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Numbness in the Face of Numbers

A genocide survivor prays near the graves of his father and two brothers at the memorial center near Srebrenica. Photograph: Dado Ruvić/Reuters

By Genocide Watch Staff Member

As humans, we are physically incapable of feeling the loss of large sums of lives, and the feelings that we do have about large death counts are not proportional to the number. Desensitization to large death counts is a survival mechanism. That is why we don’t feel grief for every death we come by. Our brains grow increasingly numb toward tragedies as a method of protection, adapting to death counts, and not letting it incapacitate us allows us to live out a normal life. If we truly empathized with each tragedy we came across it would be crippling.

We see this numbing effect in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As of September 2022, there is a 500 average daily death rate in the United States, but if you walk outside on the street, people are not acting like 500 people are dying every day. 500 deaths don’t even feel like a big amount of deaths anymore. People are going on with their lives. This process is called psychic numbing, the unfortunate indifference towards the loss of large sums of lives. Of course, we aren’t as cautious anymore, we aren’t even feeling or emotionally processing the deaths we are surrounded by.

This numbness to the loss of large numbers of lives isn’t the only reason why we don’t take action. People also live over 100,000 lives. Small, Loewenstein, and Slovic (2007) conducted a psychological study looking at how much people would donate in three different scenarios. In the first scenario, people were asked to donate to an organization to help a girl named Rokia in Africa. In the second scenario, people were asked to donate to an organization to save millions of Africans. In the third scenario, people were asked to donate to Rokia in Africa and were told there were millions of people in Africa in need. The results are startling.

People donated the most money when the only one in need was Rokia. When people were told Rokia wasn’t the only one in need, the donations decreased dramatically. We counterintuitively will contribute less to someone if they aren’t the only one in need because want to feel like we are making a difference. When donating to one individual coincides with millions of others, one person does not stand out, and they become a statistic. When one individual seems like the only one in need, we feel as if have made a difference. Logically speaking, of course, one person’s life doesn’t diminish in value just because they are part of a tragedy involving millions of others, yet it feels like we did less, and we don’t like that. The decreased willingness to help is called pseudo-inefficacy, another obstacle in the way of us taking any action.

While individuals are important and have a greater effect on our feelings than mass numbers, unfortunately, it does not mean that if the face of genocide was always one individual you would be more likely to take action. Constantly exposing people to graphic images of individuals is not the long-term solution to increasing genocide awareness either. People will become desensitized to anything they see repeatedly.

These problems are just a few of the reasons why we haven’t taken action against genocide. There is no solution or step-by-step guide on how to counter all of these cognitive processes in our brains. However, these realities need to be brought to light because you can’t fix a problem you didn’t know existed.

It is important to know that awareness only yields change when it coincides with action. However, it is also important to understand that awareness is the first step toward making changes. Paul Slovic, a researcher dedicated to studying these unfortunate human realities, recommends several different courses of action that can be taken to make a difference. The first is to practice recognizing your desensitization when you come across these statistics and stories. Be aware that you are forever vulnerable to being numb to death. There is no solution to being desensitized, but there is value in recognizing your desensitization and acting despite your numbness. See statistics as people and remember that those people need you to take action.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Genocide Watch.

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