Cognitive Bias Prevents Us From Tackling Climate Change

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By Andrew Quist

David Wallace-Wells, an editor of New York magazine, summarizes the latest research on climate change in his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. The message is dire: at our current pace of consuming carbon-emitting fuels, within decades large cities in the Middle East and South Asia will become lethally hot in the summer, the West Antarctic ice sheet will melt, threatening coastal cities with rising sea levels, and tens of millions of people—perhaps as many 100 million—will become climate refugees fleeing droughts, flooding, and extreme heat.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Wallace-Wells writes that cognitive biases “distort and distend our perception of a changing climate. These optimistic prejudices, prophylactic biases and emotional reflexes form an entire library of climate delusion.” One of these biases is pseudoinefficacy: people are not willing to take action if the challenge is so large that their efforts seem like “a drop in the bucket.”

To get a sense of how pseudoinefficacy operates, it’s worth examining a study published in 2007 by psychologist Deborah Small and colleagues. Small et al. conducted an experiment where they gave people a picture and a description of a little girl in Africa who was in desperate need of food aid and asked for a donation. A second group was given the picture of the girl but also given statistical information about the millions of others in Africa who were also at risk of starvation. The group of people who were given the statistics donated less than the group who only learned about the little girl. The researchers concluded that people didn’t donate as much when informed of the statistics because they felt any donation they made wouldn’t make an appreciable contribution to solving the overall problem. This is a false feeling of inefficacy—termed pseudoinefficacy—because helping even one person matters.

The same logic applies to actions to combat climate change. We may feel that our individual actions don’t matter because the problem is so large and diffuse. But our actions do matter because they add up. Of course, a challenge like climate change demands a coordinated global response. As citizens, we can collectively marshal political power to ensure climate change is addressed by our governments.

In a recent interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin, Wallace-Wells was asked “How do you deal with the human tendency to curl up in a ball and walk away from the problem?” His response is both simple and the perfect antidote to feelings of pseudoinefficacy: “[W]e should never, ever stop caring, never give up because it is always possible to make a difference.”

Photograph of melting sea ice by U.S. National Park Service.

The Myth of "I Can't Make a Difference"

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By Andrew Quist

When problems are large, we often feel like there is nothing we can do. This false feeling of inefficacy—pseudoinefficacy—is actually a logical fallacy because even if we only help one person, we’ve made a difference.

Whether it’s sending aid to those who’ve lost their belongings to forest fires in America or helping to feed children facing malnourishment in developing countries, every dollar you give and every hour you volunteer makes a difference.

A great example of what one person can accomplish is Rola Hallam, the founder of CanDo. Living in the United Kingdom, Rola watched in horror as war engulfed her home country, Syria. Rather than succumbing to hopelessness, she launched a crowd-funding platform that supports local nonprofits in war-torn communities. CanDo’s first project, building Hope Hospital in Syria, became the first ever crowd-funded hospital. CanDo shows that with the help of technology, we can make an enormous impact where it is needed most in the world. You can learn more about Rola Hallam and CanDo in this TED video.

We may not all be able to start our own nonprofit, so New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof created this handy guide for altruism “How to Make the World a Better Place” which contains recommendations for donating to charities and volunteering with nonprofits. Our Take Action page also contains a list of wonderful organizations you can support.

Queen Rania of Jordan on Psychic Numbing and Compassion

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By Andrew Quist

If the desire to help those in need is a universal aspect of humanity, why do we allow genocides and mass atrocities to occur?

Queen of Jordan and human rights advocate Rania Al Abdullah addressed this question in her keynote speech at the 2018 TRT World Forum in Istanbul. She specifically discussed two of the psychological biases that we call “the arithmetic of compassion.”

Noting that we too often fail to act decisively in the face of mass atrocities like the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, she said, “We recognize a single person’s suffering as a tragedy, but, as the number of those affected piles up, that tragedy begins to lose its emotional grip.”

