September 2019
Volume 19, Issue 10
Open Access
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   September 2019
The number of visible victims shapes visual attention and compassion
Author Affiliations & Notes
  • Brandon M Tomm
    Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia
  • Paul Slovic
    Decision Research
    Department of Psychology, University of Oregon
  • Jiaying Zhao
    Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia
    Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability, University of British Columbia
Journal of Vision September 2019, Vol.19, 105c. doi:
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      Brandon M Tomm, Paul Slovic, Jiaying Zhao; The number of visible victims shapes visual attention and compassion. Journal of Vision 2019;19(10):105c.

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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When disaster strikes, compassion fades as the number of victims increases. What causes this compassion fade? We propose that as the number of victims increases, attention to each victim declines, which may help explain compassion fade. In an online experiment, participants (N=452) read a brief story about a recent earthquake in Indonesia with an image showing children who were displaced by the earthquake. After the story, participants made hypothetical donations an organization that provides emergency services to the region. We manipulated the number of children in the image and also the content of the story. Specifically, the image contained 1, 2, or 3 children, and the story contained either statistics of victims and damages in the local region, or not. We used the BubbleView technique to measure visual attention while participants were reading the story and the image. Specifically, the story and the image were initially blurred and participants had to use their cursor to reveal the underlying content via a fovea-like circular area around the mouse. The location of the cursor was tracked as a proxy for visual attention. We found that participants looked less at each child as the number children in the image increased, or when there were statistics in the story compared to no statistics. Importantly, attention sharply declined when the image contained more than one child. In fact, the proportional dwell time per child decreased by 26% from one child to two children, which corresponds to a 12% drop in donations. These results suggest that compassion fade may be driven by divided attention. Each additional victim receives less attention, which reduces the compassion experienced for the victim. The current study offers a novel attentional account for psychic numbing and compassion fatigue.


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