Psychic Numbing And Why 500,000 COVID-19 Deaths May Not Feel Any Different : Short Wave Why is it so hard to feel the difference between 400,000 and 500,000 COVID-19 deaths—and how might that impact our decision making during the pandemic? Psychologist Paul Slovic explains the concept of psychic numbing and how humans can often use emotion, rather than statistics to make decisions about risk.

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Why 500,000 COVID-19 Deaths May Not Feel Any Different

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Paul Slovic studies how humans make decisions.

PAUL SLOVIC: I'm a research psychologist. And for quite a long while, I've been studying the psychology of risk and decision making.

SOFIA: I actually remember learning about Paul and his work back when I was in grad school.

I was a scientist before I became a journalist. And I've followed your work for a really long time. I'm a little star struck, to be honest. This is very cool for me.

SLOVIC: (Laughter) Thank you. I've been doing this for a long time.

SOFIA: Some of his most famous work looks at a psychological phenomenon known as psychic numbing. Basically, it's when we feel indifferent to the suffering of large numbers of people.

SLOVIC: When we should be feeling very emotionally connected to some situation, and we don't do that. We just - you know, bounces off our brain with - leaving no impression at all. That's psychic numbing, you know, if we're just kind of seeing the numbers, and we're not pausing to stop and think about the reality of, you know, the lives beneath the surface of the numbers.

SOFIA: A humanitarian crisis, a natural disaster. Sometimes, the devastation feels so big that it seems there's nothing we can do.

SLOVIC: It's very important in trying to understand, for example, why we turn our backs on genocide and other mass abuses of human beings when we state as a value that we value...

SOFIA: Yeah.

SLOVIC: ...These lives. And yet we we act in ways that contradict those values.

SOFIA: And now Paul says we're seeing psychic numbing in the pandemic, potentially contributing to decisions that could put us and our communities at risk, not wearing masks or physically distancing when we should, even as we approach 500,000 COVID-19 deaths in the US, a devastating number. So today on the show, a conversation with psychologist Paul Slovic about psychic numbing and how humans often use emotion rather than statistics to make decisions about risk. I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


SOFIA: Psychologist Paul Slovic says to understand psychic numbing, we have to look at how humans make decisions and analyze risk. It's not just this straightforward cost-benefit analysis.

SLOVIC: And what social scientists have learned through observation and experiment is that we've got another way of analyzing risk, and that's through our gut feelings, you know, which is a very sophisticated way that our brain can process risk information. You know, in a fraction of a second, we can size up a situation, decide whether to run away or to approach it or whatever, you know?

SOFIA: Yeah.

SLOVIC: But the problem is that our feelings are - they aren't good at quantitative assessment. And our feelings are energized by a single individual at risk, what we call the singularity effect. And individual lives are very important. But the problem is that if there are two people at risk, that does not feel twice as concerning as if there are one. You know, we may be a bit more concerned but not twice as much.

SOFIA: Right.

SLOVIC: And then as the numbers increase, we become even more and more insensitive. So if I tell you that there are 87 people endangered in some situation, you'll be concerned. Then I said, oh, wait a minute. I made a mistake. There are 88 people. You won't feel any different. The feeling system is just not able to differentiate and give you a different feeling for 88 than for 87.

SOFIA: Right.

SLOVIC: And then as we studied this, we found it's even it's even worse than this insensitivity. As the numbers increase, sometimes, we begin to lose sensitivity. It's not just that we don't differentiate between...

SOFIA: Yeah.

SLOVIC: ...One large number and another. We care less. The numbers are so large, they're just - you know, they don't convey any feeling. And we have a phrase for what we've observed in this respect, and that is the more who die, the less we care.

SOFIA: Yeah. So, I mean, it kind of sounds like, you know, what you're saying in situations like this pandemic, that our feelings may actually kind of deceive us in a way with risk taking.

