Identifying Donor Recipients in Media Reports Increases Willingness to Donate

PHotograph by Province of British Columbia. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

PHotograph by Province of British Columbia. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In Numbers & Nerves Paul Slovic and colleagues discuss how first person narratives can be used to overcome psychic numbing by creating an emotional connection with the listener. While statistics fail to move us to act, identifying with one person in need can be a powerful motivator for prosocial decisions.

A recent article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Inbal Harel, Tehila Kogut, Meir Pinchas, and Paul Slovic examines how media representations of organ donation affect people’s willingness to be an organ donor. They conclude that people are more willing to become an organ donor when they are provided with a personal story of a prospective recipient of organ donation. By identifying the recipient of a donation, media representations of organ donation can create a emotional connection between the listener and someone in need of help. In this way, identifying recipients of organ donation is a mechanism to evoke generosity.

Contact us to receive a copy of the article or visit PNAS to access the article online.

Abstract: We examine how presentations of organ donation cases in the media may affect people's willingness to sign organ donation commitment cards, donate the organs of a deceased relative, support the transition to an “opt-out” policy, or donate a kidney while alive. We found that providing identifying information about the prospective recipient (whose life was saved by the donation) increased the participants’ willingness to commit to organ donation themselves, donate the organs of a deceased relative, or support a transition to an “opt-out” policy. Conversely, identifying the deceased donor tended to induce thoughts of death rather than about saving lives, resulting in fewer participants willing to donate organs or support measures that facilitated organ donation. A study of online news revealed that identification of the donor is significantly more common than identification of the recipient in the coverage of organ donation cases—with possibly adverse effects on the incidence of organ donations.

Citation: Harel, I., Kogut, T., Pinchas, M., & Slovic, P. (2017). Effect of media presentations on willingness to commit to organ donation. PNAS, 114, 5159–5164. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1703020114

Overcoming Psychic Numbing Through Graphic Novels and Games

Photograph of Syrians and Iraq refugees arrive at Skala Sykamias Lesvos Greece By Ggia. CC-BY-SA-4.0

Photograph of Syrians and Iraq refugees arrive at Skala Sykamias Lesvos Greece By Ggia. CC-BY-SA-4.0

Psychic numbing presents an obstacle to journalists reporting on the ongoing conflict in Syria and resulting refugee crisis. Social science has shown that while we are wired to feel empathy for the suffering of one identified individual, statistics of mass human suffering have a numbing effect that prevents us from feeling the same empathy towards groups that we feel for individuals. This coupled with the fact that we are less inclined to feel as empathetic towards people do not share our nationality, culture, or race, results in insensitivity to the plight of refugees and failure on behalf of the public to assign moral value to the atrocities in Syria. A number of artists, journalists, and scholars have used creative means to overcome psychic numbing and in group/out group thinking and help people understand the experiences of Syrian refugees. In the past two years several graphic novels have been published that tell stories based on the  experiences of refugees fleeing Syria to seek asylum in Europe. These novels allow readers to appreciate what is like to be a refugee in a way that news reports on the refugee crisis fail to do.

The novel Stories from the Grand Hotel includes a collection of eight stories of refugees traveling to Germany to seek asylum. These stories describe in personal terms the hardships refugees face in fleeing to Europe as well as the xenophobia they may experience once they reach their destination.

Threads: From the Refugee Crisis similarly details the journeys of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa to France, highlighting the challenges they faced as well as the prejudice they encountered in Europe.

Another graphic novel, A Perilous Journey, based on testimonies from three Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Scandinavia, depicts the torture they experienced while in Syria and their harrowing journey across the Mediterranean Sea.

In Rolling Blackouts, cartoonist Sara Glidden details her travels with two journalists in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, and tells the stories of how refugees, civilians, and government officials dealt with violent conflicts in Iraq in Syria. The account helps readers understand why refugees would risk their lives to leave their home country and flee to Europe.

