For the Greater Good.


Recently, someone tweeted about this perplexing challenge a University of Maryland professor put his students in, which revealed how people would turn a blind eye on the effects of their decisions, just so they could selfishly advance themselves. 

To get extra credits for their finals, the students in Professor Dylan Selterman’s class had to choose between receiving two points or six points. 

The predicament, however, was that if more than ten per cent of the class chose six points, then no one will receive additional marks. 

Nobody got extra marks at the end of the exercise, making it a humorous example of the tragedy of the commons: individuals acting selfishly, to the detriment of everyone.

I found this incident very interesting, in the light of articles on empathy which I’ve read over the past few weeks, and my curiosity on what alters our capability to relate to other people. 

An experiment revealed how power, even if it is temporary, has a significant impact on one’s capability to empathize. Quoting an article from The New York Times (which was co-authored by Michael Inzlicht, one the experimenters): “People with a higher sense of power exhibit less empathy because they have less incentive to interact with others.”

To note, power is not a realm exclusive only to CEOs, elected officials, and their ilk. In Quartz article entitled “The Science of Empathy—and Why Some People Have It Less than Others”Northwestern University’s Loran Nordgren and Rachel Ruttan said that some people who have survived the worst, and lived to tell the tale, are wont to suffer an empathy deficit: 

Our research shows that people who have gone through difficult experiences tend to be the harshest critics of those who are struggling or unable to cope. . .  .Why? For one, people often don’t accurately remember the emotional distress of difficult times. Moreover, because they overcame hardship, they tend to view it as a life event that can be readily conquered.

The combined experience of “I can’t recall how difficult it was” and “I did it myself” can lead to decreased compassion and increased contempt for others in similar straits.

But worryingly, because most people assume shared experiences produce compassion, suffering people are actually more likely to seek comfort or advice from those who are the least likely to provide it.

I find it all the more fascinating because we, as humans, tend to be drawn to the same power which may not breed empathy. Likewise, our subconscious need to have heroes to celebrate and lives to mythologize could also be inadvertently perpetuating a system that does not benefit the majority. 

Eventually, we fail to realize how the struggle separates us even further from the rest, disables our capacity to feel for those who have it less than what we have, and prevents us from seeing how this snowballs into collective harm.

Despite this, I do not mean to create an excuse for mediocrity and laziness. Rather, I want to join the conversation on how we can progress while causing lesser harm. 

To quote Albert Einstein on his observation of humanity’s nearsightedness, and the burden he believes we all must bear: “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

Yes, it is easier said than done–but maybe that’s because, as with everything in life, even caring for others is tremendous work.   

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