Paul Bloom in The New Yorker:
The immense power of empathy has been demonstrated again and again. It is why Americans were rivetted by the fate of Natalee Holloway, the teen-ager who went missing in Aruba, in 2005. It’s why, in the wake of widely reported tragedies and disasters—the tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina the year after, or Sandy last year—people gave time, money, and even blood. It’s why, last December, when twenty children were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, there was a widespread sense of grief, and an intense desire to help. Last month, of course, saw a similar outpouring of support for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Why do people respond to these misfortunes and not to others? The psychologist Paul Slovic points out that, when Holloway disappeared, the story of her plight took up far more television time than the concurrent genocide in Darfur. Each day, more than ten times the number of people who died in Hurricane Katrina die because of preventable diseases, and more than thirteen times as many perish from malnutrition.