Finally, Madaya Mom, published online for free by Marvel and ABC News, tells the story of a family trapped in a besieged city in Syria. Meant to be read on mobile phones, Madaya Mom teachers readers what is like to be trapped for over year, facing starvation and the death of loved ones.

In addition to graphic novels, video games are another innovative medium that is being used to communicate the experiences of refugees fleeing Syria. Former journalist Florent Maurin developed a game for iOS and Android titled Bury Me, My Love that simulates communications between a husband and a wife while the wife makes the dangerous journey out of Syria and into Europe while the husband stays behind. The game plays out in real time, with the player acting as the husband while the player’s imagined wife sends messages in pseudo real-time, just like a real couple would communicate using an app like WhatsApp. Players make choices and participant in an interactive environment. By literally putting the user in the position of someone in Syria who is helping their spouse travel to Europe, players learn about the challenges and difficult choices that refugees face.

In our Take Action page we recommend using the power of testimony to overcome psychic numbing. In a similar way, by telling the individual stories of refugees,  graphic novels and video games allow people to form an emotional connection with refugees that may motivate the public to put pressure on governments to provide more aid and support for refugees.

We thank Fatima Mohile-Eldin and Syria Deeply for bringing these works to our attention.

Harnessing the Power of Emotion: A Review of Numbers and Nerves

Dr. Anne Kelly recently published an excellent review of the book Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data, by Scott Slovic and Paul Slovic. An excerpt of the review is copied below. Click here to download the entire review. Numbers and Nerves examines psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy, and the prominence effect, and discusses literary and communication strategies that can help journalists, decision makers, and activists overcome these biases in their communication. The book is available to purchase through Amazon.com and other retailers.

In Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data, editors Paul and Scott Slovic, a psychologist and a professor of literature and environment respectively, bring together the work of scientists, journalists, naturalists, activists, and artists, to demonstrate why we have trouble making sense of big numbers, how those big numbers have been presented effectively, and what we can do to overcome our limits and respond to big numbers more appropriately.

The Slovics begin by expertly challenging the fundamental assumption that people’s beliefs are internally consistent. They argue instead that our adherence to rules of logic and our understanding of numerical information used to describe big, and sometimes catastrophic, problems are undermined by a type of thinking that simplifies information processing and eases the burden of cognitive strain by allowing us to ignore or discount important evidence, especially numerical evidence. This habit of mind contributes to inaccurate judgments and bad decisions. As Slovic and Slovic point out, ignoring or disregarding big numbers can have calamitous results when we fail to act in the face of mass atrocities and environmental problems; for example, consider genocide, refugee crises, and global warming. This line of thought raises the question: How can we make sense of big data to minimize less-than-rational decisions and weaken their impact on the sustainable wellbeing of people and the planet? The answer, according to the book, can be found in connecting big data to personal stories and images that appeal to our emotions and strengthen our belief that we can make a difference.

In Part I of the book, the editors set forth to expose the myth that people are entirely rational. A rational decision-making model predicts that people will rely on logic, objectivity, analysis, and numerical data to make good decisions based on an understanding of problems and opportunities. This model assumes that people have full and perfect information about a problem, can identify criteria that will be important to solving it, possess the necessary cognitive skills to understand a problem and its solutions, and have the time and resources required to make the best decision. It also assumes that a problem is unambiguous. If this model and its assumptions are correct, then people should be willing to donate as much money, if not more, to relieve suffering from starvation when they are told about a starving child and also shown statistics about millions of others suffering from starvation than people who are only told about the single starving child; as the author Annie Dillard, in her article “The Wreck of Time,” attributes to an English journalist, “either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account.” But research has shown that this thinking is not the norm: people who are told about a single starving child and are presented with statistics about starvation donate about half as much money as people who are told only about the starving child, begging us to ask why. The answer is that rational decision-making models fail to take into account a type of fast and intuitive thinking that generates feelings and impressions and operates automatically.

Download the entire review.

Dr. Kelly is a professor of behavioral sciences and psychology and chairwoman of the psychology department at Dakota Wesleyan University.

Another review of Numbers and Nerves written by Timothy O'Riordan was recently published in Environment. The review is available to Environment subscribers at tandfonline.com. The citation of Dr. O'Riordan's review is: O'Riordan, T. (2016). Review of Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data. Environment, 58, (5)43-44. doi: 10.1080/00139157.2016.1209017

The Ebb and Flow of Empathic Response to Iconic Photographs

Photograph by Jeff Kramer. CC BY 2.0

Photograph by Jeff Kramer. CC BY 2.0

A recent article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Paul Slovic, Daniel Västfjäll, Arvid Erlandsson, and Robin Gregory explores the Arithmetic of Compassion in the context of the publicity surrounding the iconic photograph of the Syrian refugee child, Aylan Kurdi.

Abstract: The power of visual imagery is well known, enshrined in such familiar sayings as “seeing is believing” and “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Iconic photos stir our emotions and transform our perspectives about life and the world in which we live. On September 2, 2015, photographs of a young Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, lying face-down on a Turkish beach, filled the front pages of newspapers worldwide. These images brought much-needed attention to the Syrian war that had resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and created millions of refugees. Here we present behavioral data demonstrating that, in this case, an iconic photo of a single child had more impact than statistical reports of hundreds of thousands of deaths. People who had been unmoved by the relentlessly rising death toll in Syria suddenly appeared to care much more after having seen Aylan’s photograph; however, this newly created empathy waned rather quickly. We briefly examine the psychological processes underlying these findings, discuss some of their policy implications, and reflect on the lessons they provide about the challenges to effective intervention in the face of mass threats to human well-being.

Citation: Slovic, P., Västfjäll, D., Erlandsson, A., & Gregory, R. (2017). Iconic photographs and the ebb and flow of empathic response to humanitarian disasters. PNAS, 114, 640–644. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1613977114

We also encourage you to read this excellent essay that discusses many of the themes in the PNAS article: "Numbing Down America" by Dr. Melissa Hughes.

Genocide in South Sudan

Photograph by Masiya

Photograph by Masiya

In a recent article, Biar Atem and Jonah Cohen of the New Republic shed light on the mass atrocity occurring in South Sudan—50,000 people have died in the violence and entire communities have been displaced. As the authors point out, there are “constructive, life-affirming steps that the U.S. could take immediately to alleviate some of the human misery.” The fact that the United States and UN Security Council have not taken sufficient steps to protect the South Sudanese from loss of life and displacement may relate to the theory of prominence discussed on this website. National security is more prominent (defensible) in the minds of decision makers, and a systematic decision analysis that respects the value we place in human lives may not be occurring. Only by analyzing all available options, such as allowing more South Sudanese families into the U.S. on asylum status and providing aid and manpower at refugee camps, will the world community be able to do something to help the South Sudanese escape the violence. As the authors write, “It should still be possible for liberal and conservative policy makers of good will to draft bipartisan strategies to assist South Sudanese migrants.”

How to Help the Syrian People

photograph by Adnan Sharbaji

photograph by Adnan Sharbaji

You probably saw the photographs of Aylan Kurdi, the child who drowned in the Mediterranean after fleeing the violence in Syria, and Omran Daqneesh, who was pulled out of the rubble after an airstrike destroyed his home in Aleppo. These photographs woke us up to the violence in Syria and the danger posed to those seeking to flee, but they did not seem to lead to a sufficient international response to deal with the current unrest and displacement.

Pseudoinefficacy is the idea that people are less willing to help one person when they are made aware of the broader scope of people in need. Pseudoinefficacy may be a reason why the international community has failed to address the war in Syria. The problem seems so large, so complicated, that it is easy to believe there is nothing one person can do. This is a fallacy, because individual acts can make a difference.

