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The More Who Die, the Less We Care: Psychic Numbing and Genocide

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A defining element of catastrophes is the magnitude of their harmful consequences. To help society prevent or mitigate damage from catastrophes, immense effort and technological sophistication are often employed to assess and communicate the size and scope of potential or actual losses. This effort assumes that people can understand the resulting numbers and act on them appropriately. However, recent behavioral research casts doubt on this fundamental assumption. Many people do not understand large numbers. Indeed, large numbers have been found to lack meaning and to be underweighted in decisions unless they convey affect (feeling). As a result, there is a paradox that rational models of decision making fail to represent. On the one hand, we respond strongly to aid a single individual in need. On the other hand, we often fail to prevent mass tragedies – such as genocide – or take appropriate measures to reduce potential losses from natural disasters. We believe this occurs, in part, because as numbers get larger and larger, we become insensitive; numbers fail to trigger the emotion or feeling necessary to motivate action. We shall address this problem of insensitivity to mass tragedy by identifying certain circumstances in which it compromises the rationality of our actions and by pointing briefly to strategies that might lessen or overcome this problem.
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Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll
The More Who Die, the Less We Care
Psychic Numbing and Genocide³¹
A defining element of catastrophes is the magnitude of their harmful conse-
quences. To help society prevent or mitigate damage from catastrophes, immense
effort and technological sophistication are often employed to assess and commu-
nicate the size and scope of potential or actual losses. This effort assumes that
people can understand the resulting numbers and act on them appropriately.
However, recent behavioral research casts doubt on this fundamental assump-
tion. Many people do not understand large numbers. Indeed, large numbers have
been found to lack meaning and to be underweighted in decisions unless they
convey affect (feeling). As a result, there is a paradox that rational models of
decision making fail to represent. On the one hand, we respond strongly to aid a
single individual in need. On the other hand, we often fail to prevent mass trage-
dies – such as genocide – or take appropriate measures to reduce potential losses
from natural disasters. We believe this occurs, in part, because as numbers get
larger and larger, we become insensitive; numbers fail to trigger the emotion or
feeling necessary to motivate action.
We shall address this problem of insensitivity to mass tragedy by identifying
certain circumstances in which it compromises the rationality of our actions and
by pointing briefly to strategies that might lessen or overcome this problem.
Background and Theory: The Importance of Affect
Risk management in the modern world relies upon two forms of thinking. Risk as
feelings refers to our instinctive and intuitive reactions to danger. Risk as analysis
brings logic, reason, quantification, and deliberation to bear on hazard manage-
31This work draws on the material from Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll (2013): “The More Who
Die, The Less We Care: Psychic Numbing and Genocide”. In: Behavioural Public Policy. Edited by
Adam Oliver. Cambridge University Press. Reproduced with permission.
This material is based upon work supported by the Hewlett Foundation, and by the
U.S. National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. SES-, SES-, and SES-
. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this mate-
rial are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Hewlett Foundation or
the National Science Foundation.
©  Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, published by De Gruyter.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs . License.
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56Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll
ment. Compared to analysis, reliance on feelings tends to be a quicker, easier,
and more efficient way to navigate in a complex, uncertain, and dangerous world.
Hence, it is essential to rational behavior. Yet it sometimes misleads us. In such
circumstances we need to ensure that reason and analysis also are employed.
Although the visceral emotion of fear certainly plays a role in risk as feelings,
we shall focus here on the “faint whisper of emotion” called affect. As used here,
affect refers to specific feelings of “goodness” or “badness” experienced with or
without conscious awareness. Positive and negative feelings occur rapidly and
automatically; note how quickly you sense the feelings associated with the word
joy or the word hate. A large research literature in psychology documents the
importance of affect in (1) conveying meaning upon information and (2) motivat-
ing behavior. Without affect, information lacks meaning and will not be used in
judgment and decision making.
Facing Catastrophic Loss of Life
Risk as feelings is clearly rational, employing imagery and affect in remarkably
accurate and efficient ways. But this way of responding to risk has a darker, non-
rational side. Affect may misguide us in important ways. Particularly problem-
atic is the difficulty of comprehending the meaning of catastrophic losses of life
when relying on feelings. Research reviewed below shows that disaster statistics,
no matter how large the numbers, lack emotion or feeling. As a result, they fail
to convey the true meaning of such calamities and they fail to motivate proper
action to prevent them.
