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  • Dharma Talk by Reizan Bob Penny: The Social Psychology of Compassion

Dharma Talk by Reizan Bob Penny: The Social Psychology of Compassion

  • Thursday, August 17, 2023
  • 8:00 PM
  • Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Reizan Bob reflects on psychological challenges to keeping our compassion engaged as we walk the path amidst the disasters of our world rooted in a powerful book by Scott and Paul Slovic entitled Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data Paperback.

After the talk he shared: 

I just had an email exchange with Scott Slovic and he mentioned that they have a website dedicated to further exploring the issues illuminated in the book. Folks at the talk were wondering if the work would be expanded the beyond the book, and apparently the authors had the same impulse. Scott actively edits the website. Perhaps there could be a notice in the next newsletter linking my talk and the website for folks. 

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Talk Notes

The Social Psychology of Compassion

 To stay attentive, aware, and feelingful towards our place and the changed of nature in our new age of rapid warming. But we most often largely stay within a narrow awareness bubble, if gauged by our feeling responses to the world, and a cursory look shows us to be nearly asleep to our likely fate. To the south our neighbors in Oregon are going through their feelings all over again that came when my aunt’s hometown of Blue River, as well as Vida, and McKensie Bridge, as well as the whole McKensize River drainage, the beloved home of noted naturalist and author Barry Lopez, all went to flames a couple years ago. Lopez had evacuated in that event, and was not in good health at the time, and died without, perhaps thankfully, ever seeing the destruction of everything he had written about, and loved, for so many years.

Fire is there again as we speak. The towns are evacuated again. This week one morning Eugenian’s awoke to ash on their windows and cars, 103 degree heat, smoke filled air, and a blood red sun over a red flag warning and preliminary evacuation preparedness orders. My childhood summer camp on sparkling Little Fall Creek, where the crawdads scuttle through forested pools, is on fire. Just think of the North Fork here, and our precious sacred Old Growth grove up there, and Glacier, Maple Falls, and Kendall, all gone. And of course one could also mention Maui, and Yellowknife, or any of the other tragedies of recent years – the hurricanes, heat domes, floods, atmospheric rivers, wet blobs, fire tornados, bomb cyclones. We keep reaching for descriptors to make sense of things, to find responsiveness, to things like 102 degree oceans in Florida, or the single dumping of rain in a day which equals an annual allotment, as it seems may this weekend befall the Southwest.

So much of this information is conveyed to us in what we have become accustomed to as the blithering array of numbers, numbers greater and greater, and yet producing still far too little response. We exist numb, in a psychic state of disbelief that any of this will happen to us. Or if we conger the imagination that it may happen to us, we still don’t connect with the feelings – the feeling of sheer terror that infected the people of Lahaina as they ran for their lives and dove into the ocean to save themselves. And yet we all stand at the edge of that same ocean, that precipice, with little room left to move.

Instead we read the news, in our news obsessed brains, like prurient voyeurs, titillated, perhaps excited (just enough, but not too much), excited enough, and yet “burned out” on the images and information, the numbers. We turn to distraction, to “entertainment”, and feel our duty has been done because we are now “informed”. Noting how this all goes, we here have been choosing instead to take time from our distractions, and follow the way of water. We keep ourselves awake, aware, feelingful, present – ready. This is why we do these practices of place, not to use nature as a storehouse of peace from which to withdraw our succor, but instead as the great community of needful beings and habitations requiring our compassionate response, our joyful participation. Our work is to awaken our compassionate response, because compassion has no function except in active response. We know the image of Avalokiteshvara, with countless arms, each holding forth yet another tool, a myriad and endless plethora of compassionate responses, and this is our inspiration.

And yet, I think we can all admit this, we as a society are not responding. We are instead reeling in shock, and distracting ourselves with the mundane usualness of our activity filled lives. I have told people I know, for years now, that the time needs to come – needs to come much sooner than it is coming – where our position towards what has already become the continuous rolling disasters of the world moves firmly away from crisis response and instead becomes ever present engaged compassion in action. It is clear this is not happening, not at anywhere the scale and speed commensurate with the danger. We, who are especial practitioners of compassion, need to understand the dynamics of this societies, and humans, numbed responsiveness, and to provide antidotes.

I’m thinking a lot about Hawaii this week, because I was born there. One of my closest friends is exactly my same age. We share a birthday. We came into this world on exactly the same day. Cross town rivals in junior high track and field, by our senior year of high school we were co-team captains. Scott Slovic was always the serious and extremely studious partner to my artistic and expressive nature. But we at core had very similar concerns in this world. Scott has become perhaps one of the best known critical thinkers today examining American nature writing. Both soft spoken and exact in speech, Scott and his father Paul always seemed of one mind. Paul’s “Noon Group” of runners has for over fifty years jogged along the streets of Eugene. It was there on those Eugene runs, and at SunRiver, with Paul’s cadre of running social psychology statisticians, where Paul and Scott fell into collaborative discussions, exploring the question of why the famine and genocide in Dafur could not get resolved, and what insights about responsiveness of feelings could be gained by studying Paul’s statistical research on human motivation, and Scott’s understanding of the efforts of artists and writers who delve into looking deeply at this world.

The result of their collaboration is this small and deeply useful book – “Numbers and Nerves -Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data.” There is much here, and I haven’t finished reading it all. Contributions span from scientists presenting research finding to the musings of the likes of Terry Tempest Williams, Bill McKibbon, and Rick Bass. Visual art and conceptual art is discussed as well as political messaging and the ubiquitous train of information we receive from the media. In the book a refrain they return to is the final line of a poem from which they had initially launched their discussions on the run, the line “the arithmetic of compassion”.

From this book I am choosing here to outline a few of Paul’s most striking research insights, and to see how they may contribute to our own practices of compassionate awareness and engagement. I’ll conduct a quick experiment. (Slap my forearm) This really stings when I do that. But if I do it steadily and repeatedly – (slap forearm rhythmically and repeatedly) the sting soon mitigates, dissipates, numbs, and becomes normalized. Normalizing stress is a common survival strategy of organisms. We can see similar responses looking at food, or light, or warmth, or many other stressors or inputs. That’s common biology. And yet if we normalize the type of danger we now face in this world we will all perish like the proverbial frog boiling in the pot of water.

Paul found that, from viewing an experimental film at the University of Oregon, when one candle was lit in a darkened space our eyes register that as a very positive introduction of light. Two candles is more light, but not double to our perceptions as twice what the single candle impressed us with. And when twenty candles are lit, the introduction of a twenty first brings almost zero responsiveness from us.

These phenomenon, which are statistically repeatable in experiments, he termed psychophysical numbing. These results run counter to intuitive thinking. In the evocatively named chapter “The More Who Die, The Less We Care”, four graphs are shown. In the first we assume that each life is equal in worth. Anyone would objectively agree with that. And so we imagine a graph of loss vs value to be a straight line when it comes to tragic loss. Each life lost would raise our sense of the tragedy incrementally upward in a straight line, in equal steps for each life lost. And additionally one could also assume another intuitive deduction, that perhaps the volume of deaths itself is a tragedy, such that one lost life is valued in some way, but when multiple lives are lost it adds up to greater than the sum of its parts, the curve sweeping upward somewhat, because more loss is so tragic.

But despite these notions research bears out that two other graphs are more true to how we respond to the world. In the next graph the curve goes up but then gently curves downward as more and more lives are loss, at some point leveling off. Our ability to be as hurt, as distraught, as concerned with many lives lost is not the sum of the number of lives. We lose the ability to care as the number increases, like just getting slapped on the arm several more times. “Who’s counting” seems to be our affective response. This was termed as Compassion Fade.

And then another graph emerged from the research. This graph goes up, like the other curves to flatten out, and then tumbles down to a low level. This is where we have heard enough, we turn off the news, we don’t want to get any more involved. This is called Compassion Collapse.

