The Situationist

Numbed By Numbers

Posted by Paul Slovic on March 21, 2007

Foreign Policy CoverOn March 13, I published the essay excerpted below on ForeignPolicy.com, the online edition of Foreign Policy magazine. The essay was adapted from a draft article, “If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act.”  In weeks to come, I hope to publish a series of posts on The Situationist based on the research underlying that article.

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“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” This mother-teresa-small.gifstatement uttered by Mother Teresa captures a powerful and deeply unsettling insight into human nature: Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue “the one” whose 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. It’s happening right now in regards to Darfur, where over 200,000 innocent civilians have been killed in the past four years and at least another 2.5 million have been driven from their homes. Why aren’t these horrific statistics sparking us to action? Why do good people ignore mass murder and genocide?

The answer may lie in human psychology. Specifically, it is our inability to comprehend numbers and relate them to mass human tragedy that stifles our ability to act. It’s not that we are insensitive to the suffering of our fellow human beings. In fact, the opposite is true. Just look at the extraordinary efforts people expend to rescue someone in distress,from news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4526208.stm such as an injured mountain climber. It’s not that we only care about victims we identify with—those of similar skin color, or those who live near us: Witness the outpouring of aid to victims of the December 2004 tsunami. Yet, despite many brief episodes of generosity and compassion, the catalogue of genocide—the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur—continues to grow. The repeated failure to respond to such atrocities raises the question of whether there is a fundamental deficiency in our humanity: a deficiency that—once identified—could be overcome.

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To read the balance of this essay, click here.  

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4 Responses to “Numbed By Numbers”

  1. Interesting. I wonder if we fail to see the problem in terms of numbers because of the traditional perception of how it is rather distance that affects our moral behavior and empathy.

  2. Doug S. said

    Another issue: the more numbers you tack on to a problem, the harder it may seem to deal with. “I could donate X dollars to save someone, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to all those other people that my X dollars won’t save. This is too much for me to deal with.”

  3. […] by Paul Slovic on April 11th, 2007 Last month, I provided an excerpt from the following op-ed I published in the March issue of of edition of Foreign Policy.  The […]

  4. […] use of numbers typically enhance our detachment from a particular situation or reality. Over 200,000 deaths in Darfur in the last 4 years. 300 anticipated homicides in Baltimore (every year). 101 U.S. […]

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