The psychological factors underlying insensitivity to large-scale losses of
human lives apply to catastrophic harm resulting from human malevolence,
natural disasters, environmental degradation, and technological accidents. In
particular, the psychological account described here can explain, in part, our
failure to respond to the diffuse and seemingly distant threat posed by global
warming as well as the threat posed by the presence of nuclear weaponry. Similar
insensitivity may also underlie our failure to respond adequately to problems of
famine, poverty, and disease afflicting large numbers of people around the world
and even in our own backyard.
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The More Who Die, the Less We Care 57
Genocide and Mass Atrocities:
The Scope of the Problem
Over the past century the world has been shocked to learn of many horrific inci-
dents of mass collective violence. The Holocaust of World War II stands out and,
in recent years, atrocities in Rwanda, the Balkans, and Darfur have gained the
world’s attention. Today, humanitarian catastrophes in Syria and the Middle East
are in the news.
Yet, these memorable cases are only a small part of the problem, as shown in
Table 1. Mass atrocities, defined as the intended death of at least 1000 non-com-
batants from a distinct group in a period of sustained violence (Ulfelder and
Valentino 2008), are not rare. Since 1900, 201 distinct cases resulted in an esti-
mated 84 million fatalities, an average of about 470,000 each! The atrocities
death toll is comparable to interstate wars and vastly greater than that from
terrorism.
Table 1: Comparative measures of seriousness for state-sponsored mass
atrocities (genocides and mass killings), intrastate and interstate wars,
and terrorism.
Seriousness
Conflict Type
Number of
Distinct Cases
Time
Period
Total estimated fata-
lities for the cases
Estimated fata-
lities per case
Mass Atrocities  – ,, ,
Interstate Wars  – ,, ,
Excluding WW I
and WW II
 – ,, ,
Intrastate Wars  – ,, ,
Terrorism (Domestic
and International)
, – ,
Tab. 1: Comparative measures of seriousness for state-sponsored mass atrocities. Slovic (2015)
Pending Copyright Approval From Oxford University Press
Source: Adapted from Anderton (in press).
In addition to the stunning frequency and scale of mass atrocities, what stands
out in historical accounts of these abuses is the inaction of bystanders. In her
prizewinning book “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,”
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58Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll
Samantha Power documented the inadequacy of the U.S. Government’s response
to numerous genocides dating back to 1915 (Power 2003). She concluded:
“No U.S. president has ever made genocide a priority and no U.S. president has ever suf-
fered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide
rages on” (Power 2003, p. xxi).
Nowhere is the problem of apathy and inaction more starkly apparent than in the
Darfur region of Western Sudan. Since February 2003, hundreds of thousands
of people in Darfur have been murdered by government-supported militias, and
millions have been forced to flee their burned-out villages for the dubious safety
of refugee camps. This has been well documented (Hamilton 2011; Reeves 2007).
And yet the world looks away.
The United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the Convention on the
Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948 in the hope that
“never again” would there be such odious crimes against humanity as occurred
during the Holocaust of World War II. Eventually, some 140 states would ratify the
Genocide Convention, yet it has rarely been invoked to prevent a potential attack
or halt an ongoing massacre. Darfur has shone a particularly harsh light on the
failures to intervene in genocide. As Richard Just (2008) has observed,
… we are awash in information about Darfur. … [N]o genocide has ever been so thoroughly
documented while it was taking place … but the genocide continues. We document what we
do not stop. The truth does not set anybody free. … (p. 36).
[H]ow could we have known so much and done so little? (p. 38).
Affect, Analysis, and the Value of Human Lives
This brings us to a crucial question: How should we value the saving of human
lives? An analytic answer would look to basic principles or fundamental values
for guidance. For example, Article 1 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human
Rights asserts that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and
rights.”³² We might infer from this the conclusion that every human life is of equal
value. If so, then – applying a rational calculation – the value of saving N lives
is N times the value of saving one life, as represented by the linear function in
Figure 1.1a.
32Full text available at: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/
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The More Who Die, the Less We Care 59
Fig. 1: Normative Models where (a) every life is of equal value and (b) large losses threaten
group or societal descriptive models of (c) psychophysical numbing and (d) psychic numbing
and the collapse of compassion. Source: Slovic (2007).
An argument can also be made for judging large losses of life to be disproportio-
nately more serious because they threaten the social fabric and viability of a
group or community (see Figure 1.1b). Debate can be had at the margins over
whether one should assign greater value to younger people versus the elderly,
or whether governments have a duty to give more weight to the lives of their own
people, and so on, but a perspective approximating the equality of human lives
is rather uncontroversial.
How do we actually value human lives? Research provides evidence in support
of two descriptive models linked to affect and intuitive thinking that reflect values
for lifesaving profoundly different from those depicted in the normative (rational)
models shown in Figures 1.1a and 1.1b. Both of these descriptive models demon-
strate responses that are insensitive to large losses of human life, consistent with
apathy toward genocide.
The Psychophysical Model
There is considerable evidence that our affective responses and the resulting
value we place on saving human lives follow the same sort of “psychophysical
function” that characterizes our diminished sensitivity to changes in a wide
range of perceptual and cognitive entities – brightness, loudness, heaviness, and
wealth – as their underlying magnitudes increase.
As psychophysical research indicates, constant increases in the magnitude
of a stimulus typically evoke smaller and smaller changes in response. Apply -
ing this principle to the valuing of human life suggests that a form of psychophysical
numbing may result from our inability to appreciate losses of life as they become
larger. The function in Figure 1.1c represents a value structure in which the impor-
tance of saving one life is great when it is the first, or only, life saved but diminishes
as the total number of lives at risk increases. Thus, psychologically, the importance
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60Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll
of saving one life pales against the background of a larger threat: We may not “feel”
much difference, nor value the difference, between saving 87 lives and saving 88.
Fetherstonhaugh, Slovic, Johnson, and Friedrich (1997) demonstrated this
potential for psychophysical numbing in the context of evaluating people’s will-
ingness to fund various lifesaving interventions. In a study involving a hypothetical
grant funding agency, respondents were asked to indicate the number of lives a
medical research institute would have to save to merit receipt of a $10 million grant.
Nearly two-thirds of the respondents raised their minimum benefit requirements to
warrant funding when there was a larger at-risk population, with a median value
of 9,000 lives needing to be saved when 15,000 were at risk (implicitly valuing each
life saved at $1,111), compared to a median of 100,000 lives needing to be saved out
of 290,000 at risk (implicitly valuing each life saved at $100). Thus respondents
saw saving 9,000 lives in the smaller population as more valuable than saving more
than ten times as many lives in the larger population. The same study also found
that people were less willing to send aid that would save 4,500 lives in Rwandan
refugee camps as the size of the camps’ at-risk population increased.
In recent years, vivid images of natural disasters in South Asia and the Ame-
rican Gulf Coast, and stories of individual victims there, brought to us through
relentless, courageous, and intimate news coverage, unleashed an outpouring
of compassion and humanitarian aid from all over the world. Perhaps there is
hope here that vivid, personalized media coverage featuring victims could also
motivate intervention to halt the killing.
Perhaps. Research demonstrates that people are much more willing to aid
identified individuals than unidentified or statistical victims. But a cautionary
note comes from a study in which Small, Loewenstein, and Slovic (2007) gave
people who had just participated in a paid psychological experiment the opportu-
nity to contribute up to $5 of their earnings to the charity Save the Children. In one
condition, respondents were asked to donate money to feed an identified victim,
a seven-year-old African girl named Rokia. Respondents in a second group were
asked to donate to Rokia, but were also shown statistics of starvation in several
African countries – millions in need. Unfortunately, coupling the statistical rea-
lities with Rokia’s story of need reduced contributions to Rokia by about 40%!
Why did this occur? Perhaps the presence of statistics reduced the atten-
tion to Rokia essential for establishing the emotional connection necessary to
motivate donations. Alternatively, recognition of the millions who would not be
helped by one’s small donation may have produced negative feelings that inhib-
ited donations. Note the similarity here at the individual level to the failure to
help 4,500 people in the larger refugee camp. The rationality of these responses
can be questioned. We should not be deterred from helping 1 person, or 4,500,
just because there are many others we cannot save!
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The More Who Die, the Less We Care 61
In sum, research on psychophysical numbing is important because it demon-
strates that feelings necessary for motivating lifesaving actions are not congru-
ent with the normative/rational models in Figures 1.1a and 1.1b. The nonlinearity
displayed in Figure 1.1c is consistent with the devaluing of incremental loss of
life against the background of a large tragedy. It can thus explain why we don’t
feel any different upon learning that the death toll in Darfur is closer to 400,000
than to 200,000. What it does not fully explain, however, is apathy toward geno-
cide, inasmuch as it implies that the response to initial loss of life will be strong
and maintained, albeit with diminished sensitivity, as the losses increase. Evi-
dence for a second descriptive model, better suited to explain apathy toward large
losses of lives, follows.
The Collapse of Compassion
American writer Annie Dillard (1999) reads in her newspaper the headline “Head
Spinning Numbers Cause Mind to Go Slack.” She writes of “compassion fatigue”
and asks, “At what number do other individuals blur for me?”³³
An answer to Dillard’s question is beginning to emerge from behavioral re-
search. Studies by social psychologists find that a single individual, unlike a group,
is viewed as a psychologically coherent unit. This leads to more extensive pro-
cessing of information and stronger impressions about individuals than about
groups. Consistent with this, a study in Israel found that people tend to feel more
distress and compassion and to provide more aid when considering a single
victim than when considering a group of eight victims (Kogut and Ritov 2005).
A follow-up study in Sweden found that people felt less compassion and donated
less aid toward a pair of victims than to either individual alone (Västfjäll, Slovic,
Mayorga, and Peters 2014). Perhaps the blurring that Annie Dillard asked about
begins for groups as small as two people.
The insensitivity to lifesaving portrayed by the psychophysical-numbing
model is unsettling. But the studies just described suggest an even more disturb-
ing psychological tendency. Our capacity to feel is limited. To the extent that val-
uation of lifesaving depends on feelings driven by attention or imagery, it might
follow the function shown in Figure 1.1d, where the emotion or affective feeling
33She struggles to think straight about the great losses that the world ignores: “More than two
million children die a year from diarrhea and eight hundred thousand from measles. Do we
blink? Stalin starved seven million Ukrainians in one year, Pol Pot killed two million Cambodi-
ans. …” (Dillard, 1999, pp.130–131).
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62Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll
is greatest at N = 1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value
of N that becomes simply “a statistic” (Västfjäll et al., 2014). Whereas Robert J.
Lifton (1967) coined the term psychic numbing to describe the “turning off” of
feeling that enabled rescue workers to function during the horrific aftermath of
the Hiroshima bombing, Figure 1.1d depicts a form of psychic numbing that is not
beneficial. Rather, it leads to apathy and inaction, consistent with what is seen
repeatedly in response to mass murder and genocide.
Perhaps both psychophysical and collapse valuations are activated within
the same decision context as the number of lives at risk increases, resulting in
a hybrid, inverted U-shaped function such as that shown in Figure 2. There is
considerable evidence for a value function following such an inverted U-shaped
function (Grant and Schwartz 2011; Reutskaja and Hogarth 2009; Smith 1983).
For example, food consumption often follows this trajectory where the value of
initial food intake is very high. After attaining some level of satiation, further
food intake may no longer be attractive. Importantly, at some point (that may vary
with individuals and over time and contexts) the value of further intake is going
to decline, perhaps precipitously (Blundell et al., 2009). We believe that such a
model describes how we respond to life valuation as well and thus contributes
to the failure to respond adequately to genocide and mass atrocities (Västfjäll et
al., 2014).
Fig. 2: A psychophysical-collapse function describing the value for saving lives.
Adapted from Väst äll et al. (2014).
The Failure of Moral Intuition
Thoughtful deliberation takes effort. Fortunately, evolution has equipped us with
sophisticated cognitive and perceptual mechanisms that can guide us through
our daily lives efficiently, with minimal need for “deep thinking.”
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The More Who Die, the Less We Care 63
For example, the natural and easy way to deal with moral issues is to rely
on our intuitive feelings We can also apply reason and logical analysis to deter-
mine right and wrong, as our legal system attempts to do. But, as Jonathan Haidt
(2001), a psychologist at the University of Virginia, has demonstrated, moral intu-
ition comes first and usually dominates moral judgment unless we make an effort
to critique and, if necessary, override our intuitive feelings.
Unfortunately, moral intuition underlies the descriptive models of lifesaving
described above, where the importance of saving lives lessens or even declines as
the number of people at risk increases. As a result, intuition fails us in the face
of genocide and other disasters that threaten human lives and the environment
on a large scale. We cannot trust it. It depends upon attention and feelings that
may be hard to arouse and sustain over time for large numbers of victims, not to
mention numbers as small as two. Left to its own devices, moral intuition will
likely favor individual victims and sensational stories that are close to home and
easy to imagine. Our sizable capacity to care for others may be demotivated by
negative feelings resulting from thinking about those we cannot help. Or it may
be overridden by pressing personal and local interests. Compassion for others
has been characterized by social psychologist Daniel Batson as “a fragile flower,
easily crushed by self-concern”(Batson, O’Quin, Fultz, Vanderplas, and Isen
1983). Faced with genocide and other mass tragedies, we cannot rely on our intu-
itions alone to guide us to act properly.
What Should We Do?
Behavioral research, supported by common observation and the record of re-
peated failures to arouse citizens and leaders to halt the scourge of genocide and
to prevent thousands from perishing in natural disasters, sends a strong and
important message. Our moral intuitions often seduce us into calmly turning
away from massive losses of human lives, when we should be driven by outrage
to act. This is no small weakness in our moral compass.
Educating moral intuitions
A natural response to the growing awareness of our insensitivity to problems of
scale is to consider ways to educate moral intuitions. But how can we modify our gut
instincts to better understand and respond to problems large in scope? This is not
an easy question to answer, but we can speculate about possible ways forward.
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64Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll
One way of infusing intuition with greater feeling is by changing the way we
frame information. The affective system primarily deals with the here and now
and with concrete images. We speculate that reframing a large-scale problem
may be a way of increasing affect, attention, and action. For instance, “800,000
killed in the last 100 days” can be broken down and reframed as “1 life lost every
11 seconds.” Both the 1 life lost and the near-time horizon of “every 11 seconds”
induce accessible images and thus are likely to create more affect and different
information processing (Trope and Liberman 2003).
More generally, if statistics represent “human beings with the tears dried off,”
tears and feeling can be increased by highlighting the images that lie beneath
the numbers. For example, organizers of a rally designed to get Congress to do
something about 38,000 deaths a year from handguns piled 38,000 pairs of shoes
in a mound in front of the Capitol (Associated Press 1994). Students at a middle
school in Tennessee, struggling to comprehend the magnitude of the Holocaust,
collected six million paper clips as a centerpiece for a memorial (Schroeder and
Schroeder-Hildebrand 2004). In this light it is instructive to reflect on the charac-
terization by Holocaust survivor Abel Hertzberg: “There were not six million Jews
murdered: there was one murder, six million times.”
When it comes to eliciting compassion, psychological experiments demon-
strate that the identified individual victim, with a face and a name, has no peer,
providing the face is not juxtaposed with the statistics of the larger need (Small et
al., 2007). But we know this as well from personal experience and media coverage
of heroic efforts to save individual lives. The world watched tensely as rescuers
worked for several days to rescue 18-month-old Jessica McClure, who had fallen
22 feet into a narrow abandoned well shaft. Charities such as Save the Children
have long recognized that it is better to endow a donor with a single, named child
to support than to ask for contributions to the bigger cause.
The face need not even be human to motivate powerful intervention. A dog
stranded aboard a tanker adrift in the Pacific was the subject of one of the most
costly animal rescue efforts ever (Vendantam 2010). Hearing this, columnist
Nicholas Kristof (2007) recalled cynically that a single hawk, Pale Male, evicted
from his nest in Manhattan, aroused more indignation than two million homeless
Sudanese. He observed that what was needed to galvanize the American public
and their leaders to respond to the genocide in Darfur was a suffering puppy with
big eyes and floppy ears:
“If President Bush and the global public alike are unmoved by the slaughter of hundreds
of thousands of fellow humans, maybe our last, best hope is that we can be galvanized by
a puppy in distress”.
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The More Who Die, the Less We Care 65
Further to this last point, Paul Farmer (2005) has written eloquently about the
power of images, narratives, and first-person testimony to overcome our “failure
of imagination” in contemplating the fate of distant, suffering people. Such doc-
umentation can, he asserts, render abstract struggles personal and help make
human rights violations “real” to those unlikely to suffer them. Who hasn’t gained
a deeper understanding of the Holocaust from reading Elie Wiesel’s Night or The
Diary of Anne Frank? Fiction, too, can create empathy and meaning. Barbara
Kingsolver conveyed this rather elegantly:
The power of fiction is to create empathy … . A newspaper could tell you that one hundred
people, say, in an airplane, or in Israel, or in Iraq, have died today. And you can think to
yourself, “How very sad,” then turn the page and see how the Wildcats fared. But a novel
could take just one of those hundred lives and show you exactly how it felt to be that person
… . You could taste that person’s breakfast, and love her family, and sort through her worries
as your own, and know that a death in that household will be the end of the only life that
someone will ever have. As important as yours. As important as mine. (Kingsolver, 1995,
p.231)
If the power of narrative and the personal story can be used to enhance the under-
standing of large numbers, we should think about how to use this to educate
children about numbers. We teach children about the mechanics of operations
such as addition, division, etc., but we do not teach them how to “feel the
meaning” behind numbers that represent real life entities such as people and
endangered species. Research in numerical cognition suggests that we have an
“intuitive number sense” (Dehaene 1997) that allows us to represent and mani-
pulate numerical quantities nonsymbolically (Peters, Slovic, Västfjäll and Mertz
2008). This number sense provides the conceptual basis for mapping numerical
symbols onto their meaning (Dehaene 2001) and is present even in infants (Li -
bertus and Brannon 2009). Yet, people fail to assign meaning to large numbers.
The number sense initially develops to deal with precise representation of small
numbers, while large quantities are only approximate representations (Feigen-
son, Dehaene, and Spelke 2004). The development of a nonverbal number sense,
with the ability to approximate larger magnitudes, appears to depend on the
input a child receives (Clements and Sarama 2007). Thus, children have the tools
for understanding large numbers, but are not given sufficient knowledge on how
to apply these tools to appropriately deal with real-world numbers. We believe
that development of methods designed to help children “feel the meaning” of
numbers might be an important way to combat psychic numbing. Maybe the intu-
itive number sense can be more tightly coupled with our moral sensitivities by
educating children about the affective meaning of numbers.
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66Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll
From moral intuition to moral judgment
If strategies to educate intuition and overcome psychic numbing are success-
ful, there will be an upsurge of emotion that needs to be channeled into effective
action by national governments. Here is where moral intuitions need to be bol-
stered by moral judgment to design laws and institutions that commit states to
respond to mass tragedies, rather than being silent witnesses. And if education
of intuition proceeds slowly or not at all, maintaining the current level of psychic
numbing, the deficiencies of moral intuition point even more strongly to the need
for structured decision-aiding procedures and institutionalized mechanisms to
protect human rights. The former include sophisticated decision-analytic tech-
niques designed to clarify the relevant objectives and ensure that actions taken
are consistent with considered normative values for those objectives (Slovic,
Västfjäll, and Gregory 2012). For lifesaving values, the models in Figures 1a and
1b might be appropriate. Regarding institutional mechanisms, the Convention on
the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the UN (1948) were
supposed to do this but they have repeatedly failed. Efforts to address this with
new treaties such as “responsibility to protect” (UN 2005) are urgently needed.
Recognizing that international actors will resist laws that precommit them to
act to prevent or stop genocide, Slovic, Zionts, Woods, Goodman, and Jinks (2013)
have proposed a “softer” solution based on the intrinsic reasonableness of moral
judgments applied to the value of human life. Specifically, officials should be
required to publically deliberate and reason about actions to take in response to
genocide and other mass atrocities. Just as we expect government to proffer reasons
to justify intervention, we should expect and require public justification for deci-
sions not to intervene to save human lives. This merging of intuition and delibera-
tion may be achieved through the reporting requirements of a deliberation-forcing
regime that would likely ramp up pressure on governments to take action.
Conclusion
The stakes are high. Failure to overcome the numbing to which our moral intui-
tions are susceptible may force us to passively witness another century of geno-
cide and mass abuses of innocent people, as in the previous century. Educating
intuitions through the use of images, narratives, and first person testimony holds
promise for infusing numerical data with emotional meaning. Laws and institu-
tions, designed with an understanding of the shortcomings of intuitive response,
hold another vital key to meaningful interventions.