Jesselyn Cook of The Huffington Post recently published an essay titled “Outraged By What’s Happening in Syria? Here’s What You Can Do.” The essay details several ways that you can help the Syrian people. They include:

  • Donate and volunteer to an organization that assists those displaced by violence. Cook directs our attention to the Charity Navigator, on online tool that evaluates charitable groups and offers a list of excellent charities involved in Syria.
  • Demand action from your elected representatives.
  • Share information about the conflict on social media. The more attention that is brought to the issue, the more likely it is that individuals and governments will take action.

No matter how large a problem seems, there is always something you can do to help. People displaced by violence in Syria should not be forgotten.

Is Empathy Flawed?

Psychologist Paul Bloom’s provocatively titled book Against Empathy asks us to consider whether empathy, the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes and feel what they feel, is flawed. Peter Singer elaborates on Bloom’s work in a recent article in the online publication Project Syndicate titled “The Empathy Trap.”

As Singer points out, while it is easy to empathize with the one identified victim, it is hard to empathize with statistical lives. This can cause us to prioritize the suffering of one person or small numbers of people over larger numbers of people. Another problem with empathy is that we tend to empathize with those in our tribe; people who look like us and share our religion, nationality, or political affiliation.

Before you think that psychologists like Bloom and Singer are cold-blooded for asking us to deemphasize our empathy, it is important to remember that, as Singer writes in his article, “to be against empathy is not to be against compassion.” Compassion, characterized by a feeling of warmth towards someone and a desire for their well-being, can lead to the kind of pro-social behavior that is so needed in a world where genocide is occurring and entire communities are displaced by war and climate change. Perhaps it is time to become more aware of the bias inherent in empathy and strive to be more compassionate people.

Christmas in the Nuba Mountains: A Day of Celebration and Potential Death

Passage and photograph by Samuel Totten

Written on December 9, 2016

Two years ago I entered the war torn Nuba Mountains on Christmas Day in order to truck food to civilians in desperate need as a result of their farms having been bombed by the Government of Sudan (GoS) during the ongoing war (June 2011–today). It was bittersweet for a lot of different reasons. While I was pleased to be giving instead of receiving, as it were, I also greatly missed being with my family—and particularly my wife, Kathleen.

And then, when I called her on my Sat phone Christmas Eve (Christmas morning for her), as I stood the dark in 90 degree plus heat in a region of the desert scattered with palm trees and scrub brush, I felt a bit bad that she seemed uninterested in talking and abruptly got off the phone following what I felt were a few perfunctory comments on her part. (Later I was to learn that she feared that the Government of Sudan (GoS) might hone in on the frequency I was on and dispatch a fighter jet to take me (and my team) out.) I am now preparing to head back to the Nuba for the sixth time during the current war (June 2011–today) between the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army-North and the Government of Sudan, and it brings back a lot of disturbing memories of GoS’ aerial bombings and death.

Of course, I could choose not to go. No one, I am sure, would criticize me should I remain at home for the holidays. But it is not something I can do. Knowing that there are people—hundreds of thousands, civilians all—hunkered down in the Nuba Mountains fearful of being killed by either bombs from Antonov bombers or missiles fired from fighter jets and largely without enough food to even guarantee that they will have at least one meal a day—I’d consider myself some sort of coward (and a selfish coward) at that if I didn’t return to the Nuba Mountains with food for those in most desperate need. As a longtime human rights activist, I have attempted to lead my life according to a simple dictate: one’s awareness of a people in dire straits demands action, and a lack of action equates to losing a piece of one’s humanity. That may sound like ramped up hyperbole to some, but I assure you that it’s not.

