Reporter: Psychic Numbing | Facing History & Ourselves

Reporter: Psychic Numbing

Nicholas Kristof describes psychic numbing: caring less as a number of victims increases.
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English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • Social Studies
  • Genocide

Reporter: Psychic Numbing

In one recent experiment in social psychology, participants were shown a photograph of a seven-year-old starving African girl named Rokia, and they were asked to donate money to help her. Well, everybody wanted to do that.

But when the photograph was accompanied by statistics about the reasons for malnutrition, then donations dropped off a great deal. And when people were shown the statistics alone and asked to donate simply to 21 million hungry kids, then donations just dropped off-- nobody wanted to contribute in that scenario.

The results of that study are hardly surprising. We've all heard that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths, a statistic. But at what point does the number of sufferers become too large for our minds to process? To study that in another experiment, the participants were shown Rokia's photograph and asked to donate. Alternatively, they were shown a photograph of a starving boy and asked to donate.

And the third photograph they were shown was of Rokia and the little boy. Donations and feeling of sympathy were about equal for each of the individual children, but they were diminished when the two kids appeared together.

This and other studies like it reveal that our feelings begin to wane when the number of sufferers reaches just two. In other words, the more victims, the less compassion.

This phenomenon, which has been dubbed psychic numbing, makes perfect sense evolutionarily, when you consider that for thousands and thousands of years, our minds were concerned with proximate matters. There was simply no evolutionary advantage to caring for, or responding to the needs of huge numbers of distant sufferers.

So today, we're faced with a terrible paradox-- modern technology allows us to witness remote, large-scale suffering, but our minds simply lack the capability to comprehend it.

Let me-- hello,

So that's the sad reality that I have to take into account every time I sit down to write a column. And that tends to be why I focus on an individual. And I've done that over and over again.

But the thing is, I don't want my readers to send money to individual victims-- I want to inspire readers to tackle the broader problems, the systemic problems. So inevitably, I have to present those statistics to feel that I'm doing intellectual justice to the issue, but in doing so, I risk losing those readers and losing their compassion.

So it's tricky. I always feel like I'm navigating a very thin line.

Reporter: Psychic Numbing

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