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farah stockman

Why we care more about Paris

Flowers and tributes were left at the base of the Statue de Marianne at the Place de la Republique Monday in honor of the victims of Friday’s terror attacks in Paris.
Flowers and tributes were left at the base of the Statue de Marianne at the Place de la Republique Monday in honor of the victims of Friday’s terror attacks in Paris. Getty Images

Have you superimposed the French flag over your Facebook profile? Attended a vigil? Prayed for Paris in a tweet? If so, you’re guilty of terrorism favoritism. Go ahead. Admit it. I’m guilty too.

In April, when Al Shabab gunmen murdered 147 college kids in Kenya, I felt anger and anguish. I used to live in Kenya. I still have many friends there. But none live in Garissa, the remote town that was attacked. That day, I did not stay glued to the news. I sent condolences, ate my breakfast, and went to work.

Why have the Paris attacks attracted so much more attention? Kenya’s largest newspaper, the Daily Nation, pondered that question this week. People in Lebanon, too, noted the sympathy discrepancy.

“When my people died, they did not send the world in mourning,” Elie Fares, a blogger in Beirut, wrote bitterly about the bombing there that killed 45 just before the Paris attacks.


He’s right. He might have added that when 1.1 million Syrian refugees flooded into Lebanon, a country of just four million people, most Americans did not notice or donate a dime. It was only when refugees washed up on the pristine beaches of Europe that we started paying attention.

Why do we care more about some people’s suffering than others?

One reason might be that we’re hardwired that way.

Jennifer Gutsell, a Brandeis psychologist, monitored the brain activity of people as they watched videos of actors drinking water or looking sad. The viewers’ brains reacted as if they themselves were drinking water or feeling sad — but only when the actors were of their same race.

When white people look at other white people — “or it could be Christians looking at Christians,” Gutsell said — their brains simulate vicarious feelings. But looking at a person of another race or religion doesn’t produce the same effect.

Our tendency to care more about our own kind — the “empathy gap” — lies at the root of so much that’s wrong with this world. That’s why scientists like Gutsell are researching how to train our brains to show more empathy to outsiders. (Even superficial similarity — like being assigned to the same team — increases empathy, she said.)


But is it really possible, or even desirable, to care equally about everyone everywhere?

In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, even the most diligent “tragedy hipster” can’t keep up with all the tragedy in this world. Never in human history have we had so much access to so many high-definition pictures of human suffering in so many corners of the earth.

Charles Figley, an expert in trauma at Tulane University who studies “compassion fatigue” among doctors, says it’s normal for the brain to tune out pain, especially when investing emotionally hasn’t made a difference in the past. That suggests that we “max out” on places that suffer tragedy too often.

The older we get, he said, the better we are at tuning out pain that doesn’t impact us personally.

“The first question we ask ourselves when we hear about a terrorist attack is: Am I in danger?” Figley said.

That may be the biggest reason so many people are glued to the news of the Paris attack.

“There’s an understanding that what happened in Paris could also occur in our own cities,” said Javier Argomaniz, a lecturer at the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence in Scotland.

It’s not just that we feel more for Paris. It’s that we’re afraid we might be next.


Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.