Staff Writer Tim Mullaney

It’s easier to have empathy for people if you know specific things about them.

Long-term care providers know this, and it is behind many valuable programs to learn more about residents’ lives, be it through interviews with their loved ones or through programs such as LifeBio.

Social scientists also know this to be true. They refer to the “identifiable victim effect,” which states that we’re more likely to feel empathy for a particular individual with specific traits than for a mass of nameless, faceless victims. The classic example is that people will generously donate to fund an operation for a brown-haired, blue-eyed six-year-old girl, but will do nothing when they hear a loss of tax revenue will lead to an unspecified number of deaths at a hospital that lacks funding.

Journalists certainly understand the power of the identifiable victim effect. The recent Frontline/ProPublica expose on assisted living began with the daughters of George McAfee watching footage of their father playing football, and reminiscing about him. For viewers, learning details about McAfee makes us all the more empathetic — for him, for his family — when we learn what befell him: He died after drinking cleaning fluid from an unlocked storage area in an Emeritus Senior Living assisted living facility.

The documentary as a whole demonstrated the power of individual stories, focusing on specific people such as McAfee and Joan Boice to illustrate the reporters’ larger points about assisted living. It also elicited a tit-for-tat response from Emeritus, which called on caregivers to step forward to tell stories of residents, staff and families who have had positive experiences.

I don’t mean to suggest that the Frontline reporters were pulling a dirty trick by structuring their report in this way, or that Emeritus was out of line in its response. But I think one pitfall of a Frontline-style expose is that it creates exactly this type of back-and-forth, which is not particularly constructive.

Writing about the identifiable victim effect in The New Yorker recently, Paul Bloom described exactly why arguments that appeal to people’s empathy tend to go nowhere:

“Liberals argue for gun control, for example, by focusing on the victims of gun violence; conservatives point to the unarmed victims of crime, defenseless against the savagery of others,” Bloom wrote. “Liberals in favor of tightening federally enforced safety regulations invoke the employee struggling with work-related injuries; their conservative counterparts talk about the small businessman bankrupted by onerous requirements. So don’t suppose that if your ideological opponents could only ramp up their empathy they would think just like you.”

Furthermore, public policy that is driven by a “politics of empathy” can be counterproductive, Bloom warned. He cited a study to make his point. Participants were presented a hypothetical situation: A child has died from a vaccine. Some people were told that heavily fining the vaccine manufacturer would improve the quality of its products. Some were told that fining the vaccine company would hurt its ability to produce effective vaccines, and more people would die as a consequence. Most people said the company should be heavily fined, regardless of the outcome.

This example may suggest that we have to accept some tragic events and not let them affect business as usual, as long as we can chalk them up as outliers. LeadingAge President and CEO Larry Minnix rightly refuted this mindset in his response to the Frontline program. But I think Bloom’s larger point, that overly zealous responses can lead to more harm than good, is worth remembering when we’re acting out of empathy for victims. I came away from reading Bloom’s article thinking that journalism such as “Life and Death in Assisted Living” can potentially improve the public welfare — but not particularly by sparking the kind of dialogue that ProPublica and Emeritus began to engage in, vying for people’s empathy. And not by spurring policy changes meant to exact retribution for particular instances of egregious wrongdoing, to the detriment of the greater good.

In other words, investigative journalism of the Frontline variety may do great work in pointing out problems, but by appealing so powerfully to people’s empathy, might undermine efforts to actually come up with the best solutions possible to address those problems. To do so requires cooler heads, according to Bloom. As he put it:

“A reasoned, even counter-empathetic analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences is a better guide to planning for the future than the gut wrench of empathy.”

You might be thinking that Bloom sounds like a frightening person who is too rational for his own good. But he does argue for the importance of empathy as a fundamental way of connecting with each other:

“Where empathy really does matter is in our personal relationships. Nobody wants to live like Thomas Gradgrind — Charles Dickens’s caricature utilitarian, who treats all interactions, including those with his children, in explicitly economic terms. Empathy is what makes us human; it’s what makes us both subjects and objects of moral concern.”

That is to say, legislators should be on guard against creating laws and regulations based on a strongly empathetic reaction, or they may craft poor public policies. Caregivers, on the other hand, really should be in the empathy business, learning about their patients’ individual identities to forge a moral concern for their well-being, which would improve the quality of care — what in long-term care might be called “the identifiable resident effect.”