Numbed by Numbers
People don’t ignore mass killings because they lack compassion. Psychological research suggests it’s grim statistics themselves that paralyze us into inaction.
MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty ImagesNever again? Its not lack of compassion that holds us back from stopping genocide.
If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will. This statement uttered by Mother Teresa captures a powerful and deeply unsettling insight into human nature: Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue the one whose plight comes to their attention. But these same people often become numbly indifferent to the plight of the one who is one of many in a much greater problem. Its happening right now in regards to Darfur, where over 200,000 innocent civilians have been killed in the past four years and at least another 2.5 million have been driven from their homes. Why arent these horrific statistics sparking us to action? Why do good people ignore mass murder and genocide?
The answer may lie in human psychology. Specifically, it is our inability to comprehend numbers and relate them to mass human tragedy that stifles our ability to act. Its not that we are insensitive to the suffering of our fellow human beings. In fact, the opposite is true. Just look at the extraordinary efforts people expend to rescue someone in distress, such as an injured mountain climber. Its not that we only care about victims we identify withthose of similar skin color, or those who live near us: Witness the outpouring of aid to victims of the December 2004 tsunami. Yet, despite many brief episodes of generosity and compassion, the catalogue of genocidethe Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfurcontinues to grow. The repeated failure to respond to such atrocities raises the question of whether there is a fundamental deficiency in our humanity: a deficiency thatonce identifiedcould be overcome.
The psychological mechanism that may play a role in many, if not all, episodes in which mass murder is neglected involves whats known as the dance of affect and reason in decision-making. Affect is our ability to sense immediately whether something is good or bad. But the problem of numbing arises when these positive and negative feelings combine with reasoned analysis to guide our judgments, decisions, and actions. Psychologists have found that the statistics of mass murder or genocideno matter how large the numbersdo not convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The numbers fail to trigger the affective emotion or feeling required to motivate action. In other words, we know that genocide in Darfur is real, but we do not feel that reality. In fact, not only do we fail to grasp the gravity of the statistics, but the numbers themselves may actually hinder the psychological processes required to prompt action.
A recent study I conducted with Deborah Small of the University of Pennsylvania and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University found that donations to aid a starving 7-year-old child in Africa declined sharply when her image was accompanied by a statistical summary of the millions of needy children like her in other African countries. The numbers appeared to interfere with peoples feelings of compassion toward the young victim.
Other recent research shows similar results. Two Israeli psychologists asked people to contribute to a costly life-saving treatment. They could offer that contribution to a group of eight sick children, or to an individual child selected from the group. The target amount needed to save the child (or children) was the same in both cases. Contributions to individual group members far outweighed the contributions to the entire group. A follow-up study by Daniel Vstfjll, Ellen Peters, and me found that feelings of compassion and donations of aid were smaller for a pair of victims than for either individual alone. The higher the number of people involved in a crisis, other research indicates, the less likely we are to feel for each additional death.
When writer Annie Dillard was struggling to comprehend the mass human tragedies that the world ignores, she asked, At what number do other individuals blur for me? In other words, when does compassion fatigue set in? Our research suggests that the blurring of individuals may begin as early as the number two.
If this is true, its no wonder compassion is absent when deaths number in the hundreds of thousands. But there is a difference between merely being aware of this diminishing sensitivity and appreciating its broader implications. This is especially true when you consider how difficult it is to create, let alone sustain, the emotional responses needed to spark action.
In light of our historical and psychological deficiencies, it is time to re-examine this human failure. Because if we are waiting for a tipping point to spur action against genocide, we could be waiting forever.