When a question was asked – given even that there is some inherent risk to you - if you saw a child drowning just off shore, and you could save him, would you? But when the idea of a second child was brought into the scenario, a child farther offshore, one you could not save, would you still save the one you could. Surprisingly the “yes” answers reduced by nearly half. Introducing up to six children you could not save did not change that number much. The damage to motivation had occurred with just one child who could not be saved. This phenomenon was termed pseudoinefficacy, the notion that, since you can’t save them all then what’s the point.

Psychophysical numbing is a diminished capacity or inclination to feel. But even when we believe that we feel, and care, about people and the world, why do we keep making choices that do not reflect that – and here I’m thinking especially about society and politics, but we can see this somewhere insides our own lives too. Paul deduced something he called The Prominence Effect – when something in our choice matrix we feel is an absolute given or necessity, then the other choices available, no matter what they are, are never chosen. It doesn’t matter even if we objectively believe that we understand the choices to be of some sort of equal value. When research subjects were offered to choose between cash money and an equal values of store coupons I bet you can guess which they almost always chose. Cash has a prominence effect in that equation, as does National Security in almost every decision we make as a country to address famine, genocide, or the climate crisis. The prominence effect will continue to trump all other choices, until we somehow rewire our perceptions of risk. How does this operate for each of us at the personal level, is an important question for us to keep in mind as practitioners of compassion.

How can we apply these insights to our practice. For one, knowledge seems to be very helpful. In research it was found that simply unpacking for the research subjects the notions behind these various concepts I’ve outlined, could almost wholly dissipate these statistical effects. If we are wise to our own games, we see right through them. Subjects did the experiments, confirmed they responded as most do in accord with these effects, then were educated about them and scored much differently on a second round, almost statistically nill between the choices offered. This didn’t work though in all cases, and the prominence effect seemed a particularly sticky one to unhook from.

But researchers also found that there were some subjects who never seemed to make choices in line with these effects. They seemed to have compassion and response engaged already, and sailed through the questions – they saved the child, gave the money away, cured the famine, or whatever it was - and in each case responded in a manner we might hope for. What was up with these people?

Well, it seems, when asked, that they were using a different arithmetic of compassion. As one author quoted in the book says about the holocaust – “it was not six million murders, it was one murder six million times.” Or, as writer Annie Dillard says in the frontispiece quotation, “There are 1,198,500,000 people alive in China. To get a feel for what this means, simply take yourself – in all your singularity, importance, complexity, and love – and multiply by 1,198,500,000. See? Nothing to it.”

There is much more in this book, and I plan to finish it and study it with some intensity. My good friends Scott and Paul have really come up with something here, and I recommend this book because I feel it reaches into many and various issues and approaches, and can be utilized widely by artists, politicians, and Zen practioners. I believe they made it small and accessible for just that reason.

I’ll finish with the poem that started them on their journey of inquiry, Zbigniew Herbert’s “Mr. Cogito Reads the Newspaper”, which, if you pay attention, mentions all sorts of quantification, but is vague about actual numbers, or when numbers are given makes them whole numbers, ending in zeros, and therefore abstract. It says “described with precision” but nothing in this gives much particular description to differentiate all this from the common tragedies repeated every day of our lives. And that seems to be the poem’s point.

On the first page A report of the killing of 120 soldiers The war lasted a long time You could get used to it Close alongside The news of a sensational crime With a portrait of the murderer The eye of Mr. Cogito slips indifferently Over the soldiers’ hecatomb To plunge with delight Into the description of everyday horror A thirty-year-old farm laboror Under the stress of nervous depression Killed his wife And two small children It is described with precision The course of the murder The position of the bodies And other details For 120 dead You search on a map in vain Too great a distance Covers them like a jungle They don’t speak to the imagination There are too many of them The numerical zero at the end Changes them into an abstraction A subject for meditation The arithmetic of compassion

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