Illustration: Michael Henderson/iStockphoto
More than 200,000 people dead in Darfur.
Tens of thousands of women raped in eastern Congo.
One million killed by malaria each year, mostly in Africa, where 3,000 children alone are dying every day.
How can we read numbers like this and five minutes later be wondering whether to order the Tuscan Chianti or French Zinfandel? In his most recent paper, psychologist Paul Slovic, PhD, suggests that when we're hit with a figure like "one million dead," the brain is simply not up to the task of processing it: "Psychic numbing" kicks in, and we don't feel anything, emotionally or in the gut. This mental deadening, he believes, is a protective mechanism to keep us from exploding with grief. Unfortunately, it's also a "fundamental deficiency in our humanity," says Slovic, who is president of Decision Research, a nonprofit think tank in Eugene, Oregon, that investigates how individuals, industries, and governments make choices. And it's partially why, in the face of repeated genocide, good people have historically failed to act.
It's not that they are heartless. Think of baby Jessica, who fell in a well in Midland, Texas. Images of the submerged toddler inspired nearly $700,000 in donations from strangers across the country. When a 2-year-old terrier was stranded on a tanker in the Pacific, the Hawaiian Humane Society spent $48,000—mostly from contributions—to rescue the dog, an amount that could feed hundreds of Hawaii's homeless humans for more than a month, as one local paper pointed out. But the value we attach to a single life diminishes as the count goes up. As Joseph Stalin, a man not known for his psychological acumen, reportedly commented, "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Even a shift from one victim to two, Slovic's research shows, can dampen the empathetic response.
In one of his studies, Slovic asked three groups of subjects to give money to desperately poor children in Mali, Africa: the first group to a little girl, the second to a boy, and a third to both kids. In the final tally, the last group coughed up the least. Another study asked subjects to contribute to a lifesaving treatment: They could donate to one sick child or a group of eight. Participants gave far more to the individual than to the group.
"There's a concept called entitativity, which concerns getting a coherent picture of whatever you're looking at," Slovic says. "So one hypothesis might be that a single face creates empathy, which then motivates an action— a donation or some other kind of help. But with a group, you may not get a clear picture, so you don't get the same response."
As the number of endangered lives increases, Slovic theorizes, our response may be similar to the way we react to sensory phenomena like brightness and loudness. "We can detect a small increase in a dim light's brightness," he says. But moving from bright to brighter is another matter: "The energy level must change more drastically for us to notice."
"We all know intuitively that humans are more likely to intervene to help a little girl in tears on the street than to help some distant population that is suffering," says Nicholas D. Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times columnist known for his pieces on humanitarian issues, "but Slovic and other psychologists have given us ways to measure these disparate responses and have underscored how difficult it is to generate interest in genocide."
Asked what a compassionate person can do to keep her eyes from glazing over when reading about situations like Darfur, Slovic suggests that we each make a conscious effort to pause and really consider what lies behind the numbers, rather than rely on intuitive responses. "We do have the capability to override our feelings," he says, "to step back and say, 'Wait a minute, I don't feel upset about Darfur, but let me think about that for a minute. This is 6,000 times the magnitude of Virginia Tech.'"
Jennifer Leaning, MD, a professor of the practice of international health at the Harvard School of Public Health who investigates human rights violations, says, "People can be mobilized to respond if they think there is something they can do. What numbs them out is a sense of powerlessness, helplessness, that nothing in the world will change that situation."
As for what we can do in the case of Darfur, Leaning says the most important thing is to put pressure on our government. Call or write to your congressmen and senators, she urges, and say, "I am appalled about what's going on. Fix it."