Saturday, August 29, 2009

Brief: Have we gotten more or less sympathetic since Adam Smith's time?

In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith made the observation that we care less about the disasters that befall others if they are remote and faceless, while we panic at much smaller hardships of our own. But he wrote that before the Industrial Revolution really took off, and so before the peace-and-life-valuing merchant classes genetically replaced the old warring aristocratic class. In the meantime, capital punishment has been widely banned across Europe and its off-shoots, we have laws against cruelty to animals, and we have TV and other media that provide us with vivid daily images of the troubles that beset people in far-off places. So, does his observation still hold up in our more bleeding heart times?

To check this, I searched the NYT for its coverage of a rival first-world country, Japan, and a non-threatening third-world country, Indonesia. If newspapers cover a country out of sympathy for their plight -- and this supply would reflect demand for such coverage -- then there should be declining coverage of Japan during their incredible boom of the 1980s, but increasingly more coverage as they slid into the Lost Decade of the 1990s and even early half of the 2000s. Similarly, coverage of Indonesia should spike during 2004 - 2005 in the wake of the disastrous tsunami, which hit Indonesia much harder than other countries. (This event was pretty close to Smith's hypothetical earthquake that swallowed all of China.) There should also be a spike during their financial crisis of 1997 - 1998, although this was not a deadly catastrophe that could provide the level of gory detail as a tsunami, so this spike should be smaller than that of the tsunami coverage.

Here is the NYT's coverage of these countries:

Counter to the sympathy hypothesis, coverage of Japan shot up during the 1980s, as Americans began to fear more and more that Japan was going to economically take over our country. When Japan slid into a long recession, those fears evaporated, and the supply of alarming stories declined as a result, all the way to the present. This is not to say that there was no demand for sympathy stories about the Japanese recession, only that fear is a stronger driver of coverage than sympathy.

The Indonesia data give some support to the sympathy hypothesis. There is indeed a two-year increase for 2004 - 2005, reversing a previous steady decline. After that moment of sympathy, though, coverage starts to decline again. Moreover, the upward blip during the tsunami is tiny compared to the skyrocketing coverage of 1997 - 1998, when Indonesia was rocked by a financial crisis. This reflects our panic that the Asian Financial Crisis would infect our own economy. Before this threat to us, we paid relatively little -- and consistently little -- attention to Indonesia.

On the whole, the coverage data support Adam Smith's claim, despite our being more emotionally sensitive than people were during his time. However, there is no real paradox here if we view the demand for sympathy stories -- and the coverage that supplies that demand -- as a function of both some baseline concern for others plus a component that responds to actual disasters. Let's say that sympathy is a simple, linear function of disasters:

S = b + r*D

Where S is level of sympathy, b is our baseline level in the absence of news about disasters, D is the level of disasters that we hear about, and r measures how responsive our sympathy is to those disasters.

All that Smith was saying is that r is greater for disasters that are nearer to us than for disasters that are more remote. He made no claim about our baseline level. The genetic and cultural proliferation of the merchant classes -- and the concomitant doing away with public executions, slavery, etc. -- may have increased the baseline without affecting how r responds to disasters at different social distances. This seems like a useful distinction to draw, as it clears up a lot of the confusion about whether we've become more selfish or sensitive in recent centuries.

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