Dunbar’s Number, Empathy, and Compassion Fatigue

In the United States, the divide that separates right from left is more than just politics, it is psychology. The “bleeding heart liberals” on the left have empathy for fellow human beings. The right…not so much. Empathy is the true measure that determines our views on important issues of the day. From gun control, welfare, human rights, and poverty issues, our empathy is the true driving force behind our views. At it’s most obvious, when we have a mass shooting our country has two reactions. Either we fear for our children, or we fear for our guns. But why?


(For a more detailed look, read here)

In the simplest terms, empathy is the ability to care about others. Some people don’t have it, and for a variety of reasons. For some, they just don’t have ANY empathy. In a perfect world, these people enter into careers that limited their need to interact with people, and keep them from make decisions about the well-being of others, and can have normal, productive lives. In an imperfect world, these people become Presidents, Senators, and Judges.

A few years back, I remember there was a man who accidentally shot his son at a gun range. He appeared on Fox News to publicly state Obama had better not “try to take our guns away.” No remorse for killing his son, no embarrassment for his folly, no empathy for the child’s mother. His concern was for his guns. This is exactly what a lack of empathy looks like.

Side Bar:

I tried to find a reference for that story, so I googled “man accidentally shoots son Fox News.” Suffice it to say, I couldn’t sort it out in the huge number of stories about people accidentally killing their children in the United States. I think Trump may have gotten it right when he warned of “shithole countries,” but didn’t realize he was the President of one.

Dunbar’s Number

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar developed a hypothesis that we had a limited scope of stable social relationships, which is about 150 persons. Our circle of empathy, if you will. This has been debated and expounded on, but people have postulated that this isn’t 150 individuals, but groups. In other words, you have a certain level of empathy for your immediate family, your friends, your church, etc. Let’s say there is a burning building. Inside are your son, your friend from high school, some guy that goes to your church, and a stranger. Who do you save? Obviously, (for most people) they save their child. If there’s a second chance to save another, who next? You’ve already made a list of importance in your head, haven’t you?

We are no longer living in tiny hamlets with a few hundred people, but interact with hundreds of people a month.  In modern society, we love our groups. It makes it easy to compartmentalize our empathy. Have you ever seen that nod two Harley riders give each other? That’s an example of these odd groups we assign priority to. One of the key indicators of political leaning is simple. If “human” is one of your groups, you are typically progressive/liberal. Simply put, if you divide up everyone too much, you run out of cognitive space for everyone.

Think for a moment of how many groups you have. Think of some people you know. There are people that grab every identifying group they can. Gun owner, Alabama fan, Harley rider, Republican, Christian, XXXX specific type of Christian, patriot, veteran, Ford Pick-Up owner, blue collar, hunter, NRA member, Heterosexual, white, American, English speaking, country music, and the list goes on. They fill up all their empathy slots on mundane subdivisions of the human race.  Some of these may be unbelievable, depending on your background, but trust me when I say grown men can argue over what kind of truck you drive.  While some of us look at a collection of churches and see churches, some see a Southern Baptist church, a Methodist church, an Independent Baptist church, and so on.

We may be hardwired to only formulate so many relationships, but we should strive to make our relationships with the entire human race instead of trying to divide our empathy down to the lowest common denominator.

Compassion Fatigue

(Read more here)

Finally, we come to compassion fatigue. This is a form of PTSD that is common in medical professionals who see pain, suffering, and death every day. Just as I was able to google the huge numbers of accidental shooting in seconds, we are all bombarded with stories of murder, rape, torture, and injustice every day. As a defensive mechanism, some of us, or many of us, are literally shutting down our empathy. Our psyche cannot handle any more. Their ability to care as literally failed them in a world that is overflowing with the need for empathy.


When you see mass shootings in the United States, nothing changes because very few people care about the dead. They don’t care about refuges, African-American teenagers, gay couples, or poor people. They-do-not-give-a-shit. The empathy has been allotted to someone else, has been burned out of them, or has never existed in the first place.

How do we fix it? We don’t..or at least we can’t. We could try to teach kids that other people (gays, Muslims, African-Americans) are, you know, people. It seems like if you try that, someone makes sure to bring up “their sincerely held religious beliefs” and put a stop to it. We have built our country on division, from us against the Indians, us against the blacks, us against the communists, us against the gays…politicians build division to ensure power. It’s hard to change a society that prides itself on anti-science, because facts don’t matter. And neither do most people.


About Surferjeff

Jeff is a writer and photographer who empties his head on this blog. Reader beware!

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