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Statistical Numbing. Why Millions Can Die, and We Don’t Care.

              Four year-old Khafra was near death three days ago when he was brought to the refugee camp hospital. He was emaciated, his ribs showing through his taut dry skin. He panted for breath. His desperate eyes bulged. His mother Alyan could only sit at his side and watch, helpless, sad beyond comprehension, but herself too malnourished to cry. Doctors are still not sure Khafran can be saved.

            The famine in the Horn of Africa has left more than 12 million people malnourished, including half of Somalia’s population. The U.N. says 640,000 Somali children are starving, and more than 29,000 children in southern Somalia have starved to death in the last 90 days.

            Which of those two paragraphs was more emotionally powerful? It should have been the second, shouldn’t it, based on the scale of the suffering, 640,000 starving kids to one? But the first paragraph almost certainly carried more emotional punch. The famine in northeast Africa is once again forcing us to confront the truth about the way our brains work, a profound truth with sobering implications. As smart as we think we are, as rational as we believe our powerful brains enable us to be, our perceptions are the product of both reason and emotion, a combination of the facts and how those facts feel, and sometimes this emotional/instinctive/affective system can produce perceptions with tragic consequences.

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            Mother Theresa said “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Josef Stalin said “One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic.” Numerous experiments have helped verify the truth behind what both the saint and the mass murderer knew intuitively, that we relate more closely to what happens to one person than to what happens to large numbers of people.

      In one study, people were asked what they’d donate to life saving efforts that might help save one child. They were also asked what they’d donate toward life saving efforts that would help eight children.

One ChildEight Children

$11.00                                          $5.00

     In another study people were paid to participate in an unrelated psychological quiz, and on the way out they were given the opportunity to donate up to $5.00 of their earnings to Save The Children. They were given three options;

   —   They could donate to help Rokia, a 7 year-old Malian girl. The subjects were shown a picture of Rokia. They were willing to give $2.25.

   —   They could donate to help the hundreds of thousands of children in eastern Africa who were starving. They were willing to give only $1.15.

   — The third option was to help Rokia specifically, but along with this request subjects were also given the statistics about the other starving east African kids. The same people who were willing to give $2.25 when it was just for Rokia, were only willing to give $1.40 when the request to help Rokia included information about the larger statistics!

Help RokiaHelp Statistical LivesHelp Rokia (with statistics)

                $2.25                           $1.15                                        $1.40

This statistical numbing begins at anything more than ONE! Researchers asked three groups about donating to save lives. The first group was shown a single child’s face and name and asked to donate to save that one child. The second group was shown another child’s face and name and asked to donate for that child. The third group saw both faces, and was asked to donate to save both.

Save Child OneSave Child TwoSave Both

                      $3.25                        $3.25                              $3.00

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     Paul Slovic, one of the pioneers of research into the way we perceive risk, calls this greater concern for the one than the many “a fundamental deficiency in our humanity.” As the world watches but, insufficiently moved, fails to act to prevent mass starvation or stop genocides in Congo or Kosovo or Cambodia or so many more, who would not agree with such a lament. But as heartless as it seems to care more about the one than the many, it makes perfect sense in terms of human psychology. You are a person, not a number. You don’t see digits in the mirror, you see a face. And you don’t see a crowd. You see an individual. So you and I relate more powerfully to the reality of a single person than to the numbing faceless nameless lifeless abstraction of numbers. “Statistics,” as Slovic put it in a paper titled “Psychic Numbing and Genocide”, “are human beings with the tears dried off.” This tendency to relate more emotionally to the reality of a single person than to two or more people, or to the abstraction of statistics, is especially powerful when it comes to the way we perceive risk and danger, because what might happen to a single real person, might happen to you. As the familiar adage puts it, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

This has all sorts of profound implications. Statistical numbing plays a huge role in what the news media covers, and what it doesn’t, since the media are in the business of bringing us information we are likely to pay attention to, and our attention is less drawn to numbers than stories about individual people (which explains the success of the narrative device of weaving stories about big issues around a personal example). Less coverage means less concern, because we certainly can’t be moved by these tragedies if we don’t know much about them. And public concern drives government policy, so statistical numbing helps explain why nations so often fail to expend their resources to save people elsewhere who are starving, or dying of disease, or being raped and murdered, in the tens and hundreds of thousands.

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           Remember that research about willingness to donate? It’s not just research. British donations to help the victims of the 2004 south Asian tsunami, which got intense media coverage in part because it was a singular catastrophic event rather than an ongoing crisis, were 45 times higher than they have been so far to help feed starving east Africans, regardless of the huge numbers of victims in both cases. Donations in the U.S. for the African famine are also lower than for many other disasters. “I’m asking myself where is everybody and how loud do I have to yell and from what mountaintop,” asked one frustrated senior fundraiser about the current east African famine. Sorry, but there is no mountaintop high enough nor voice loud enough to overcome this intrinsic aspect of human psychology.

        The profound and sobering truth is that our perceptions are an inextricable blend of reason and subjective emotion. Between the one real human and huge but abstract numbers, the numbers simply don’t carry the same emotional power, and they never will. One death will always move us more than one million. This “fundamental deficiency in our humanity” is an inescapable part of the human animal. Perhaps by recognizing this about ourselves, and its tragic implications, we can do something about it. But that is hoping that reason can overcome emotion in the way we perceive things. Sadly, the evidence suggests that there will be a lot more suffering before that happens.


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