Now that the rainy season is over and roads in South Kordofan (the state in which the Nuba Mountains is located) are no longer impassable the war has resumed in full force. Once again, Nuba civilians not only have their empty bellies to worry about but their very lives for pilots are once again flying daily sorties over the Nuba Mountains for the express of dropping them on peoples’ farms, tukuls (traditional homes of the Nuba with walls crafted of rocks or tree branches and roofs made from dried sheaves of sorghum), schools (the few that still exist in the Nuba), and suqs (open-air market places), and, yes, mosques and churches. The bombs fall every day of the year, including Christmas. And thus it takes not a little courage for the people to worship in their churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, for pilots know that the churches will be filled with parishioners and thus make an easy target.

No hero, I plan to get in and out of the Nuba as quickly as I can. More specifically, I plan to haul up as many tons of food as I can possibly load on the Land Cruiser I shall be renting from a fellow I know in the Nuba, racing over the rutted dirt paths (there are no paved roads in the Nuba) to those regions and IDP (internally displaced persons) camps where I have been informed by rebel leaders, local community leaders, and expats in the know, where those in most desperate need of food reside. I will quickly unload the food, purchase another truck or two load of food (sorghum, dried beans, cooking oil, salt and sugar) either in a suq which has food for sale or back in South Sudan, and then race to other areas of the region where people are in desperate need. I will then hightail it back to the Yida Refugee Camp in South Sudan, where I will hop a flight on a UN, UNHCR, World Food Program or cargo plane to Juba.

Each time I make it out of the Nuba I feel exhilarated having accomplished what I set out to do, but with exhilaration comes the realization that I am leaving behind people who have little to no choice but to remain in the war zone—either because they are too weak, elderly or sick to make the long trip to a refugee camp where they would at least be fairly safe from bombs and have access to both food and medical aid. So, in the end, each departure is bittersweet: I can hardly wait to see my sweet wife back in the States, but have a heavy heart for those who remain in the Nuba and continue to face potential death each and every day of their lives, either from bombs, rockets, or severe malnutrition, if not starvation.

Addendum: After planning and booking his return trip to the Nuba Mountains this Christmas, Mr. Totten was informed by the office of the SPLA-N (rebel group) that it would be closed upon Mr. Totten's arrival and unable to issue him a pass to travel to the Nuba Mountains. Mr. Totten traveled instead to Erbil and Dohuk, Iraq to conduct interviews with survivors of the ISIS-perpetrated genocide against the Yazidi people and to provide assistance to Yazidi refugees.

Samuel Totten, Professor Emeritus, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, can be reached at samstertotten@gmail.com. His most recent book is Genocide by Attrition: Nuba Mountains, Sudan. In January a new book, Sudan’s Nuba Mountains People Under Siege: Accounts by Humanitarians in the Battle Zone (McFarland) will be published. 

COP21 and Business as Usual

The prominence effect has important implications for how the global community deals with the issue of climate change. Scott Slovic recently published an article in the journal Environment that examines how the prominence effect plays a role in decision making to combat climate change. After the Paris Agreement, nations continue to emit large amounts of CO2. The prominence effect explains why we don’t adhere to stated values, such as reducing CO2 levels. According to the prominence effect, when a stated value conflicts with another value that is more prominent in our imaginings, the more prominent value will win out. Scott Slovic notes that the effects of climate change are serious, but they are diffuse and long-term. The lack of psychological prominence means that other concerns such as near-term economic growth and stability will be favored in decision making. This is worrisome with regard to climate change, because the long-term effects could be dire, and to island nations and costal communities, even catastrophic.

Click here to request a copy of the article.

The full citation to the article is: Slovic, S. (2016, July/August). COP21 and business as usual. Environment, 58(4), 48–52. doi: 10.1080/00139157.2016.1186446

Climate Change Is Genocide for Island Nations

Our lifestyle is inadvertently causing the destruction of entire island nations. That is the message in Scott Slovic and Paul Slovic’s op-ed published in The Register-Guard. As the authors describe in their essay, nations such as the Solomon Islands are being forced to consider evacuating its entire population due to rising sea levels. Aggressive actions are required to save the destruction of communities like the Solomon Islands, yet we do not appreciate how great a threat climate change poses to these nations. Like other humanitarian crises such as mass atrocities and natural disasters, climate change is an issue where the psychological phenomena psychic numbing and prominence bias cause us to fail to appreciate the gravity of the threat we face and the effects our actions have on people in other parts of the world.

