Right now there are hundreds of thousands of people living in appalling conditions in refugee camps. There are people being tortured, ethnic minorities being killed, children being used as weapons in a war they didn’t start.
Why is it that we can know about these horrible things but feel more appalled about a politician taking his family to Uluru on taxpayer money?
Well, scientists now say we may be hard-wired to care less about horrible things that happen overseas or in the distant past because getting all worked up about something you couldn’t change served no purpose in day-to-day survival for our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Research into seven different societies around the world found that people relax their moral standards when judging actions that happened long ago or far away. We also find it easier to condone wrong-doings committed by prominent leaders.
This troubling finding helps to explain why a blind eye is often turned to atrocities that occur abroad or are sanctioned by influential individuals, according to the study in the Royal Society journal Proceedings of the Royal Society.
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UCLA’s Daniel Fessler and colleagues looked at seven societies – two large scale and five small scale – from around the world. To test moral judgments, the scientists produced a series of scenarios where harm was caused – for example, a man battering his wife without provocation or a man cheating a stranger in a market transaction.
Participants were then asked to evaluate the action in terms of how good or bad it was, then they were asked to evaluate it in the event that it happened locally, that an authority figure said it was OK, or that the action took place a long time ago.
Findings showed an “overarching pattern” among all societies where people were more able to accept the wrongdoings committed in another place, in the past or under instruction. They call this “moral parochialism”.
The researchers theorise that the evolved mental mechanisms that lead to moral outrage were designed by natural selection for local settings – there aren’t many benefits for getting angry about things that have no local implications in a hunter-gatherer society, for example.
The authors say the findings could help explain why humans tend to turn a blind eye to atrocities taking place far away, and that this knowledge could be used to turn this around.
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“The solution, it appears, is to send the message that, in the 21st century, when technology both allows for communication over vast distances and creates the potential for actions [such as climate change, nuclear war, etc] to affect us all, we are all one community. The mindset of our hunter-gatherer ancestors will not serve us well, and communication technology allows us to feel connected – we need to harness that for good.”
Would you like to see less “moral parochialism” and more caring about what happens to our fellow citizens?