Compassion Week

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From July 30 through August 3, 2018, Decision Research held its seventh annual conference titled “Compassion Week.”

Compassion Week provides scholars from around the world the opportunity to share their current research, learn from each other, and establish opportunities for future collaborations. Each scholar is engaged in the research of pro-social behavioral psychology. Their various research topics include compassion, empathy, altruism, emotion, introspection, decision making, charitable giving, climate change, humanitarian interventions, and nuclear war.

This year, 23 scholars joined us from Canada, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Each scholar paid for their own transportation and lodging, often using university and grant funds. Decision Research provided the conference space, refreshments, and travel assistance, such as arranging lodging and ground transportation.

Below are summaries of some of the presentations delivered at the conference:

Paul Slovic, Decision Research and the University of Oregon

The Caveman and the Bomb in the Digital Age

“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.”

-Albert Einstein

No human decision is more fraught than one involving the use of nuclear weapons—a decision on which may ride the lives of millions of people and potentially the fate of civilization. Shortly after the dawn of the nuclear era, psychologists and other behavioral scientists began the empirical study of the cognitive and social factors influencing human decision making in the face of risk. The findings are worrisome, identifying numerous cognitive quirks and limitations that challenge the ability of our leaders to make rational decisions about using nuclear weapons. Implications of these troubling findings for strategic decisions and arms control were discussed.

Ari Kagan, Center for Advanced Hindsight, Duke University

Applying Donation Psychology to Effective Altruism

The effective altruism movement uses evidence and information to help people do as much good as possible with their donations, given limited resources. To do so, the effective altruism movement often relies heavily on information, such as charity evaluations and correcting common misperceptions around charitable giving, as a way to increase donation efficacy. However, information has often been found to be ineffective at changing beliefs and even less effective at changing behaviors. One study was presented which examines whether information is an effective way to correct common misperceptions around charitable giving and to change donation behavior. While the information helped reduce some of the misperceptions, it did little to shift actual donation behaviors. As a result, approaches grounded in behavioral psychology may be more effective at changing donation behavior. In line with this approach, a new startup app (Sparrow) was discussed which makes use of behavioral science to help people give to charity, by allowing users to tie events in their daily lives to automatic donations.

Stephan Dickert, Queen Mary University of London

Contribution in Context: The Effect of Status on Prosocial Decisions

We looked at the effect of asymmetrical status on donation decisions when two donors and one target (both a charity organization (Exp.1) as well individual recipients (Exp. 2–4)) are present. Results show that low status donors are willing to donate a higher percentage of their endowment than high status donors, but only in joint situations when paired with high status individuals where status differences are readily visible. Symmetrical pairing (low status individuals paired with other low status individuals) as well as making the donation decision public vs. private showed that the presence of another donor as well as social signaling cannot readily explain the effects.

Arvid Erlandsson, Linköping University, Sweden

Saved Lives Insensitivity and the Prominence Effect

Why do people sometimes prefer to help few rather than many victims? We let participants first read several helping dilemmas where they stated, e.g., how many outgroup-members that must be helped in Project A to make it equally attractive as Project B which could help 100 ingroup-members. Later, participants chose between the two equally attractive projects. Several helping dilemma attributes were prominent, meaning that they influenced preferences more in choice-tasks than in matching-tasks. To exemplify, although 72.5% expressed that ingroup- and outgroup-projects were equally valuable in the matching task, 93.5% of these supported the ingroup-project when forced to make a choice.

Emir Efendic, Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands

Self-Serving Justifications in Charitable Behaviors

Self-serving justifications are an important determinant of dishonest behaviour. Usually, researchers look at when people behave dishonestly for their own benefit, but one can also behave dishonestly when it leads to someone else’s benefit, say for instance, a charity. In a recent study, we show that people are indeed willing to cheat for the benefit of a charity, especially when the situation is ambiguous and tempting—thus the cheating is more easily justifiable. However, while people who show higher general prosociality tend to cheat more for the benefit of a charity, overall, people were equally likely to cheat for their own and the charity’s benefit, suggesting a certain tit-for-tat cheating behaviour.