Read more in this free online article published by the Register-Guard.

The full citation to the op-ed is: Slovic, S., & and Slovic, P. (2016, July 31). Climate change is genocide for island nations. The Register-Guard, p. G4. http://registerguard.com/rg/opinion/34611411-78/climate-change-is-genocide-for-island-nations.html.csp

Drone Footage Shows the Scale of the Destruction of Aleppo

DESTRUCTION IN ALEPPO, SYRIA

DESTRUCTION IN ALEPPO, SYRIA

Statistical figures describing the scale of humanitarian crises do not cause us to feel empathy in the same way that images of people that are suffering do. The world was moved by the plight of Syrians when images of young children were shared on social media, such as Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless on a Turkish beach or Omran Daqneesh sitting in an ambulance after a bombing, wiping blood off his face. These pictures capture the suffering of two individuals, but how do you document the deaths of tens, even hundreds of thousands? The war in Syria has claimed the lives of 470,000 people and the Assad regime and Russia continue to bombard what was Syria's most populous city, Aleppo.

The New York Times has published a video that was shot by a drone surveying the destruction in Aleppo. The author of the accompanying article wonders whether the video will cause people to feel empathy for the victims of the bombings in the same way as images of individual people. What are we to make of such large scale destruction? Are we able to fully process that each dot seen below is person with a life, a story, a family, a future? And more importantly, will any sympathy generated from such visual accounts move the world to act in preventing further deaths in Syria?

You can view the video on The New York Times website by clicking here.

The Arithmetic of Compassion – NY Times Op-Ed

In this December 2015 essay published in the New York Times, Scott Slovic and Paul Slovic explain psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy, and the prominence effect for a lay audience. The authors provide vivid examples of psychic numbing in action. For instance, they note that although the attention of the world briefly turned to the Syrian refugee crisis when a photograph of Aylan Kurdi was published, 14 Syrian children drowned in the Aegean Sea the very next day. The essay asks, “Did you notice? Did you care?” To learn more about psychic numbing and related phenomena, read on in the New York Times website.

September on Jessore Road

Photograph of Allen Ginsberg by Dijk, Hans Van / ANEFO.

Photograph of Allen Ginsberg by Dijk, Hans Van / ANEFO.

By Scott Slovic

Originally posted on July 20, 2016 on OSU Press

I spent the first part of August 2015 lecturing in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and helping to establish the Bangladesh branch of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). Bangladesh is one of the most ecologically vulnerable regions in the world, highly susceptible to flooding and rising sea levels and with a large, impoverished population unable to avoid environmentally damaging sources of income that are also hazardous to human health (such as “ship breaking”).

I remembered from my childhood that Bangladesh had been the location of terrible human suffering, but I did not recall the specifics. More than anything, I knew about the famous Concert for Bangladesh that former Beatles guitarist George Harrison and Ravi Shankar had organized in New York City in 1971. I did not realize that most Bangladeshis have the year 1971 scarred into their memories. That was the year of the brutal civil war between West Pakistan and East Pakistan that led to the separation of Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was a war fought over “language autonomy” (the right of Bangladeshis to use Bangla, the major language of East Pakistan). The language autonomy movement was spurred in great part by the efforts of intellectuals at Dhaka University, where my conference on ecocriticism was taking place. Everywhere on the campus there are murals and statues and small museums, remembering the efforts and sacrifices of freedom fighters some forty-five years ago.

On August 10th, before heading to the airport to begin my thirty-six-hour trip home to Idaho, I went with a student to visit the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka. Along with many tattered, yellowing documents, laminated photographs of shirtless men carrying machine guns, and a room full of neatly stacked skulls and femurs in glass cases, there is an open-air, covered walkway on the top level of the simple museum, as one nears the end of the series of exhibits, where international responses to the liberation war are displayed in a scrap-book like array of photographs and documents on the wall of the building. Many world leaders are shown expressing their support for the Bangladeshi people in their fight for freedom and in their time of humanitarian struggle. I learned from this wall of images that President Richard Nixon supported Pakistan during this war, while liberal American leaders, such as Senator Edward Kennedy, were outspoken in their efforts to aid Bangladesh.

On the museum wall, near photos of Indira Gandhi and other political leaders, there are two long posters presenting both English and Bangla versions of American poet Allen Ginsberg’s “September on Jessore Road,” which details his first-hand experience of the human suffering during the 1971 liberation war. Immediately it struck me that Ginsberg’s poem was profoundly relevant to the Numbers and Nerves project in his effort to convey a situation of vast suffering vividly to people who might be able to help in some way. In fact, one stanza in the middle of the poem exhorts, “Ring O ye tongues of the world for their woe … Ring in the conscious of America[n] brain,” suggesting that the goal of this work is to somehow resonate in the “brain” of Americans and other citizens of the developed world in order to elicit intervention and aid.

Readers of Numbers and Nerves are likely to think of many other examples of powerful literature, music, film, and visual art that seek to convey numerical information and inspire individual and collective action. The story of my encounter with Allen Ginsberg’s poem shows that even though I have been thinking about the Numbers and Nerves project for so many years, I continue to stumble across relevant texts that I hadn’t previously thought about.

Although Ginsberg’s poem does not do what so many of our examples in the book Numbers and Nerves end up doing, which is to switch back and forth between individual stories and portrayals of “the big picture,” the writer relies in interesting ways on rhetorical questions (which draw the reader into contemplation as he or she tries to answer the questions) and repetition of dizzyingly large numbers (Millions…, millions…, millions). If you go online and listen to the poet recite—or, rather, sing—this work on Youtube, there is a lulling, incantatory repetitiveness to the performance until Ginsberg gets to the final stanza, which he sings slowly and with a kind of agonized emotion, suddenly shifting from numbness to pain. “September on Jessore Road” is powerful demonstration of the effort to communicate the emotional meaning of large-scale social upheaval and human suffering. I recommend that readers of Numbers and Nerves also go online to find the written text of Ginsberg’s poem and recordings of his performance of this work.

The poem can be found at this website:

Ginsberg, Allen. (1971 / 2011, November 7). “September on Jessore Road.” The Allen Ginsberg Project. Retrieved from http://ginsbergblog.blogspot.com/2011/11/mondriaan-string-quartet-september-on.html

Why Statistics on Human Tragedy Fail to Arouse Compassion

Professor Paul Slovic recently spoke with the Data Stories podcast about why statistics of human suffering fail to elicit empathy. Dr. Slovic describes his experiments on statistical numbing and discusses how we as practitioners of compassion can seek to overcome this psychological hinderance to empathy.

Listen to the podcast at the Data Stories website.

"One Picture Broke the Heart of the World"

Google search terms "Syria," "refugees," and "Aylan" surged in September 2015.

Google search terms "Syria," "refugees," and "Aylan" surged in September 2015.

The Atlantic contributor Amos Zeeberg used a series of graphics created by Paul Slovic in his January 6, 2016 article "How Images Trigger Empathy," which focuses on the identifiable victim effect.

"To perceive tragedy, we have to see a person . . . as an individual," writes Zeeberg, who also notes that charities such as Children International, who share images of individuals with donors, seem well aware of this effect.

Drawing on a 2013 study by Dr. Slovic and his colleagues, Zeeberg offers the hopeful sentiment that science is beginning to aid us in understanding the power of photography to move us to help those in need.

