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We can all relate to the saying “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Due to psychic numbing, our sympathy for suffering and loss declines precipitously when we are presented with increasing numbers of victims.

Research has shown that compassion fade can begin to occur when a threat to a single person expands to as few as two people.

Saving one life is of utmost importance. Saving 1 + 1 lives feels less important than saving two lives and sometimes less important than saving one.

Confronting this peculiar “arithmetic of compassion” in our daily lives and our national policy decisions is of critical importance in a world facing catastrophic threats from violence, disease, poverty, and natural disasters.

Click on the links below to learn about three related cognitive biases: Psychic Numbing, Pseudoinefficacy, and Prominence Bias, or visit our Take Action page to learn how you can combat these obstacles to compassion.

Psychic numbing - Arithmetic of Compassion

Why do we respond to the needs of "the one," but not of "the many"? 

Pseudoinefficacy - Arithmetic of Compassion

Why do we lose interest in helping if we can't help everyone?

Prominence - Arithmetic of Compassion

What prevents us from acting in the face of mass atrocities? 

Numbers and Nerves

Cognitive science has shown that we, as a species, think best when we allow numbers and narratives, abstract information and experiential discourse, to interact, to work together. People apprehend reality by employing two interactive modes of processing information: the deliberative, evidence-based analytic mode and the experiential mode, which encodes reality in images, metaphors, and narratives associated with feelings, i.e. with affect. In other words, we need numbers and we need nerves.

About the banner image

The Kigali Memorial Centre contains this gallery of photographs depicting victims of the Rwandan genocide. The remains of 250,000 victims are interred at the center. Photo by Radu Sigheti