Marijke Leliveld, University of Groningen, the Netherlands

Face Valence in Charity-Related Advertisements (with In Hye Kang & Rosie Ferraro)

In advertisements for charities and in those for companies selling products of which parts of the proceeds go to charity (so called cause-related marketing products; “CM”), very often the pictures of those in need are presented. In this project we find that although a sad face results in more distress towards the person in need and as a consequence increased willingness to donate or willingness or buy the CM product, it also results in another inferential process. We show that people infer from sad faces manipulative intent by the organization (holds for charities well as companies) which has a negative effect on ad and organization evaluation, and a negative effect on willingness to donate and willingness to buy the CM product.

Charity Ad Effectiveness on Social Media and Subsequent Donation Decisions (with Hans Risselada & Daniel Västjfäll)

We know quite a lot about charity ad effectiveness on (hypothetical) donation decisions, but much less about how these ads are effective on social media. Moreover, we don’t know how supporting an online petition spread via social media can influence decisions in subsequent donation requests of that same charity. This project discusses how we will be able to study this by collaborating with a lead generating company and a call center. One of the possibilities to study is whether there is a difference between using the word “help” vs. the word “support.” We provided some initial pilot data and discussed with the Compassion Week attendees the best ways to use this research opportunity.

How Donors Can Overcome Overhead Aversion (with Jan Willem Bolderdijk)

In this project we study why people are overhead averse. We show that people are averse towards charities which generously pay their employees (i.e., a taboo trade-off) even when this implies that the charity can raise more money. However, when the performance of the charity is described in sacred terms (number of lives saved) rather than secular terms (money raised per year) people are able to overcome overhead version.

Hajdi Moche, University of Linköping, Sweden

Are People Less Willing to Donate to Charity Causes When They Are Reminded of Other Ways They Could Spend Their Money?

The talk focused on two research questions: Are people less willing to donate to charity causes when they are reminded of other ways that they could spend their money? And are they less willing to help when the cause is abstract, with no identified victim to the cause? The preliminary result of the study that was presented seemed to indicate that people are almost as willing to donate even when reminded of alternative ways to spend their money. Also, there seemed to be no difference in willingness whether there was an identified victim or not.

Enrico Rubaltelli, University of Padova, Italy

Cost and Benefit in Funding a Bundle of Aid Programs (with Stephan Dickert, Marcus Mayorga, & Paul Slovic)

We demonstrated that people are more willing to fund a bundle of smaller aid programs rather than a single aid program corresponding to the overall donation amount (and number of lives helped) of the bundle. Critically, people perceived donating to the bundle as less costly than funding the single aid program, whereas the benefit for the people who received the help was perceived as similar in the two cases. We also discussed boundary conditions that can modulate such an effect.

Pär Bjälkebring, University of Gothenburg, Sweden

The Coupling of Prosocial Behaviors and Emotions in Everyday Life: Results from a One-Week Diary Study

The topic of the presentation was prosocial behaviors. Every night for seven days we had people report whether they did something prosocial in the last 24 hours. Our results showed that those who did the most prosocial acts were happier than those who did fewer.

TEDx at Kakuma Camp

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The first ever TEDx event held at a refugee camp was broadcast around the world on June 9, 2018. The event featured refugees, artists, and international experts on refugee issues, including Arithmetic of Compassion contributor Paul Slovic. 

Professor Slovic's talk, titled "The More Who Die, the Less We Care: Confronting Genocide and the Numbing Arithmetic of Compassion," discussed the psychological biases that prevent us from scaling our empathy when confronted with mass suffering.

You can watch Professor's Slovic talk here.

A transcript of Professor Slovic's talk is available here.

You can watch the full event here.

A photo gallery of the event is available here.

The photograph of refugees at Kakuma Camp pictured above is by UNESCO, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Red Lines

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By Andrew Quist

On April 13, 2018, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom carried out military strikes in Syria in direct response to Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on civilians. Announcing the decision, President Trump said of Assad’s behavior, “These are not the actions of man; they are the crimes of a monster instead.”

Assad is a monster for gassing his own people, but he is also a monster for dropping barrel bombs on civilians and deliberately bombing hospitals, ambulances, and schools. The recent military strikes by the U.S. and its allies will do nothing to deter Assad from murdering civilians with conventional weapons. As former Department of Defense official Jasmine El-Gamal wrote in a thoughtful op-ed, “The signal the international community for years has given Assad is that conventional military tactics that may constitute war crimes are acceptable, while chemical weapons use is (sometimes) not.”

If we allow dictators to murder people in mass numbers as long as they don’t cross a “red line” by using chemical weapons, it is reasonable to ask how much value we place on human life.

Commenting on the recent military strike in the publication Syria Deeply, a person living in Syria during the war had this to say about “red lines”:

Honestly, it’s very hard for me to watch how these countries choose these arbitrary red lines and decide to act on them. The international standards and policies that they work from are so far removed from the human lives that are lost. At the end of the day, it is clear that there is no value placed on human beings. For these countries, what is most important is the type of weapon used and whether or not intervening for the sake of saving civilian lives suits their own interests.

After the Holocaust, the international community said it would “never again” allow a genocide to happen, but then we allowed it to occur in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan. For the past seven years we have allowed mass atrocities to occur in Syria. Collectively, we must overcome psychic numbing, the tendency to view far-away deaths as an abstraction, and take action to stop mass atrocities, whether that is arresting dictators and trying them in the International Criminal Court, or using diplomatic and military pressure to make it clear that mass murder will not be tolerated.

After all, we value human life, don’t we?

The above photograph is by Russia Presidential Executive Office, CC BY 2018.

Genocidal Violence Accelerates in Darfur


By Andrew Quist

This year marks the fifteenth year of violence in the Darfur region of Sudan, and government sponsored troops continue their ongoing campaign of ethnically-targeted destruction against non-Arab peoples in the region.

According to Sudan researcher Eric Reeves, Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) recently targeted and destroyed eleven villages belonging to the Fur people in Jebel Marra. About 50,000 people were forced to flee to caves, where they are without food or water. UNAMID, the formal peacekeeping operation in the region, has not arrived to provide help.

According to Reeves, the ongoing genocide in Darfur is one of the worst in modern history. Three million Darfuris have been displaced and “more than 500,000” have died “from the direct and indirect effects of Khartoum-orchestrated violence.”

The International Criminal Court has had a warrant out for the arrest of Sudan’s president Omar al Bashir for the crime of genocide since 2009. However, because Sudan is providing intelligence to aid the U.S. in its war on terrorism, the Trump administration recently lifted all sanctions against Sudan.

It is understandable for the U.S. to look out for it’s own security interests. But at what cost? What intelligence information could possibly justify allowing the Sudanese government to continue to engage in this unconscionable violence against its civilians?

Above photograph is by Flickr member katmere and is copyrighted under the Creative Commons designation CC-BY.

Why Do We Ignore the War in Syria?

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By Andrew Quist

Why is it so hard to get people to pay attention to the continuing atrocities committed in the war in Syria, now in its seventh year? That is the subject of this BuzzFeed News article by Rose Troup Buchanan. Despite an uptick in violence in the province of Eastern Ghouta this month, Buchanan writes, “Global interest in the conflict is waning, and analysis by BuzzFeed News shows the number of shares on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites of the most-read stories about Syria in the past two months were a 10th of what they were just over a year ago.”

The article contains an interview with Arithmetic of Compassion contributor and professor of psychology Paul Slovic. According to Slovic, we show less interest in Syria than is warranted due to psychic numbing. Our minds are incapable of coping with prologned catastrophes like genocide and mass atrocities.

And when shocking images do get our attention, we feel helpless and hopeless and tune them out. “We do numb to repeated photographs, just like we numb to increasing numbers of individuals,” Slovic said. This is a form of pseudoinefficacy, part of the flawed arithmetic of compassion that allows catastrophic abuses of human beings to continue unabated.

We must appreciate the individuality of each human being suffering in places like Eastern Ghouta, Syria in order to combat psychic numbing and this false sense of inefficacy (false because there are meaningful actions we and our government can and should take).

One way you can help people suffering in Syria is by donating to the International Rescue Committee, which is supplying nutritional supplements to more than 3,300 malnourished children in Eastern Ghouta.

Professor David Frank commented on this article by noting that history reveals we do have the capacity to stop this violence:

  • “Between 1944 and 1997 the presence of peacekeeping missions has reduced recidivism to violence and civil war by 80%. [Edward Newman, Understanding Civil Wars: Continuity and Change in Intrastate Conflict (New York: Routledge, 2014), 158.]
  • The United Nations reported an 80% decrease in genocides and politicides between 1988 and 2001, in part because of successful third-party intervention to prevent and mitigate mass atrocities, suggesting the world community can respond effectively to prevent and contain mass atrocities. [Virginia Page Fortna, Does Peacekeeping Work?: Shaping Belligerents' Choices after Civil War (Princeton University Press, 2007), 116.]
  • The world could have prevented the Rwandan genocide. Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, the Force Commander for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, needed a mere 5,000 well-equipped troops to prevent many deaths; he was left with 270. [Roméo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, 1st Carroll & Graf Ed. (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004).]
  • Chivvis, in the most careful study of the Libyan intervention in 2011, concludes that it succeeded in “averting a slaughter in Benghazi.”  Unfortunately, many misuse this intervention to justify inaction. [Christopher S. Chivvis, Toppling Qaddafi: Libya and the Limits of Liberal Intervention (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 90.]
  • The state department dissidents in their 2016 memo outline several steps that could have mitigated the suffering in Syria, which Obama and Power ignored.
  • The UN needs to enforce Resolution 2401 and a cease fire.   

We need to visualize mass atrocities and pepper these accounts with realistic action steps backed by a history that offers us some agency.”

To learn more about psychic numbing and pseudoinefficacy visit our pages on these subjects.

To learn more about overcoming psychic numbing and related psychological biases that inhibit compassion, visit our Take Action page.

The above photograph is of ruins in Zamalka, Eastern Ghouta, Syria, February 22, 2018. CC 3.0 Qasioun News Agency.

Representing Victims of School Gun Violence

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By Andrew Quist. Photograph by UO College Democrats.

Psychic numbing prevents us from scaling our emotions and empathy when confronted with statistics of human suffering. Statistics alone do not motivate us to act to solve large-scale problems. But visual displays can overcome psychic numbing by turning statistics into something tangible.

If you walk along the main quadrangle in the University of Oregon this week, you’ll see 732 small flags representing all of the victims of school gun violence in the U.S. since the shooting at Thurston High School in 1998 in the neighboring town of Springfield.

The display was created by the University of Oregon College Democrats. In an interview with the student news website Daily Emerald, Program Director Kevin Lance explained, “When it’s numbers on a screen it’s hard to put that into perspective. It helps to see the numbers.”

The idea was inspired by a similar visual representation. In the fall of 2016, groups dedicated to raising awareness of sexual assault placed hundreds of flags on the same quadrangle to represent campus sexual assault victims. And in 2007 various peace and veterans groups filled the lawn with flags, representing deaths from the war in Iraq.

In each instance, the advocates behind the displays attempted to go beneath the surface of the numbers to communicate the individual reality of the victims. Flags displays are one of many ways activists can use visual representation to overcome psychic numbing and motivate pro-social behavior.

To learn more about gun violence, visit the website for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence:

To learn more about psychic numbing, click here.

Why Do We Mourn For Parkland But Ignore Genocides?

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By Andrew Quist

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida has sparked a nationwide debate about how to keep students safe from school shooters. Giving interviews on mainstream news outlets during the week after the massacre, appearing angry and upset yet poised and articulate, students from Douglas High captured our attention and inspired many of us to take action by lobbying our elected representatives to change gun laws and improve school safety. We empathized with these students and felt their anguish.

If a tragedy resulting in the deaths of 17 young students can so shock and motivate us, why is it that we care so little about violent assaults on humanity in other parts of the world?

Recently more than 500 people in eastern Ghouta, Syria were slaughtered by the Assad regime. The regime also bombed 26 medical facilities. Syrian forces continued to bomb civilians even after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution mandating a cease-fire. Syrians—who are pleading for the international community to enforce the Geneva Conventions—feel abandoned by the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, 900,000 Rohingya refugees wait in refugee camps, afraid to return to their home country, Myanmar. In August 2017, Burmese government forces accompanied by Buddhist civilians began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, murdering the men, raping and killing women, torturing children, and burning down entire villages. Despite the horrific nature of these atrocities, the international community has done little to pressure the Burmese government to end this genocidal assault and allow the repatriation of the Rohingya.

Why are we ignoring the atrocities in Syria and Myanmar and failing to take action to help these victims? Due to the psychological phenomenon of psychic numbing, it is difficult for us to empathize with people suffering in far-away places. Moreover, as death tolls mount (more than 400,000 people have died in the war in Syria), individual deaths become statistics, and our ability to empathize is further reduced.

Also, we often feel overwhelmed by complex problems like a foreign civil war. Due to another psychological bias called pseudoinefficacy, we resign ourselves to inaction when no easy solution is apparent.

But meaningful action is possible, and it is the same action one can take to mitigate school shootings: lobby our elected representatives. The U.S. should sanction Assad’s allies and establish safe zones in Syria, or in the case of the Rohingya, pressure the Burmese government to allow safe repatriation of refugees and restore their citizenship. Additionally, citizens should push their representatives to pass the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, which has been stalled in committee since May 2017.

Although we are physically separated from Syria and Myanmar by thousands of miles of land and ocean, we bear witness to the plight of their people through news reports and technology. With awareness comes responsibility to act. As Professor Rebecca Hamilton writes in her book, Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide,

 “Our world is getting smaller. A generation ago, television brought the lives of those outside our borders into our homes. Today, the pace and quantity of information continues to increase; more and more people at different ends of the earth see and interact with each other, in real time. As has always been the case, a sense of community can arise from relationships built over the course of repeated interactions, but no longer does physical proximity dictate the boundaries of these spheres of obligation.”

Our obligation to prevent needless violence certainly extends to the children in our schools.  Should it not extend as well to Syrians suffering in Ghouta, and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh? Shouldn’t they be protected, not ignored?

The above photograph is of Arbine village, Eastern Ghouta, Syria, on February 27, 2018. CC 3.0 Qasioun News Agency

Psychic Numbing and the Recent Atrocities in Syria


By Andrew Quist

After seven years of a steadily rising death toll reaching into the hundreds of thousands, the continuing atrocities committed by the Assad regime, such as murdering nearly 300 people in the past three days in Eastern Ghouta, fail to capture our attention. In his column, “The Slaughter in Syria Should Outrage Us. Yet Still We Just Shrug,” Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland writes “For seven years we have known that a civil war is raining horror on Syria, and we’ve gotten used to it.” Freedland posits that the global community is not moved to act to end the violence in Syria for two reasons: we’ve simply gotten used to the violence, and we don’t know what to do about it.

Although he doesn't name the psychological biases involved, Freedland has correctly identified two elements of the flawed arithmetic of compassion that underlie this indifference to the latest atrocities in Syria. One is psychic numbing, the inability to connect emotionally with large, slowly accumulating death tolls. The other is pseudoinefficacy, the idea that if one cannot identify a way to solve a complex problem, one reverts to inaction.

“But paying attention, making a noise, has value,” Freedland writes. Our governments should pressure Syria’s allies Russia and Iran to reign in the Assad regime and stop targeting civilians. It is not true that there is nothing we can do. Even partial solutions save lives.

You can read Jonathan Freedland’s column here.

Photograph above depicts the Civil Defense "White Helmets" team pulling bodies out from under rubble in Kafrowaid village in southern Idlib's countryside in March 2017. CC BY 3.0 Qasioun News Agency.

The Civil March for Aleppo

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By Andrew Quist

Berlin based journalist and blogger Anna Alboth had been following news reports of the war in Syria since its inception. But in 2016, after watching videos of the devastation in Aleppo and speaking with Syrian refugee friends about the war they fled, Anna felt she had to do something. She posted on Facebook a question and call to action: Will you march with me from Berlin to Aleppo, the route Syrian refugees take but in reverse, to raise awareness and influence public opinion in the hopes of ending the war?

As an activist who had previously organized a nationwide campaign in Poland to provide sleeping bags to Syrian and Iraqi refugees living in Berlin, Anna was not making an empty gesture with her posting. As support for the march began to pour in over her Facebook feed, Anna and others began organizing.

On December 26, 2016, a group of 400 ordinary citizens and humanitarians began the march. By the time they had completed the eight month trek through 12 different countries and reached the Lebanon/Syria border, more 3,500 people had joined for at least one leg of the journey. Thousands more local residents stopped to ask the participants about what they were doing. The conversations often began with puzzled curiosity, but ended with the onlooker asking what they too can do to help the people in Syria.

By taking action to raise awareness for the plight of Syrians, Anna and her fellow travelers were able to resist the psychological bias of pseudoinefficacy and its gravitational pull to do nothing when confronted with a seemingly insolvable problem. Their impact was felt in the media and in the minds of each individual who interacted with the march. Each marcher also inspired their network of friends and family to pay attention and make a difference.

The war in Syria has not ended, and Syrians continue to die. But the Civil March for Aleppo perhaps created a spark, a ripple for peace. As Robert F. Kennedy said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

You can read about the Civil March for Aleppo at

Photograph of marchers in Sarajevo by Janusz Ratecki

Overcoming Psychic Numbing Through Narratives: A Review of Numbers and Nerves

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In 2015, Scott and Paul Slovic released a book titled Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data which analyzes psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy, and the prominence effect, and how these psychological biases prevent us from appreciating the magnitude and danger of large-scale problems that confront humanity. In the latest issue of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Professor Patrick Colm Hogan provides an excellent review of Numbers and Nerves.

Hogan agrees with Slovic and Slovic’s recommendation to educators and activists that in order to persuade people to appreciate dangers like genocide and global climate change, they should integrate statistical information with compelling narrative. After all, people are moved by narratives and images, not statistics. Noting that narratives can be used as propaganda just as they can be used to motivate positive social change, Hogan offers his own recommendation: to incorporate ideological critique in social activism, along with statistical information and narrative particularity. You can read the entire review on the ISLE website here.

Numbers and Nerves is available on the OSU Press website, as well as Amazon.

Does Trump Understand What It Means to “Totally Destroy North Korea”?


While speaking before the United Nations General Assembly in September, President Trump made an extraordinary threat to “totally destroy North Korea.” Due to psychic numbing, the president fails to appreciate the consequences were he to follow through on this threat: the deaths of 25 million people.

In a recent blog post for Scientific American, Arithmetic of Compassion contributors Andrew Quist, Paul Slovic, and Scott Slovic discuss how psychic numbing prevents President Trump from grasping the consequences of his threat to exterminate a country’s entire population.

To read more, access the blog post here.

The Heartbreaking Humanitarian Crisis In Myanmar

 Displaced Rohingya Muslims. Photograph by Seyyed Mahmoud Hosseini, Tasnim News Agency, CC 4.0.

Displaced Rohingya Muslims. Photograph by Seyyed Mahmoud Hosseini, Tasnim News Agency, CC 4.0.

By Andrew Quist

The Myanmar (Burma) government is carrying out a “textbook definition of ethnic cleansing” against the Muslim Rohingya minority in the Rakhine State. That’s the stark assessment from the UN human rights chief regarding the Burmese military campaign being carried out against the Rohingya. The conflict began a year ago when Rohingya militants attacked a Burmese border outpost. The government responded by sending the Myanmar military on a “clearance operation” that resulted in the deaths of more than a thousand civilians, the rape of Rohingya women, and the burning down of entire Rohingya villages.

The violence escalated in late August 2017 when, again in response to a militant attack on a Burmese military outpost, Burmese troops and mobs of Buddhist Rakhine civilians attacked Rohingya villages. Since August 25, over half a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar. The stories the Rohingya tell about the attacks are appalling and shocking, like the account in the New York Times in which a women describes her baby being torn out of her hands and thrown into a fire.

Aside from issuing declarations that “the violence must stop,” western countries and the UN Security Council have done nothing to get Myanmar to end the campaign against the Rohingya. There has been no threat of sanctions.

At the level of the populace, it is hard to find evidence that ordinary people are paying attention and care about this issue. There have been protests against Myanmar in the Muslim majority countries Pakistan and Bangladesh, but not in Western countries. Perhaps we are too gripped by the drama of the Trump administration to focus on international issues, but several psychological factors are also contributing to our apathy.

First, in-group/out-group thinking causes us to focus on our tribe. Witness the media storm that followed the Las Vegas shooting and how few details the media reported regarding the horrific truck bombs in Mogadishu, Somalia on October 14 that killed 327 innocent people and injured 400 others.

Second, psychic numbing prevents us from feeling empathy for large numbers of distant people who are suffering. The plight of the Rohingya does not move us as much as the suffering of one identified person.

Third, due to the phenomenon known as pseudoinefficacy, when we are confronted with the suffering of large numbers of people we may feel that there is nothing we can do that will make a difference. This is a false sense of inefficacy because helping even one person matters.

Right now, there are 720,000 children in refugee camps on the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar that are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. You can help them by making a contribution to the International Rescue Committee’s mission to help the Rohingya. Visit to contribute.

