Science Briefs

Psychic Numbing and Genocide

Most people are caring and will exert great effort to reserve "the one" whose needy plight comes to their attention. But these same people often become numbly indifferent to the plight of "the one" who is one of many in a much greater problem.

By Paul Slovic, PhD

"If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." This statement, uttered by Mother Teresa (Figure 1) captures a powerful and deeply unsettling insight into human nature: Most people are caring and will exert great effort to reserve "the one" whose needy plight comes to their attention. But these same people often become numbly indifferent to the plight of "the one" who is one of many in a much greater problem. This indifference has been evident during the past 4½ years in the Darfur region of Western Sudan, where more than 200,000 people have been murdered by government sponsored militias and at least 2.5 million more have been forced to flee their burned-out villages.

Unfortunately Darfur is not an isolated incidence of genocide. Others, such as the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, are well known. In a deeply disturbing book that won the Pulitzer Prize for Samantha Power (2003), Darfur can be seen as but the latest of a long string of genocides dating back to 1915. Power notes that in every instance America and the rest of the world looked away.

Why don't these massive crimes against humanity spark us to action? Why do good people ignore mass murder and genocide? Unfortunately there are no simple answers to these questions. Every episode of mass murder is unique and raises unique social, economic, military, and political 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. Research shows how the statistics of mass murder or genocide, no matter how large the numbers, fail to convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The numbers fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action. Genocide in Darfur is real, but we do not "feel" that reality. I examine below ways that we might make genocide "feel real" and motivate appropriate interventions. Ultimately, however, I conclude that we cannot only depend on our intuitive feelings about these atrocities but, in addition, we must create and commit ourselves to institutional and political responses based upon reasoned analysis of our moral obligations to stop the mass annihilation of innocent people.

Affect, attention, information, and meaning

My search to develop a psychological explanation for apathy toward mass murder and genocide has led to a theoretical framework that describes the importance of emotions and feelings in guiding decision making and behavior. Perhaps the most basic form of feeling is affect, the sense (not necessarily conscious) that something is good or bad. Affect plays a central role in what have come to be known as "dual-process theories" of thinking. As Epstein (1994) has observed: "There is no dearth of evidence in every day life that people apprehend reality in two fundamentally different ways, one variously labeled intuitive, automatic, natural, non-verbal, narrative, and experiential, and the other analytical, deliberative, verbal, and rational" (p. 710).

Stanovich and West (2000) labeled these two modes of thinking System 1and System 2. One of the characteristics of System 1, the experiential or intuitive system, is its affective basis. Although analysis (System 2) is certainly important in many decision-making circumstances, reliance on affect and emotion is generally a quicker, easier, and more efficient way to navigate in a complex, uncertain and sometimes dangerous world. Many theorists have given affect a direct and primary role in motivating behavior.

Underlying the role of affect in the experiential system is the importance of images, to which positive or negative feelings become attached. Images in this system include not only visual images, important as these may be, but words, sounds, smells, memories, and products of our imagination.

Kahneman (2003) notes that one of the functions of System 2 is to monitor the quality of the intuitive impressions formed by System 1. Kahneman and Frederick (2002) suggest that this monitoring is typically rather lax and allows many intuitive judgments to be expressed in behavior, including some that are erroneous. This point has important implications that will be discussed later. In addition to positive and negative affect, more nuanced feelings such as empathy, sympathy, compassion, and sadness have been found to be critical for motivating people to help others (Coke, Batson, & McDavis, 1978; Eisenberg & Miller, 1987). As Batson (1990) put it, "...considerable research suggests that we are more likely to help someone in need when we 'feel for' that person..."

One last important psychological element in this story is attention. Just as feelings are necessary for motivating helping, attention is necessary for feelings. Research shows that attention magnifies emotional responses to stimuli that are already emotionally charged. Research I shall describe here demonstrates that imagery and feeling are lacking when large losses of life are represented simply as numbers or statistics. Other research shows that attention is greater for individuals and loses focus and intensity when targeted at groups of people (Hamilton & Sherman, 1996; Susskind, Maurer, Thakkar, Hamilton, & Sherman, 1999). The foibles of imagery and attention impact feelings in a manner that can help explain apathy toward genocide.

Another important link to feelings comes from Haidt (2001), who argues that moral intuitions (akin to System 1) precede moral judgments. Specifically, he asserts that

"...moral intuition can be defined as the sudden appearance in consciousness of a moral judgment, including an affective valence (good-bad, like-dislike) without any conscious awareness of having gone through steps of searching, weighing evidence, or inferring a conclusion. Moral intuition is to aesthetic judgment. One sees or hears about a social event and one instantly feels approval or disapproval." (p. 818)

Affect, analysis, and the value of human lives

How should we value the saving of human lives? If we believe that every human life is of equal value (a view likely endorsed by System 2 thinking), the value of saving N lives is N times the value of saving one life. An argument can also be made for judging large losses of life to be disproportionately more serious because they threaten the social fabric and viability of a group or society, as in genocide.

