Why Don't People Act?: Confronting Psychic Numbing

To deepen students’ understanding of key themes in the film, ten supplementary readings have been included in the study guide. Readings are organized into four investigations that correspond to specific excerpts and themes in the film. Each investigation includes an overview that frames the readings. Readings are following by a series of connections that can be used to frame discussions and writing assignments.

Investigation One focuses on ideas presented in chapters 3 and 4 (12:05–19:56, approximately 8 minutes). In this clip, Stephen Colbert asks his guest on The Colbert Report, Nicholas Kristof, “Why should we pay attention to the rest of the world?” Kristof answers this question by referring to social science research about “the psychology of compassion” and explains how he applies this knowledge when writing about the genocide in Darfur. This investigation includes two readings: Kristof’s editorial “Save the Darfur Puppy” and the abstract of a research study on psychic numbing and genocide conducted by Professor Paul Slovic.

Suggested Activities

One or more of these ideas, in addition to your own, can be used to create a lesson plan relevant to your students.


  1. If students are not watching the whole film, you can introduce Reporter by having them watch the two-minute clip Introducing the Film.
  2. To provide context for the readings in Investigation One, have students watch chapters 10 to 13 (46:18–1:01:40, approximately 15 minutes). Alternatively, students could view the two-minute clip Psychic Numbing.


  1. Psychic numbing and genocide abstract  is part of an academic research study that was written for advanced readers. For students who may be challenged by the language of this text, we suggest using the chunking strategy to help them paraphrase it.
  2. Other strategies that can help students comprehend and interpret these texts include:


  1. In “Save the Darfur Puppy,” Nicholas Kristof applies Slovic’s research to address an issue he cares about—stopping the genocide in Darfur. You can ask students to apply Slovic’s research when writing about an issue they care about. You might begin this assignment by asking students to identify an image that inspires or outrages them. This could serve as the focus for their article.
  2. Any of the connections that follow the readings could be used as prompts for informal writing, such as journaling, or formal writing, such as persuasive papers.


  1. When suggesting what is needed to prevent genocide and mass murder, Nicholas Kristof writes, “[M]aybe what we need isn’t better laws but more troubled consciences.” On the other hand, Slovic argues, “[W]e cannot depend only upon our moral feelings to motivate us to take proper actions against genocide.” He recommends stronger international laws to prevent and stop massive acts of violence. The barometer or SPAR teaching strategies can be used to discuss the merits and drawbacks of each argument.
  2. Any of the connections can be used to stimulate small- or large-group discussion. Some teachers allow students to choose the connections most interesting to them and then create discussion groups accordingly.
  3. The overview and the readings contain many quotations that can be used to stimulate class discussion. You could ask students to select a quotation that stands out to them or you can identify provocative quotations, including:
  • Confronted with knowledge of dozens of apparently random disasters each day, what can a human heart do but slam its doors? No mortal can grieve that much. We didn't evolve to cope with tragedy on a global scale. Our defense is to pretend there's no thread of event that connects us, and that those lives are somehow not precious and real like our own. It's a practical strategy, to some ends, but the loss of empathy is also the loss of humanity, and that's no small tradeoff.
  • 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?
  • I’m skeptical that either human rationality or international law can achieve much unless backed by a public outcry.… So maybe what we need isn’t better laws but more troubled consciences—pricked, perhaps, by a Darfur puppy with big eyes and floppy ears.
  • In this paper I have drawn upon common observation and behavioral research to argue that we cannot depend only upon our moral feelings to motivate us to take proper actions against genocide. That places the burden of response squarely upon the shoulders of moral argument and international law.

Two strategies that can be used to structure discussions about these quotations include big paper: building a silent conversation and gallery walk.

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