SLOVIC: Absolutely. Our feelings deceive us. And they deceive us not only with regard to the pandemic. They deceive us with regard to the seriousness of, you know, genocides and mass atrocities that have been taking place around the world continuously since the end of World War II and the Holocaust, when we vowed, you know, never again would we allow this to happen. And, well, it happens over and over again. And we often turn our backs to it. These are just statistics of far away people. And we - they don't convey the emotion that's necessary to motivate us to action. So there's a lot of ways in which our feelings deceive us. Our feelings deceive us with regard to thinking about climate change, you know, where we've got, you know, major, catastrophic changes and all sorts of climate effects that are going to be hugely influential. And we're not doing what we should to mitigate or prevent this from happening.

SOFIA: Right, right. OK, Paul. So is there any way around this? You know, what can we do as individuals to get beyond this psychic numbing?

SLOVIC: Well, the first step is awareness. You know, and that's what I see as the first implication of our work - is to try to get these findings known, so people are sensitive and aware of these. And then the second step is, OK, now what can I do about it? And there are a number of things. First, as individuals, we need to slow down in our thinking. When we're given information like this, we need to pause, not just go to a quick, intuitive feeling about it but to think a little bit more carefully about what the reality is beneath the surface of these numbers. We need to pay attention to stories of individuals who are representative of the larger problem. And people in the media need to be giving us information about individuals and stories, not just statistics. Statistics are important. They should be there. But we also need stories about individual lives that are impacted by what we're concerned about.

SOFIA: Yeah, yeah. You know, as a as a science communicator and a journalist, this makes me think about some of the research that you've done around this - right? - like how reporting statistics about mass casualties don't always move people to act. I'm thinking about your research on the infamous photograph of Alan Kurdi, the child who drowned fleeing Syria. Tell me about that work.

SLOVIC: So the Syrian war began in 2011. The government of Syria started to attack people who were protesting for various reasons against the government, and it got quite violent. And by 2015, some 250,000 people had died in the Syrian war, many of them civilians. And there was little interest in that. And we could assess the level of interest by looking, for example, under Google searches for Syria or refugees. And you see it was flat and near zero for four years. And then that changed overnight when the picture of the boy on the beach went viral around the world. And, suddenly, people started searching for Syria, for refugees and so forth. We found an even more important indicator of how this one photograph woke people up to something that they should have been alert to because of 250,000 deaths and millions of refugees that were spawned by the conflict there. And we found that the donations, for example, to the Red Cross in Sweden were greatly impacted by that picture. And so one might ask, well, why does it take a photograph to motivate us? You know, why isn't thousands of deaths enough?

SOFIA: Right.

SLOVIC: And I think it's, again, an illustration of the fact of the psychic numbing, you know, that these are just numbers and we relate much more strongly to stories and images - very powerful example of that. We also found that it didn't last forever. I mean, over the next month, the interest, the donations started to decrease again, and the searches on Google started to decrease. And what I think that showed is that when you have very important events like this happening, that a dramatic incident or event or a photograph can wake us up, and it gives us a window of opportunity that's very important. And during that window, that's when things need to happen, both at the individual level or also at the societal level, where officials now - they have the opportunity to do something that makes a difference. We're seeing another moment like that in the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol...

SOFIA: Yeah.

SLOVIC: ...When suddenly, we're awake to right-wing extremism, which has been around for - you know, it's not that it's new. I think we've been sort of complacent. We've been very complacent about it. Same thing with racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement of the summer. You know, certain events were dramatic, and they cut through the complacency that existed. So all of these events give us a window of opportunity...

SOFIA: Yeah.

SLOVIC: ...When we're were ready to act. And that's when things can happen.

SOFIA: Sure. You know, like you said, part of this is realizing when action needs to be taken and taking that action. And one thing that you've talked about is that people have to get past this false sense of inefficacy - right? - that idea that when a problem is this big, what you do doesn't really matter. But, you know, it actually does, you know, especially in this pandemic.

SLOVIC: Yes, we have to recognize the fact that even partial solutions to a problem can save whole lives, that as we - even if you can't do it all, we shouldn't be demotivated from doing what we can do just because we can't do it all.

SOFIA: OK, Paul. Well, I know you're very busy. I appreciate you and your work and for you coming on the show. So thank you so much for your time.

SLOVIC: My pleasure. Nice to talk to you, Maddie.


SOFIA: This episode was produced by Brit Hanson, fact checked by Rasha Aridi and edited by Viet Le. I'm Maddie Sofia. I'm back tomorrow with more SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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