Escaping affect: how motivated emotion regulation creates insensitivity to mass suffering

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2011 Jan;100(1):1-15. doi: 10.1037/a0021643.


As the number of people in need of help increases, the degree of compassion people feel for them ironically tends to decrease. This phenomenon is termed the collapse of compassion. Some researchers have suggested that this effect happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals. In Experiment 1, participants displayed the collapse of compassion only when they expected to be asked to donate money to the victims. This suggests that the effect is motivated by self-interest. Experiment 2 showed that the collapse of compassion emerged only for people who were skilled at emotion regulation. In Experiment 3, we manipulated emotion regulation. Participants who were told to down-regulate their emotions showed the collapse of compassion, but participants who were told to experience their emotions did not. We examined the time course of these effects using a dynamic rating to measure affective responses in real time. The time course data suggested that participants regulate emotion toward groups proactively, by preventing themselves from ever experiencing as much emotion toward groups as toward individuals. These findings provide initial evidence that motivated emotion regulation drives insensitivity to mass suffering.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Altruism
  • Disasters
  • Emotional Intelligence*
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Helping Behavior
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological
  • Motivation*
  • Social Responsibility
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology