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

Civil March for Aleppo.jpg

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

Numbers and Nerves.jpg

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

Paul Oregon Qrtly 6.jpg

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.”

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?

By Andrew Quist

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 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.

Drone Footage Shows the Scale of the Destruction of Aleppo



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.