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A group of soldiers were instructed by their squad leader to exterminate vicious feral mutants, known as ‘roaches’. These ‘roaches’ allegedly pillaged a village located deep within a forest. If you are now wondering whether mutants do exist in this lifetime, well, the answer lies in an episode of a current popular TV series, Black Mirror. In this episode, titled “Men against Fire,” the soldiers show no qualms or hesitation in hunting and killing ‘roaches’ that were being sheltered by an eccentric pastor.
These ‘roaches’ are depicted to viewers as zombies, equipped with razor sharp teeth, distorted facial features and high-pitched screams. This clever portrayal of less-than-human beings also puts us at odds with anyone who would try to defend; the very sight of these mutants is sufficient to trigger fear. Fear is not always a bad thing, of course. Fear is a primitive emotion – an emotion that prompts our survival instincts and alerts us to danger, making this emotion a functional, necessary and adaptive one. Findings from one study, for example, demonstrated the inclination towards more pessimistic judgement and choices as well as augmented perception of risk in a given situation, when participants felt fearful compared to those who felt happy or angry . What this means is that fear encourages a useful sense of caution, encouraging us to avoid further risk or potential loss. In this manner, fear is regarded an ‘avoidance-type’ emotion.
Most individuals would react in three ways when confronted with fear: freeze up, fight back or take flight (i.e. run away). Enter a plot twist in the episode, which would have us question our morality and if we would still happily root for the brutal demise of these ‘roaches’ if they looked like one of us. This is precisely what happened in the Black Mirror episode. The main character depicted in this episode, Stripe, was faced with that very dilemma, due to a glitch in his implant. He began to see the ‘roaches’ as one of ‘us’ – simply human. Not zombie, mutant, or roach. Stripe then acted on impulse to protect them, going against orders and defying his call of duty.
The narrative from this episode bears an uncanny resemblance to past genocides, where atrocities have been committed against our fellow man, under the notion that we needed to ‘cleanse’ or ‘purify’ groups that were deemed less-than-human. In fact, one could also draw parallels with the Rwandan civil war where the Tutsis were called ‘cockroaches’ and were perceived to have inferior physical features compared to the Hutus.
One would think that humans are more mindful of the plight of others and would not be prone to acting in such atrocious ways. However, it may be precisely because technological advances, that many digital users appear to be experiencing compassion and empathetic fatigue. We do have the capacity to infer, and understand another’s perspective – an ability referred to by psychologists as ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM) which is a vital component in social competencies. It can be argued that the exposure to a barrage of information online is overstimulating our minds, leading to diminished levels of compassion and empathy. Daryl Cameron and Keith Payne from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill attempted to understand the mechanism underlying the decrease in compassion and suggested that individuals who want to avoid empathetic overarousal tend to disengage from emotions . Perhaps the idea of neurological-based upgrades and technology being used for warfare, as suggested by the explicit message of the Black Mirror series, would lead to us collectively experiencing a diminished sense of compassion. Perhaps this then indirectly justifies atrocities such as the genocides we have seen over the course of human history. When we turn off our ability to “feel what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes,” we let our inherent prejudices and fear take full control of our behaviours.
The episode continues with a scene where Stripe rescues the “roaches” from further persecution. Like the pastor who sheltered the ‘roaches’, we see this over the course of history as well, when compassionate individuals from the “opposite camp” put their safety on the line to prevent further persecution; for example, Germans who saved the Jews from the Holocaust and Hutus who saved the Tutsis from the civil war. Despite far-reaching consequences, these “rescuers” (or sympathizers) seem to all have a glitch in their systems and acted out of the norm. Similarly, empathy and compassion can be enhanced as we get accustomed to new advancements that shape our lifestyles. The recent emotional outpouring of support on social media and in the affected communities during the series of mass shootings in the US, as well as human rights movements across the globe attest to the possibility that social media can be used for good – to spur attention, empathy and compassion to those in need. Both compassion and empathy converge at the point of encouraging goodwill towards others – they encourage us to take the other person’s perspective, and, optimistically, can be developed.
A way out of the compassion and empathy vacuum.
Research by Barbara Fredrickson showed that participants who completed the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) reported more positive overall well-being in everyday life . Further studies expanding on Fredrickson’s research also reported increased helping behaviors, in addition to their improved well-being. The practice of mindfulness has also been shown to be beneficial for overall well-being, by increasing compassionate feelings and helping behavior, put another way, doing good makes us feel good. At present, Stanford University offers a course on CCT, developed by clinical psychologists, researchers and scholars, where classes meet over the progression of 8 weeks- with 2-hours classes once a week and daily home-meditation practice assigned. For those of us who find this course beyond our reach, the following are some tips, suggested by Dr Eugene Tee, a specialist in understanding and managing emotions, to help develop the qualities of compassion, empathy and kindness towards one self and others:
It’s easy to assume ill-intent. Give the other party the benefit of doubt.
When we feel slighted or angered by the other party, we tend to automatically (and almost instinctively) assume the worse in others. Try giving the other party the benefit of the doubt instead. You are not excusing the other party for their behaviour, but giving them the chance to explain their situation and position to you. Doing this first helps you build an empathetic link – you convey to the other party you wish to take their perspective on the issue before responding. You also gain the benefit of being more composed when approaching the other party.
Fear and anger dehumanizes others.
Empathy and compassion can be impeded by our most primal emotions – fear and anger, namely. These emotions, as depicted in the Black Mirror example, may initially help safeguard us against potential threats of hostile others. However, they can too, cause us to exclude, distance ourselves from, or dehumanize those seen as different from us. Recognizing how you feel towards others helps you first remove the bias of emotion, and to be more mindful of how your emotions are shading your perceptions of the other.
Are you really empathizing and being compassionate, or (merely) sympathizing behind your screen?
When news of a tragedy breaks, and you hear it first on social media, what is your immediate reaction? You can obviously click a ‘like’ or respond with a sad emoticon, or place a comment on the posting to reflect your feelings. Sympathizing is feeling for the other person; much easier done when we are viewing the situation from the safety of our rooms; empathy takes it one step further – we actually feel alongside the individuals suffering. But to make a difference, we need compassion. Compassion compels us to act in alleviating the other’s suffering. Think of a cause that you feel strongly for – and think of how you can use social media to drive connections to that cause; think about how you can rally the masses to understand, feel, and most importantly, act towards that important, meaningful cause.
 Lerner, J. & Keltner, D. (2001). Fear, anger, and risk. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(1), 146-159.
 Cameron, C. D., Brown-Iannuzzi, J. L., & Payne, B. K. (2012). Sequential priming measures of implicit social cognition: A meta-analysis of associations with behavior and explicit attitudes. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(4), 330-350.
 Fredrickson, B.L., Cohn, M.A., Coffey, K.A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S.M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062.