Many refugees, however, do not achieve the sad celebrity of Aylan Kurdi—instead, they remain anonymous, faceless, unknown, and far away. To cross these borders, we must become aware of psychological pitfalls that keep us from acting as if every human life has equal value.

“We Care Greatly About Protecting a Single Person in Distress, Particularly If They Have a Face and a Name and Happen to Look Like Us”

Children of War.jpg

Paul Slovic and Nicole Smith Dahmen published an op-ed in Quartz September 2, 2016 entitled “A year after Aylan Kurdi’s tragic death, the world is still numb to the Syrian refugee crisis."

In it, the authors give an overview of the aftermath caused by the global publication of images of first one, then a second small Syrian child refugee. Nearly 500,000 deaths have occurred since the Syrian war began in 2011, they remind us, and those photographs became the catalyst for some action, such as Germany and Austria opening their borders to crossing migrants, Pope Francis urging Catholic churches to host refugees, and increased donations to funds for Syrian refugees.

They point out, however, that psychic numbing steals our empathy and our will to act. When compounded by our irrational sense of inefficacy, we may begin to feel that our efforts are nothing more than a drop in the bucket.

Slovic and Dahmen suggest we may balance emotion with reason by employing aids to decision-making and pushing for laws and institutions that are grounded in moral reasoning.

What can we do when faced with inefficacy based on a flawed arithmetic of compassion? Perhaps more than charitable donations or social-media sharing.

Psychic Numbing (originally posted at OSU Press)

Author: Paul Slovic

The human mind is capable of astonishing feats of creative problem solving and technological wizardry. And we are good with numbers, too, when we think slowly and carefully about them—witness the three-billion-mile voyage the New Horizons spacecraft just made in its close encounter with Pluto.

But, most of the time, we let our brain calculate for us in a fast, intuitive mode of thinking where answers come, not as numbers or numerical comparisons of benefits and costs, but rather as feelings—good, bad, attractive, unattractive, likable or not, etc. Psychologists refer to these feelings as “affect.” When the objects of our attention are people, or other creatures in distress, these feelings represent what Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert has called “the arithmetic of compassion.”

Unfortunately, when we let our intuitive feelings function as our “moral compass,” the arithmetic of compassion is often faulty, in ways that Scott and I describe in the early chapters of Numbers and Nerves. Evolution designed our faculties of vision and hearing to be most sensitive to faint sounds and dim images, to alert us quickly to subtle signs of impending danger. But a nervous system that is exquisitely sensitive to small phenomena cannot sustain that sensitivity as sound becomes louder and light becomes brighter. Doubling the sound or light energy of a stimulus does not double its perceived loudness or brightness. Remarkably, and unfortunately, a similar desensitization occurs when we rely on our quick intuitive feelings to judge the value of amounts of money or numbers of endangered lives. Finding 200 dollars does not make us twice as happy as finding 100, and hearing about 200 threatened lives does not distress us twice as much as the news of 100 does. In some circumstances, these 200 endangered lives may even feel less important than 100. A strange arithmetic, indeed—a form of “psychic numbing.”

The introduction to our book illustrates this desensitization with this four-photo display of candles, where every candle represents a life.

The first lit candle brightens the scene markedly. The second candle makes it a bit brighter, but not twice as much. Going from 30 candles in the third image to 31 in the fourth hardly seems to make a difference. In blunt terms, with this kind of thinking, the felt value of a life is not fixed. We often go to great lengths to protect a single person, even a single animal or a tree. But those individual lives feel less valuable as the number of other lives at risk increases. In such circumstances, our efforts to protect individuals similarly decrease.

One way to counter psychic numbing and better apprehend the scale of threats to humans, other species, and the planet more broadly may be to link faces, names, stories, and images to the statistics in vivid, multidimensional ways. In the latter sections of our book, we call on writers and visual artists to show how this might be done and why it is important in a world facing many challenges. You could say that our aim in creating this book has been to facilitate a more rational arithmetic of compassion.