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Why it’s so hard to get people to care about mass suffering

When the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy decreases.

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Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

So many of the biggest, hardest-to-solve problems in the world involve huge numbers of people.

The worldwide refugee crisis now involves 68 million people displaced from their homes, a record high. A million people still die from malaria every year. Right now, in Yemen, a famine has left 14 million people extremely close to starvation.

You’d hope tragedies at this scale would be met with an equally outsize outpouring of compassion and action. Unfortunately, human psychology doesn’t work that way. Mass tragedies don’t magnify our concern or our compassion. If anything, they numb us.

Think about some of these numbers. Can you imagine 1 million people? Like, really imagine it. When we see one life, we can imagine their hopes and pain. We can understand there are countless complexities in the narratives of that life. But 1 million? 68 million? You can’t. Those numbers feel like an abstraction. And when numbers simply can’t convey the costs of a humanitarian crisis, there’s an infuriating paradox at play.

It’s called psychic numbing, and it means that as the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases. This happens even when the number of victims increases from one to two.

Psychic numbing means there are diminishing returns on human compassion. And it’s a problem worth dwelling on, especially on a day like Giving Tuesday, when so many charities will make a pitch for people to donate to millions in need.

The research suggests charities need to highlight individual human stories to get people to care. But while psychic numbing appears to be a stable component of human psychology, know that there are ways to fight through it, to help us connect with the millions who need help.

Psychic numbing, explained

Much of what we know about psychic numbing comes from University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic, who for decades has studied the intersection of emotion and decision-making.

I often report on political psychology. And in my conversations with scientists, I have often asked, “What research helps you understand what’s going on in the world?” The answer — whether it’s pegged to the refugee crisis abroad or the health care debate at home — very often involves Slovic’s work on why we tune out mass tragedies. Slovic’s work is referenced often by many psychologists who seek to understand decision-making.

Here’s the stark truth of it: “There is no constant value for a human life,” Slovic told me last year. “The value of a single life diminishes against the backdrop of a larger tragedy.”

One of Slovic’s recent studies demonstrated this very simply. In the experiment, Slovic and his colleagues asked participants about their willingness to donate to children in need. When the number of victims in the experiment rose from one to two, the researchers recorded a decrease in empathy for the kids, as well as smaller donations to them. That’s all it takes.

Christina Animashaun/Vox
Christina Animashaun/Vox

Against the backdrop of a huge tragedy, the value of a single human life gets diminished

Take this example. What if you were told you could take an action that could help save 4,500 people in a refugee camp? That sounds pretty good, right? You’d be a hero. But there are circumstances in which saving that many people feels less good, and makes you less likely to act on it.

In an experiment, “People were less likely to do something that would save 4,500 lives in a refugee camp if that camp had 250,000 people than if it had 11,000 people,” Slovic says. It’s the same number of people. But in the context of a larger tragedy, it just doesn’t feel as good to help them.

Here’s one reason: As the number of victims in a tragedy grow, we feel more and more powerless to help. So we shut down those feelings of empathy.

But this helplessness is a lie. “Even partial solutions save whole lives,” Slovic reminds us. Small changes to gun control laws could save lives. Small donations for mosquito nets can save whole lives. And even if you can’t rescue a person from a situation entirely, just doing something to reduce their suffering can help.

Fighting through the numbness is hard; it goes against our instincts.

We grow numb to millions but immediately relate to individuals

Why do we do this? Why can’t we scale up our compassion when more and more people are in trouble? The answer is, basically, that our brains resist that type of thinking. “The feeling system doesn’t really add,” Slovic explains. “It can’t multiply; it doesn’t handle numbers very well.”

There’s a similar concept in Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s prospect theory: The difference between $0 and $100 feels greater than the difference between $100 and $200. It doesn’t matter that the value is still just $100. When you start with nothing, the jump just feels bigger.

No, the brain can’t imagine millions of people. But it is really good at thinking and caring about individuals.

We can understand individuals: It’s why stories about one sick child often overshadow massive crises. Remember Charlie Gard? In 2017, he was an 11-month-old UK resident with a rare fatal disease. Some Republicans in Congress wanted to make Gard a US resident so he could get experimental treatment. Many of those same Republicans voted for health care legislation that would have taken health care away from millions in this country. The one boy was an emergency. The millions? An abstraction.

This is the key insight of psychic numbing research: Our system of feelings doesn’t do math. “It’s maximized at the number one: ‘Protect myself. Protect the person in front of me,’” Slovic said. “People who are like us, near us, near in time, things like that — we get a strong emotional response when they’re in danger.”

Not only that, but empathy is often biased: We tend to be more automatically empathetic to people who look like us.

It’s possible to redirect the tragedy of one to help out a larger cause

There are a few ways to combat psychic numbing.

Charities have long understood the ”identifiable victim effect,” which finds that images of singular victims are easier to empathize with than statistics or stories about large groups of people.

In 2015, a photograph of a drowned Syrian refugee boy (Alan Kurdi, whose first name was also reported as Aylan) became a powerful, tragic focal point in the public’s consciousness about the Syrian civil war, which had killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions more up to that point.

With the photo, Slovic says, referencing a paper in PNAS, “people suddenly started to care about the Syrian war and the refugees, in ways that the statistics of hundreds of thousands of deaths had not led them to pay attention to.” That interest was sustained — as measured by Google searches — for about a month.

Christina Animashaun/Vox

It wasn’t just search interest. After the photo, donations to a charity in support of Syrian refugees also soared.

Christina Animashaun/Vox

“These dramatic stories of individuals or photographs give us a window of opportunity where we’re suddenly awake and not numbed, and we want to do something,” Slovic says. “If there’s something we can do, like donate to the Red Cross, people will do it. But then if there’s nothing else they can do, then over time, that gets turned off again.”

There’s something else we can do: Any time we can emphasize the individuality, the unique humanity of people amid a huge tragedy, it can help.

Psychologists have long known that simple turns of phrase can change our thinking. In 2017, psychologist Kurt Gray and colleagues experimented on a wording tweak to help the public increase empathy for others.

It’s extremely simple: What if instead of saying “a group of people,” we highlighted “people in a group”? Would that emphasize individuality enough to increase the perception that those people have working, thinking, feeling minds?

It did. Highlighting people’s individuality led participants to see more humanity in them. There’s a simple lesson: Saying “100 Syrian refugees in a group” may be more emotionally resonant than “a group of 100 Syrian refugees.”

Still, stoking compassion remains a huge challenge for charities. The biggest troubles the world faces involve huge numbers of people, but we’re only emotionally equipped to handle the problems on an individual scale.

“Look at the problems we have in this world,” Slovic says. “The scale of various kinds of problems is so vast.”

Big problems in the world demand more attention. And we have to fight against the tendency to become numb to them.

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