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The More Who Die, the Less We Care 67
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... The term psychophysical numbing is used in the literature to refer to a striking human condition: Individuals become less worried when the population suffering increases (Fetherstonhaugh et al., 1997;Friedrich et al., 1999;Slovic and Västfjäll, 2015;Bhatia et al., 2021;Maier, 2021). It implies that people become insensitive or "numbed" to one death when it happens in the middle of many deaths (Friedrich et al., 1999, p. 278). ...
... More recently, one study recalls the human condition in which an individual tends to emphasize more intensively smaller deviations in size while underestimating the larger ones, connecting this human trait with the distorted perception of the COVID-19 data (Maier, 2021). These investigations point out the common perception that individuals cannot comprehend the human suffering and losses of life as the corresponding numbers increase (Slovic and Västfjäll, 2015). ...
... Curiously, a similar paradox emerged when the pandemic started in the USA: The psychological distress index rapidly diminished just after few weeks while the number of deaths remained increasing (Daly and Robinson, 2021b). This paradox in the in the perception of the people seems to agree with the well-known psychological trait called psychophysical numbing, which copes with the quote "the more who die, the less we care, " see Slovic and Västfjäll (2015), Dyer and Kolic (2020), Bhatia et al. (2021). ...
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... Our focus is on investigating the potential for messageinduced affect, elicited by simple affective cues, to mediate the influence of a loss or a gain frame on attitudes. In this study, affect refers to " specific feelings of 'goodness' or 'badness' experienced with or without conscious awareness " (Slovic & Västfjäll, 2013, p. 2). Most individuals process messages using heuristics or cues in messages, such as whether the sender is an expert, demographic characteristics of the sender, or via message-induced emotions. ...
... Although apparently irrational, this may occur because as numbers get larger and larger, individuals become insensitive to them; numbers fail to trigger emotion, which is necessary to motivate action. However, one way to convey affect is precisely what the producers of the Make Poverty History campaign accomplished, to locate in time the singularity effect (i.e., " one life lost every three seconds; " Slovic & Västfjäll, 2013). In other words, the message of the campaign was bulletproofed against psychic numbing so it should have triggered support for public policies as well as individual behavioral intention. ...
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Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are "one of many" in a much greater problem. Why does this occur? The answer to this question will help us answer a related question that is the topic of this paper: Why, over the past century, have good people repeatedly ignored mass murder and genocide? Every episode of mass murder is unique and raises unique obstacles to intervention. But the repetitiveness of such atrocities, ignored by powerful people and nations, and by the general public, calls for explanations that may reflect some fundamental deficiency in our humanity - a deficiency that, once identified, might possibly be overcome. One fundamental mechanism that may play a role in many, if not all, episodes of mass-murder neglect involves the capacity to experience affect, the positive and negative feelings that combine with reasoned analysis to guide our judgments, decisions, and actions. I shall draw from psychological research to show how the statistics of mass murder or genocide, no matter how large the numbers, fail to convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The reported numbers of deaths represent dry statistics, "human beings with the tears dried off," that fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action. Recognizing that we cannot rely only upon our moral feelings to motivate proper action against genocide, we must look to moral argument and international law. The 1948 Genocide Convention was supposed to meet this need, but it has not been effective. It is time to examine this failure in light of the psychological deficiencies described here and design legal and institutional mechanisms that will enforce proper response to genocide and other forms of mass murder.
Chapter
A defining element of catastrophes is the magnitude of their harmful consequences. To help society prevent or mitigate damage from catastrophes, immense effort and technological sophistication are often employed to assess and communicate the size and scope of potential or actual losses. This effort assumes that people can understand the resulting numbers and act on them appropriately. However, recent behavioural research casts doubt on this fundamental assumption. Many people do not understand large numbers. Indeed, large numbers have been found to lack meaning and to be underweighted in decisions unless they convey affect (feeling). As a result, there is a paradox that rational models of decision-making fail to represent. On the one hand, we respond strongly to aid a single individual in need. On the other hand, we often fail to prevent mass tragedies – such as genocide – or take appropriate measures to reduce potential losses from natural disasters. This might seem irrational but we think this occurs, in part, because as numbers get larger and larger, we become insensitive; numbers fail to trigger the emotion or feeling necessary to motivate action.