary questions because they're big questions and you don't want them to dismantle your process to the point where you're debilitated. But if you can find a way to ask tough questions, again, to get everyone around the table thinking and feeling as hard as they can the work will get better. And that is a process in the theater that continues constantly and that real horror of the theater is you don't know what you have until you put it in front of an audience. So even though you've tried very hard to stand in for the audience, to make all your best decisions based on what you're trusting yourself and your team and the actors and the small invited guests that are brought into the room, you really don't know what you have until you have an audience. And then if you're lucky you have a chance to change it in front of an audience. And then if you're really lucky you get to continue to work on it.
I just did a national tour of Finding Neverland, which was a musical I did on Broadway and I did it at the NART at Harvard. I did it on Broadway. It ran over a year on Broadway. Now it's on tour. We just changed it again and it's a staggering process to know that sometimes you can just get so far with something and you need to step back; look at it again; live your life a little. Everybody has to go off and put it in a drawer and then come back and then you can see fresh because sometimes this idea of seeing without desire is not always possible. So that's why we talk about process. We talk about process that there is a process of the work never being done and how you can continue to improve something. And in many cases you improve because you get feedback and you get feedback from a very, very honest audience. And there were people who said things to me at ART when we first did Finding Neverland that stuck with me. And for many reasons the actual change we made years later couldn't happen, but now they've happened and there's nothing more fulfilling than having a chance to continue to work on something and make it better.
As she explains the architecture of her creative process, Diane Paulus provides a crash course in leadership and team dynamics. Paulus knows collaboration well: she’s the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University, and has directed numerous Broadway productions. Teams work to their full potential when each member has genuine input and space to be creative – the director has to steer the project, but nothing squashes motivation like micro-management. Directing a project – even beyond the theatre world – requires you to remove yourself from what the project ideally will be, and ask tough questions while it’s under construction to keep it on track: like ‘Why should an audience care?’ and ‘Why are we doing this?’. If you’re not satisfied with your answers, your audience (or product user) won’t be either. "In the arts… there can be a lot of blaming the audience for the lack of engagement," Paulus says. "I'm a producer and an artist, I actually have a chance to take a little responsibility for maybe why the audience has left the building." There is a bounty of wisdom to be gleaned from Paulus’ experiences in the theatre: never stop learning and adapting your product, don’t just see what you want to see – find flaws, know that too much hierarchy will make your team stale, and be obsessed – positive mania is infectious in a team. Find more about Diane Paulus at www.dianepaulus.net.
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
- The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?
Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."
Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.
Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.
The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."
That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"
The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.
Some back story
Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.
The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.
Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.
There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.
A Dunbar Correlation
Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?
"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.
I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.
Professor Dunbar's response:
"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."
I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:
"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."
In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.
Friendship, kinship and limitations
"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."
These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.
"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.
As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."
We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.
In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."
This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.
If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.
Gray matter matters
One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."
It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷
It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.
There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:
(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."
(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.
In the end
Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.
Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.
Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.
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