Talking about this issue with others will help raise awareness. The Rohingya can be helped, through attention and action, but not if we remain incapable of responding to their suffering.

Psychic Numbing and Famine

 Photograph by Carol Han, OFDA/USAID. CC BY-NC 2.0

Photograph by Carol Han, OFDA/USAID. CC BY-NC 2.0

By Andrew Quist

The UN humanitarian coordinator informed the Security Council that the world is facing the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945, with 20 million people facing starvation across Africa and the Middle East. Famine has been officially declared in South Sudan, and large populations are at risk of famine in Yemen, Somalia, and Nigeria.

The biggest problems facing our world should command our attention, but according to UN and private relief officials, relief efforts are falling short due to inadequate funding from governments and private donors. The president of the charity Save the Children bemoaned, “We can’t seem to get anyone’s attention.”

Why does our society fail to give due attention to enormous problems like famine and climate change? The answer may be psychic numbing and pseudoinefficacy.

As psychologists have demonstrated, hearing about problems that affect massive numbers of people often leaves us feeling numbly indifferent (psychic numbing). When we do recognize the gravity of a problem, we often feel so overwhelmed by the scale of the issue that any action to help seems like a drop in the bucket. This drop-in-the-bucket feeling has a demotivating effect on our thinking and actions (pseudoinefficacy).

If psychic numbing and pseudoinefficacy are the obstacles to taking action to solve crises like famine, what is the solution?

First, sustained awareness of the problem is necessary, for we cannot leverage our political and monetary resources if we are not focused on the issue. It’s important to share information about causes like famine relief with others, and to not let major issues get drowned out in the 24-hour news cycle. Second, we should direct our attention to what we can do to save/improve people’s lives rather than dwell on the countless whom we cannot help. Placing attention on the people that could be helped by our actions can help to overcome the “drop-in-the-bucket” thinking that characterizes pseudoinefficacy. For information on how to overcome psychic numbing visit our Take Action page.

Making Compassion Count

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In a recent profile on psychologist and Arithmetic of Compassion contributor Paul Slovic published in Oregon Quarterly, writer Stephen Phillips discusses psychic numbing and its effects on our society. Whether in dealing with a refugee crisis, genocide, global warming, or famine, our inability to emotionally register mass human suffering hinders our ability to respond to crises.

Interviewing several of Dr. Slovic’s colleagues, Phillips clearly explains psychic numbing and discusses how we can overcome it, including becoming more aware of the phenomenon, framing policy discussions so that national security doesn’t automatically eclipse saving lives, and using narratives and images to convey human suffering.

You can read Phillips’ excellent article in Oregon Quarterly here.

Combating the Lord’s Resistance Army: A Humanitarian Success Story

 Children displaced the LRA in northern Uganda. Photograph by an employee of the United States Agency for International Development.

Children displaced the LRA in northern Uganda. Photograph by an employee of the United States Agency for International Development.

Too often our responses to humanitarian crises are inadequate. Public support for action is hampered by psychic numbing and pseudoinefficacy. Policy makers undervalue human life in the decision making process due to prominence bias. For these reasons it’s worth paying attention to a recent example of a successful humanitarian intervention: the dismantling of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Africa.

Writing in The Register-Guard, former Department of State official Jason Lewis-Berry describes the largely successful mission to degrade the LRA. Serving as field representative to the Department of State for LRA issues, Lewis-Berry saw firsthand how activism, diplomacy and military action can work in concert to put an end to ongoing atrocities. Thousands of activists mobilized to get Congress to do something about the LRA, which according to the UN has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions in Central and Eastern Africa. Advocacy efforts were successful, culminating in signed legislation committing the U.S. to take action. Working with local civilians and military troops, U.S. diplomats and special forces conducted a campaign against the LRA that resulted in the capture, killing, or defection of senior LRA leaders, and the reduction in the LRA’s fighting force from 3,000 to just 130.

As Lewis-Berry argues, the mission to degrade the LRA demonstrates “that American leadership and ‘America first’ thinking are not mutually exclusive.” When humanitarians, government officials, and military personnel work together, we can end atrocities and ensure a safer world.

Read Lewis-Berry’s op-ed detailing the mission here.

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

By Andrew Quist

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 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 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.

You can read the open-access article here.

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.”