Though we have more access to certain resources and comforts than at any other time in human history, we also have unprecedented knowledge of the scale of human suffering. The number of people that need our help always exceeds the number that we can help; we are liable to feel overwhelmed, inadequate, and perhaps even cruel for choosing to help one group over another. How can we navigate this tricky task of distributing compassion?

Dr. Paul Slovic is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and a founder and President of Decision Research. He studies human judgment, decision making, and the psychology of risk. With colleagues worldwide, he has developed methods to describe risk perceptions and measure their impacts on individuals and society. His recent work examines “psychic numbing” and the failure to respond to mass human tragedies.

In this sermon given on Rosh Hashana at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon, Dr. Slovic examines the emotional reactions and rules of thumb that often drive our decisions in this area. Though it is impossible to impartially gauge the impact of our giving, we can at least break through the misconception that we can’t make a difference.

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(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is adapted from a sermon delivered at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon).