Distance Makes Hearts Grow Colder

Recently, US journalist James Foley was shown to be executed at the hands of a masked ISIS terrorist, who demanded America back off its air assaults against the militant organization in Iraq. Then, subsequent to President Obama’s willingness to continue the airstrikes at the expense of another US journalist, emerged the video of Steven Sotloff’s beheading.

Although the veracity of these videos has been questioned, but one cannot deny they reveal so many darker aspects of human nature, like psychology of evil, the callous attitude of authorities to their citizens’ lives (how was the tee off, Mr. President?), brainwashing and altering of beliefs etc, that it would require a full series to cover all the bases.

Despite all the doubts, the one shared sentiment everyone (except the most cynical and heartless) must have felt upon watching the video is shock. The visceral reaction we experience upon witnessing the slashing of one man’s throat, but surprisingly, not so vividly when we see a humongous puff of smoke, even if it stands over the ashes of an entire city.

I discussed diffusion of responsibility in one of my previous posts. If you don’t recall, it is feeling less responsible towards a situation when there are great number of people present. Here, we have the cousin of that phenomenon – diffusion by distance. It means the farther you are from the scene of pathos, the less likely you’re to feel its emotional impact. Think about it, it won’t feel so unnatural. It’s one thing to hear the reports of Lakers and Miami Heat match on television and entirely other to be part of a lively crowd and watch the whole thing yourself.

By Enola Gay Tail Gunner S/Sgt. George R. (Bob) Caron (SElephant at zh.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
This is the atomic cloud over Hiroshima, which resulted in quite a body score.
But diffusion by distance is just a smaller subset of the answer. The grander version is known as construal level theory, which is somewhat like a lens that can zoom in and out and explore the near and far impacts for various kinds of psychological distances, which deal with social and temporal factors apart from physical one. For example, if you’re planning for vacations next year, you’re most likely to have in mind the countries or places you want to go. But if you’re planning your trip sooner, say next week, you’d already be thinking about the specific itinerary you’ll follow (or the one offered to you by your travel agency). Another example would be of in-groups and out-groups: you relate and sympathize more with people of your own group than the others. In shorter and simpler words, the farther you move away, whether in space or time or even relations, the more abstract your thinking becomes. The reverse is also true – you think in more concrete terms when you move nearer.

As you can imagine by now, the construal level theory splits psychological distance into two levels: high-level and low-level. High level entails related to abstract thinking, focusing on the heart of the matter, whereas low level is concerned with more practical thinking, focusing on the details rather than the overall theme.

Now, abstract thinking itself isn’t evil. In fact, it is quite useful for problem-solving, planning, decision-making, and even self-restraint (and absolutely necessary for philosophers and mathematicians), with human beings being the only creatures recognized so far with the ability to think in such way. In fact, we truly experience only the present, the future being vague and the past already having witnessed our reactions. From your daydreams to ambitions, everything else is a mental construction rather than direct experience. In such situations, our abstract thinking aids us.

"Kevin-Carter-Child-Vulture-Sudan" by Kevin Carter - http://www.documentingreality.com/forum/f181/starving-child-vulture-photograph-9892/. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Kevin Carter via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kevin-Carter-Child-Vulture-Sudan.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Kevin-Carter-Child-Vulture-Sudan.jpg
The frailty of human beings on a personal level provokes stronger emotions, like in this Pulitzer prize winning photo by Kevin Carter

However, the problem begins when things play out an emotional level, especially empathy. As I’ve stated before, the influence of something is only as good as its proximity, whether in time or space (the adage of living in the present is not entirely meaningless). A bird’s eye view of the drone obliterated regions isn’t likely to inspire the same amount of shock as a starved toddler crawling towards food camp while a vulture perches behind waiting for her death, because we grow distant from the human factor in the former case (and that’s why the pilot of a bomber plane feels less culpable than a soldier engaging an enemy in hand-to-hand combat). But that’s not the end of story: thinking abstractly can also result in stereotyping of other groups, especially those of different color or ethnicity. Carl Linneaus might have typecast all East Asians as having yellow complexion, but upon a careful look-around (whether in person or using TV or the Internet), anyone with functioning eyes can tell that the only people with lemon-colored skin are either patients with jaundice or characters from Simpsons.

Now, I’m not here to debate whether the ISIS videos are fake or not, like some sites are doing (my heart goes out to the two journalists’ families in any case, though). The sum-total of what I’m trying to say is that our emotional responses are susceptible to psychological distances, whether social or physical, and effectively open to manipulation. The consequence of the both air attacks as well as decapitations is the same: death, but it’s the closeness to casualty that changes our reactions, the presentation of the graphic versus the impersonal, which makes all the difference in the world.


Paper on construal level theory by Trope and Liberman

The article containing video of James Foley’s beheading