Psychic Numbing

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.

As an analogy, notice in the video below that when there are very few lighted candles, adding one more makes a big difference, but when there are many lighted candles, adding one more is hardly noticeable. The same seems be true for how we feel about human lives. The unfortunate result of this thinking is that we are often numb and indifferent to mass atrocities and natural disasters that affect many lives.

"Just as the eye loses sensitivity to changes as the brightness of a scene increases, research on psychic numbing shows that the felt value of a human life decreases similarly against a backdrop of an increasing number of lives at risk."

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? 

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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. 

A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.
— Albert Einstein

Learn More:

"‘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.