How do we actually value humans' lives? Research provides evidence in support of two descriptive models linked to affect and System 1 thinking that reflect values for lifesaving profoundly different from the normative models just described. Both of these descriptive models are instructive with regard to apathy toward genocide.

The first of these, the psychophysical model, is based on evidence that an affective response and the resulting value we place on saving human lives may follow the same sort of "psychophysical function" that characterizes our diminished sensitivity to a wide range of perceptual and cognitive entities as their underlying magnitudes increase. Constant increases in the magnitude of a stimulus typically evoke smaller and smaller changes in response. Applying 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 importance of saving one life is great when it is the first, or only, life saved, but diminishes marginally as the total number of lives saved increases. Thus, psychologically, the importance of saving one life is diminished against the background of a larger threat-we will likely not "feel" much different, nor value the difference, between saving 87 lives and saving 88, if these prospects are presented to us separately. Fetherstonhaugh, Slovic, Johnson, and Friedrich (1997) documented this potential for diminished sensitivity to the value of life-i.e., "psychophysical numbing"-in the context of evaluating people's willingness to fund various lifesaving interventions.

Although a psychophysical model can account for the disregard of incremental loss of life against a background of a large tragedy, it does not fully explain apathy toward genocide because it implies that the response to initial loss of life will be strong and maintained, though with too little change, as the losses increase. Evidence for a second descriptive model, better suited to explain apathy toward genocide, follows.

Numbers and numbness: Images and feeling

Psychological theories and data confirm what keen observers of human behavior have long known. Numerical representations of human lives do not necessarily convey the importance of those lives. All too often the numbers represent dry statistics, "human beings with the tears dried off," that lack feeling and fail to motivate action (Slovic & Slovic, 2004). How can we impart the feelings that are needed for rational action? Attempts to do this typically involve 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 6 million paper clips as a centerpiece for a memorial (Schroeder & Schroeder-Hildebrand, 2004).

When it comes to eliciting compassion, the identified individual victim, with a face and a name, has no peer. Psychological experiments demonstrate this clearly, but we all know it as well from personal experience and media coverage of heroic efforts to save individual lives. The world watched tensely as rescuers worked for 2½ 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.

But 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. Columnist Nicholas Kristof, noted cynically that a single hawk, Pale Male, evicted from his nest in Manhattan, aroused more indignation than two million homeless Sudanese (Kristof, 2007).

The collapse of compassion

Vivid images of recent natural disasters in South Asia and the American Gulf Coast, and stories of individual victims there, brought to us through relentless, courageous, and intimate news coverage, certainly unleashed a tidal wave of compassion and humanitarian aid from all over the world. Perhaps there is hope that vivid, personalized media coverage of genocide could motivate intervention.

Perhaps. Research demonstrates that people are much more willing to aid identified individuals than unidentified or statistical victims (Kogut & Ritov, 2005a; Schelling, 1968; Small & Loewenstein, 2003, 2005; Jenni & Loewenstein, 1997). But a cautionary note comes from a study by Small, Loewenstein, and Slovic (2007), who gave people leaving a psychological experiment the opportunity to contribute up to $5 of their earnings to 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. They contributed more than twice the amount given by a second group asked to donate to the same organization working to save millions of Africans from hunger (see Figure 2). A third group was asked to donate to Rokia, but was also shown the larger statistical problem (millions in need) shown to the second group. Unfortunately, coupling the statistical realities with Rokia's story significantly reducedthe contributions to Rokia.

A follow-up experiment by Small et al. initially primed study participants either to feel ("Describe your feelings when you hear the word 'baby,'" and similar items) or to do simple arithmetic calculations. Priming analytic thinking (calculation) reduced donations to the identifiable victim (Rokia) relative to the feeling-based thinking prime. Yet the two primes had no distinct effect on statistical victims, which is symptomatic of the difficulty in generating feelings for such victims.

Writer Annie Dillard reads in her newspaper the headline "Head Spinning Numbers Cause Mind to Go Slack." 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 Cambodians..." She writes of "compassion fatigue" and asks, "At what number do other individuals blur for me?" (Dillard, 1999, pp. 130-131).

An answer to Dillard's question is beginning to emerge from behavioral research. Studies by Hamilton and Sherman (1996) and Susskind et al. (1999) find that a single individual, unlike a group, is viewed as a psychologically coherent unit. This leads to more extensive processing of information and stronger impressions about individuals than about groups. Consistent with this, Kogut and Ritov (2005a,b) found that people tend to feel more distress and compassion when considering an identified single victim than when considering a group of victims, even if identified.

Specifically, Kogut and Ritov asked participants to contribute to a costly life-saving treatment needed by a sick child or a group of eight sick children. The target amount needed to save the child (children) was the same in both conditions. All contributions were actually donated to children in need of cancer treatment. In addition, participants rated their feelings of distress (feeling worried, upset, and sad) towards the sick child (children).

