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.