The economics of sympathy


A common response to the horrible events in Brussels two days ago has been to condemn people in the UK or US, for example, who share their sympathy. People ask where was this sympathy when Baghdad or Ankara were bombed earlier this month? Is this, as I have seen argued often in the last two days, racism, stemming from the belief that these attacks only bother us when white people are killed?*

Perhaps economics can provide an answer.

Consider Lionel Robbins’ famous definition of economics: “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between given ends and scarce means which have alternative uses” This is economics as a study of resource allocation.

Now think of sympathy, such as that demonstrated by candlelit vigils in London for attacks in Paris or people changing their Facebook profile pictures. We only have a fixed amount of sympathy to allocate, a ‘sympathy budget’, if you will, which we can spend. Perhaps we are constrained by the costs of feeling bad, perhaps we are willing to incur this cost but we only have so many hours in the day to do it. Time, after all, is the budget constraint which we all face.

And there are, sadly, many tragic events to which we could allocate this sympathy budget. Natural disasters, horrific terrorist atrocities, ‘collateral damage’ casualties in attacks carried out by western governments…How do we allocate our budget of sympathy between so many competing, perfectly deserving ends?

This is to state the problem. All I’ve done so far is put what I think is a familiar problem into some economic terms. But how to answer it? This is perhaps more controversial.

One of the things driving empathy would seem to be the magnitude of the disaster. Or, rather, the magnitude of the disaster relative to some baseline of peril which the victims face constantly. Thus, the Tsunami of 2004 can draw a great response by its sheer size, even compared to the relatively higher mortality rates than in the west in many of the countries affected.

Another possibility might be the novelty of the event. I saw Amanda Palmer read a deeply moving poem about the Germanwings plane crash. But would she have written the poem if the plane had splashed into the sea owing to engine trouble rather than getting flown into a mountainside by a deranged pilot? Again, this could be measured against some baseline of peril which the victims normally face. Bombs attacks are, sadly, much more common in Iraq and Syria than they are in Brussels, so we discount their victims.

But another factor, possibly more controversial, seems to be how similar the people affected are to you. Take the bombing of the Brussels Metro as an example. I travel by tube in London everyday. Indeed, I was travelling on the tube on July 7th 2005. When I see the film of that blood drenched toddler crying over her dead mother in Brussels, I can picture it very vividly.

By contrast, the effect of a bunker buster on a block of flats in Syria I find harder to picture. To try and imagine it I find myself drawing, unconsciously to an extent, on Hollywood movies. That might sound trite or ridiculous, but to picture such an event and its consequences my brain searches for a comparable image stored away somewhere. With next to no actual experience myself of such things, it settles on the fictional representations I have seen.

I’m sure many of you will have seen something like the image below


Ask yourself what a Tragic World Map for, say, Africa might look like. We would probably see Africa shaded in red with the United States coloured green or blue. As different people in different circumstances have different subjective preferences when it comes to spending their budget of money, the same applies, if economic reasoning is appropriate here, when people spend their budget of sympathy.

Indeed, if you wanted to be really economicsy about it, you could say that S=f(MαNβY) where sympathy (S) is a function of the magnitude of the disaster (M), the novelty (N), and the similarities with the people to be sympathised with(Y). αand β represent the relations of the magnitudes to the baseline.

So a disproportionate concentration by the western media or westerners generally on western casualties is probably not a sign of widespread racism, though in a few cases it surely is. Rather, it is the result of people with a constrained budget of sympathy selecting via certain criteria (and feel free to suggest your own) how to allocate that budget. In short, don’t feel bad about who who you feel bad for.

* This argument is curious given that many non-whites were killed in Brussels as in Paris last November.


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