Psychic numbing is a psychological phenomenon that causes us to feel indifferent to the suffering of large numbers of people. The quote attributed to Jospeh Stalin “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic” is an illustration of psychic numbing.
Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue "the one" whose plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of "the one" if that person is just "one of many" as part of a bigger problem. We know that one life is very important, but the difference between 87 and 88 lives at risk feels insignificant.
What are the causes of this discrepancy between how we believe we should value life saving and how research shows we do value saving lives? How do we work to combat this—as individuals, scholars, journalists, communities, organizations, governments, and as the citizenry of a globalized world? Understanding psychic numbing is the first step to preventing this bias from inhibiting our desire to help those in need.
If we believe that every human life has equal value, then the value of protecting lives should increase in a straight line as the number of lives at risk increases. This is a simple process of addition. When additional losses of life threaten the extinction of a people, as in the case of genocide, the very next life at risk is even more valuable than the life before it, causing the value line to curve upward. But our actions in the face of mass atrocities don’t follow either of these two models. That's because our intuitive feelings—based on fast thinking—override our more thoughtful judgments.
The diagrams on the right (How DO We Value Human Lives?) show what research tells us about how we actually tend to feel about the value of protecting human lives as the number of lives at risk increases. The biggest change in value occurs with the first life, going from zero to one. On an emotional level, we care greatly about protecting single lives. But as the numbers increase “psychic numbing” begins to desensitize us. A life that is so valuable to protect if it is the first or only life at risk, loses its value against the backdrop of a larger tragedy, with many lives endangered.
As the number of lives in danger increases, we sometimes lose feeling and we value those additional lives even less. They become mere statistics, “human beings with the tears dried off,” as someone once said. In fact, in one study we found that compassion began to fade as soon as the number of persons in danger went from one person to two.
Statistics of mass atrocities do not move us to act
The disproportionate focus on "one story" is very clearly demonstrated in the case of the Syrian refugee crisis. Global attention and outrage was focused on the death of toddler Alan Kurdi on September 2, 2015. This was despite the context of enormous suffering and death of the Syrian population.
While donations to the Red Cross spiked after these stories, the world has not acted as a concerted whole to address these challenges. In this sense, we collectively cared immensely about this one person's death, but the hundreds of thousands of people in his same situation do not move us to act.
We’re insensitive when large numbers of people are at Risk
Our inability to scale our emotions when the number of lives at risk increases is analogous to our sensory perceptions. Just as we don’t notice the difference between 30 lit candles and 31 lit candles, our feelings do not register the difference between 30 deaths and 31 deaths.
Einstein on compassion
"‘If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act’: Psychic Numbing and Genocide." Paul Slovic in Judgement and Decision Making, 2007.
"Why You’re Numb to the Horrors in Syria, According to an Empathy Researcher." Susie Poppick in Mic, February 21, 2018.
Read a description on psychic numbing written by Adam Smith in 1759.