Psychologist Stephen Taylor was at a socially distanced meeting with relatives and their friends last week when the conversation turned to chaos in Afghanistan. Someone mentioned the sickening footage of desperate Afghans clinging to American warplanes as they fly away. Then one person made a remark that caught Taylor by surprise: The video, he said, was funny. Others agreed.
Taylor was shocked. This was one of the most disturbing things he had heard in the entire week. Worse, he doesn't think it was an isolated incident of accidental sadism. Taylor is studying disaster psychology at the University of British Columbia, and he knows how intense, prolonged stress can desensitize the mind.
What worried him most about the incident was what he said about the impact of the pandemic on our perception of other disasters and, more broadly, about our ability or inability to empathize.
For more than two years now, the world has been experiencing a pandemic. Suffering was unevenly distributed, but almost everyone felt pain in one way or another. Meanwhile, the basic drumbeat of the world's disasters continues unabated. Forest fires filled the sky with smoke; earthquakes have razed cities to the ground; buildings collapsed without warning. So it is worth asking how, if at all, the most universal of disasters is changing the way we experience these crises - and how we will respond to disasters for the rest of our lives.
In fact, this question consists of two questions: one concerns the victims of future disasters, and the other concerns the observers who will monitor the development of these disasters from a safe distance.
1. Victims of future disasters
The first question, at least, has a fairly simple answer. As Taylor told me, after experiencing a disaster, a minority of people are more resilient, so if another disaster happens, they can better deal with it.
For most people, however, stress is exacerbated: After experiencing one crisis, a person is at greater risk of having an unhealthy psychological reaction to another. In California, a state that now burns annually, the wildfire survivors I spoke to said they felt "haunted" by the ensuing fires.
"There is a feeling that the reserves of people for coping with the consequences of fire are kind of finite," says Joe Roosek, a PTSD researcher at the University of Palo Alto. "So if you have to deal with a situation a lot," as has happened to many people over the past year and a half, you can reduce your response emotions."
Thus, the pandemic has made everyone more vulnerable to the psychological effects of tomorrow's earthquakes, mass shootings and pandemics.
2. Observers of future disasters
The second question is more complicated. For those of us fortunate enough to witness a disaster from afar, previous experiences can make us more empathetic towards survivors.
Or it can lead us to fatigue, like the people who said at the Taylor meeting that they found the videos from Afghanistan funny. At the moment, psychologists told me, which of these effects prevails is anyone's guess.
Empathy after a disaster
Kang Lee, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Toronto, while researching empathy after disasters, found that children as young as 9 can become more generous after disasters.
He says most of the research in this area focuses on short-term disasters with well-defined beginnings and ends, such as earthquakes. Few, if any, consider long-term, protracted disasters such as pandemics. "This," he says, "is very new to psychologists."
To gauge the impact of the pandemic on generosity, Lee suggests looking at charitable donation data - an imperfect but useful barometer nonetheless.
Of course, in 2020, despite a severe economic downturn and massive unemployment, donations to the United States reached an all-time high. But philanthropy experts predict a return to normal this year, reflecting Lee's findings about children and short-term crises: Over time, he has observed and that of his colleagues, children tend to return to their usual levels of generosity. He suspects that in the later stages and after the pandemic, with its roller-coaster trajectory and dizzying uncertainty, people may be less empathetic.
This can be especially true when people in need of empathy are far away from those with the resources to help - for example, in Haiti or Afghanistan. In an unpublished study, Lee found that racial and national biases tend to escalate after disasters. When the reserves of human generosity run out, we give what little we have to people who are like us and live where we are. Perhaps when they are so depleted that we can even laugh at the fugitives clinging to a plane on the other side of the world.
People "just burned out," Taylor said. "They've had enough violence and stress at the moment, and they just don't want to hear anything like that again." He doesn't think the people he encountered last week are unique. “What worries me,” he said, “is that a lot of people just shut off from it all.”
If so, if fatigue actually suppresses empathy, it would be a grimly ironic result: disaster survivors are more vulnerable to injury, and observers are never more willing to help.
Whether or not it happens in the near future, Lee, for example, isn't very worried about having a cold heart become the norm. In his research, he found that the effects of disasters on empathy are short-lived. If he's right, then the pandemic is unlikely to change us, at least in this particular case.
We will neither become more immune nor more attentive to the suffering of others. And this is both very encouraging and not at all encouraging.