The mean contributions are shown in Figure 3. Contributions to the individuals in the group, as individuals, were far greater than were contributions to the entire group. Ratings of distress were also higher in the individual condition. Kogut and Ritov concluded that the greater donations to the single victim most likely stem from the stronger emotions evoked by such victims.

Västfjäll, Peters, and Slovic (in preparation) decided to test whether the effect found by Kogut and Ritov would occur as well for donations to two starving children. Following the protocol designed by Small et al. (2007), they gave one group of Swedish students the opportunity to contribute their earnings from another experiment to Save the Children to aid Rokia, whose plight was described as in the study by Small et al. A second group was offered the opportunity to contribute their earnings to Save the Children to aid Moussa, a seven-year-old boy from Africa who was similarly described as in need of food aid. A third group was shown the vignettes and photos of Rokia and Moussa and was told that any donation would go to both of them, Rokia andMoussa. The donations were real and were sent to Save the Children. Participants also rated their feelings about donating on a 1 (negative) to 5 (positive) scale. Affect was found to be least positive in the combined condition and donations were smaller in that condition (see Figure 4). In the individual-child conditions, the size of the donation made was strongly correlated with rated feelings (r= .52 for Rokia; r= .52 for Moussa). However this correlation was much reduced (r= .19) in the combined condition.

As unsettling as is the valuation of life-saving portrayed by the psychophysical model, the studies just described suggest an even more disturbing psychological tendency. Our capacity to feel is limited. To the extent that valuation of life-saving depends on feelings driven by attention or imagery, it might follow the function shown in Figure 5, where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N= 1 but begins to decline at N= 2 and collapses at some higher value of Nthat becomes simply "a statistic." In other words, returning to Annie Dillard's worry about compassion fatigue, perhaps the "blurring" of individuals begins at two! 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 5 depicts a form of 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.

Facing genocide

Clearly there are serious political obstacles posing challenges to those who would consider intervention in genocide, and physical risks as well. What I have tried to describe here are the psychological obstacles centered around the difficulties in wrapping our minds around genocide and forming the emotional connections to its victims that are necessary to motivate us to overcome these other obstacles.

Are we destined to stand numbly and do nothing as genocide rages on for another century? Can we overcome the psychological obstacles to action? There are no simple solutions. One possibility is to infuse System 1 with powerful affective imagery such as that associated with Hurricane Katrina and the South Asian tsunami. This would require pressure on the media to do its job and report the slaughter of thousands of innocent people aggressively and vividly, as though it were real news. Another way to engage our experiential system would be to bring people from Darfur into our communities and our homes to tell their stories.

As powerful as System 1 is when infused with vivid experiential stimulation (witness the moral outrage triggered by the photos of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq), it has a darker side. We cannot rely on it. It depends upon attention and feelings that may be difficult to arouse and sustain over time for large numbers of victims, not to speak of numbers as small as two. Left to its own devices, System 1 will likely favor individual victims and sensational stories that are closer to home and easier to imagine. Our sizable capacity to care for others may also be overridden by more pressing personal interests. Compassion for others has been characterized by Batson, O'Quin, Fultz, Vanderplas, and Isen (1983) as "a fragile flower, easily crushed by self-concern" (p. 718). Faced with genocide, we cannot rely on our moral intuitions alone to guide us to act properly.

A more promising path might be to force System 2 to play a stronger role, not just to provide us with reasons why genocide is wrong-these reasons are obvious and System 1 will appropriately sense their moral messages (Haidt, 2001). As Kahneman (2003) argues, one of the important functions of System 2 is to monitor the quality of mental operations and overt behaviors produced by System 1 (see also Gilbert, 2002; Stanovich & West, 2002).

This monitoring function is particularly critical. The psychological account presented here indicates that we cannot depend solely upon our moral intuitionsto motivate us to take proper actions against genocide. We thus need to invoke our capacity for deliberate, rational thought, i.e. moral argument, to guide us. Such moral deliberation led to the drafting, in 1948, of the Genocide Convention, designed to prevent such crimes against humanity from ever happening again. Yet this convention has proven ineffective in numerous episodes of genocide that have occurred after World War II. It is time to examine this failure in light of the psychological deficiencies described here and design legal and institutional mechanisms that will compel us to respond properly when signs of genocide come to our attention.

I particularly hope that those with expertise in international law, human rights, and politics will heed the lessons from psychology as they address the challenge of curtailing mass murder and genocide in the 21st Century.


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About the Author

Paul Slovic is president of Decision Research and a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. He studies human judgment, decision making, and risk perception, and has published extensively on these topics. Dr. Slovic received a B.A. degree from Stanford University, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Michigan. He is past president of the Society for Risk Analysis and in 1991 received its Distinguished Contribution Award. In 1993, Dr. Slovic received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association.