Our tendency to shut down our emotions when confronted with large-scale tragedies is called psychic numbing. It can be overcome by becoming aware of it operating in ourselves and by focusing on the individuals who make up a larger group of victims.

Queen Rania also identified pseudoinefficacy as a barrier to compassion: “Perhaps the greatest obstacle to action is the sense of helplessness. Many resign themselves to the idea that there is nothing they can do. They tell themselves that any efforts to improve our world would be offered in vain.”

Queen Rania offered reason for hope. Despite the doom and gloom conveyed to us constantly in the news media, she noted that the world is getting safer, people are living longer, and more people have access to water, electricity, and medical care than ever before. By becoming aware of our biases, maintaining hope, and redoubling our efforts to help those in need, we can enact positive change.

View and read Queen Rania’s speech at the TRT World Forum here.

Photograph of Queen Rania by Jordanian Royal Hashemite Court CC BY-SA 4.0, 2018.

Open Your Eyes


By Paul Slovic

The following is the text of a talk delivered at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in September 2018.

The story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar in today’s Torah reading has many interesting twists and turns from which to contemplate the topic that is the theme of the scientists in synagogues seminar series that Rabbi Ruhi and I will host during this new year. That topic is “Compassion and Obligation in Judaism and Psychology.”

Today I’m going to briefly discuss one particular aspect of the reading that connects to psychological research my colleagues and I have conducted, trying to understand what motivates people to help others in need and why we help in some cases and not in others.

Recall the point in the reading where Hagar and her son, Ishmael, are cast out into the wilderness with little to sustain them but a bit of bread and a sack of water. These meager provisions were quickly consumed and the pair wandered in the desert without sustenance, growing weaker. Hagar left Ishmael in a bush and, unable to watch him die, moved away from him. She raised her voice and wept. We can feel her sense of hopelessness and despair. But then God intervened to “open her eyes” and she noticed nearby a well, most likely a spring. She quickly filled the empty sack with water and saved her son.

It’s interesting that God didn’t simply just revive Ishmael directly through divine power, but rather enabled Hagar to recognize an effective solution and action she could take to rescue Ishmael. But it’s not always so easy to appreciate how effective our actions will be when we try to help others. I’ll return to this point about effectiveness in a minute.

Let’s flash forward to today’s world where there are so many people in need. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless because of the enormity of  problems, such as homelessness and food insufficiency in our own community or the tens of millions of refugees forced by violence and increasingly by climate change to flee their homes and wander their wilderness. Despite our sincere concerns and desire to help, hopelessness paralyzes many of us, our attention strays, and we turn away to address more manageable issues in our lives.

What might a psychological scientist in a synagogue say about this? I’ll give it a try.

In 1994 I carefully followed the reports of the genocide occurring in Rwanda where some 800,000 people were murdered in about 100 days. I was shocked by the indifference of the American public to this terrible news and angered by the refusal of the world’s governments to intervene and stop the bloodshed.

After the Rwandan genocide, my colleagues and I decided to study why we are so often indifferent to genocide and other mass atrocities and fail to intervene to prevent them from occurring.

By coincidence with the story of Hagar and Ishmael, our first study involved water and wells. Those who survived the genocide in Rwanda fled to the safety of refugee camps on the border with Chad. In one camp, many became sick with cholera because they lacked clean water. And they began to die from this disease. There was a desperate need for equipment to drill wells that could provide safe drinking water to the refugees.

In our study, we asked participants like yourselves to play the role of a government official in a neighboring country who had enough money to drill new wells sufficient to provide clean water to 4,500 Rwandan refugees in the camp, thus keeping them healthy and alive. But you, as the government official, could instead use the money for building schools or roads or medical facilities in your own country. What would you do? Would you send the money to drill new wells?

We split our study participants into two groups. One group was told that the camp had 250,000 refugees. The second group was told the camp had 11,000 refugees. The new wells would protect 4,500 refugees in either camp.

What we found was that participants in our study, acting as government officials, were far more likely to decide to provide equipment to help 4,500 people in the small camp. This confirmed our hypothesis that the perceived effectiveness of this lifesaving action would be determined more by the percentage of people helped, obviously greater in the small camp, than by the actual number of people helped, which was the same in both camps.

We then did another study, this time asking participants to make a real donation to a charity in order to help a starving child, identified with her name, photo, and country. We convened a second group of participants and gave them the same opportunity to donate to this child. In order to increase the donations, we gave additional information to those in the second group, calling attention to the fact that that the problem was very important—millions of people were starving in the region where the child lived. Our manipulation failed. In fact, donations dropped almost in half when donors were told that the child was one of millions in need.

In reflecting upon these two studies, we came to appreciate the role that our feelings of effectiveness play in motivating us to help those in need.

We help others not only because they need our help but because we feel good when we help; we get kind of a warm glow of satisfaction when we do something good for someone. But we don’t feel our efforts are effective and we don’t expect to get that warm glow when we help only a small percentage of those in need, as in the large refugee camp, or when we help only one girl out of millions—“a mere drop in the bucket” we may think. So then we don’t help, even though we could.

Let me give you one more example of this. In another study we found that all it took to stop some people from donating to a child they could actually help was to learn that there was one other child they were not helping—not millions and not thousands, as in the first two studies I described. Just one child not helped created bad feelings and a sense of inadequacy that dampened the warm glow. It didn’t feel as good to help the child they could help, so they didn’t help that child. This is wrong! Just because we can’t help everyone doesn’t mean we should help no one. We gave a name to this deception of our feelings. We called it “pseudoinefficacy,” a false sense of inefficacy, false because we really could do something that was meaningful and worthwhile.

Perhaps you’re wondering, “Why should we trust our feelings to motivate us when they behave so irrationally?” This is a great question. We trust our feelings to guide our behavior because most of the time relying on our feelings actually works well to guide us efficiently through our daily tasks and help us make good decisions. But reliance on feelings doesn’t always work well, as we have seen in the studies I described. The lesson here is to focus your thoughts on what you can accomplish, and its importance—rather than dwell on what you can’t do, because that may make you feel badly and stop you from doing something worthwhile.

My colleagues and I have created a website called “The Arithmetic of Compassion” to create awareness of the strange ways our minds sometimes deceive us into thinking our efforts to help others are not worthwhile when, indeed, they are truly meaningful and important. On the website we feature the starfish story that many of you likely know, originally told by Loren Eiseley, a famous American anthropologist, philosopher, and science writer. Here is what he wrote:

While wandering a deserted beach at dawn. . . I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. There were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, “It makes a difference for this one.” I abandoned my writing and spent the morning throwing starfish.

Returning to today’s reading, it is significant that God didn’t simply revive Ishmael directly through some divine power, but rather opened Hagar’s eyes to an effective action she could take to save her son.

As we begin this new year, there are millions like Hagar and Ishmael, wandering their personal wildernesses in search of survival and needing aid. We learn from the Torah not to expect divine intervention to rescue them. We need to act ourselves, as did Hagar. We need to open our eyes so as not to be dragged to the depths of despair that felled Hagar. I take this eye-opening to mean becoming alert to the possible ways we may be able to help others in need, by taking direct action ourselves, or by working with and offering financial support to some of the many fine organizations that are dedicated to addressing humanitarian crises in our community or around the world and are doing heroic work.

But some of the actions that become apparent to us may not be as simple and as fully effective as going to the nearby well was for Hagar. In that case, science can open our eyes, too, by alerting us to the ways our minds can fool us into thinking our actions won’t matter, when, in fact they do. What we learn from science is that we should not be discouraged from doing whatever we can, even when we cannot fill the entire need. As in the starfish story, even partial solutions can save whole lives.

Photograph credit: Pam Brophy / Starfish: Caswell Bay / CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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. 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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