Meet a psychological phenomenon known as psychic numbing, the idea that “the more people die, the less we care”. We not only become numb to the significance of increasing numbers, but our compassion can actually fade as numbers increase.

What makes people stop caring?

The death of an individual can have a powerful effect on our emotions, but as numbers rise so does our indifference. Why?

“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” These are the words of a woman whose acts of charity and kindness earned her sainthood – Mother Teresa.

They exemplify one of the most baffling aspects of the human response to the plight of others. While most of us will see a single death as a tragedy, we can struggle to have the same response to large-scale loss of life. Too often, the deaths of many simply become a statistic.

The millions of lives lost in natural disasters, wars or to famine, for example, grow too large to fathom.

Even now we can see the same strange process happen… Continue Reading (11 minute read)

7 thoughts on “Meet a psychological phenomenon known as psychic numbing, the idea that “the more people die, the less we care”. We not only become numb to the significance of increasing numbers, but our compassion can actually fade as numbers increase.”

  1. padizzledonk

    When you experience something awful, it’s awful, if you experience something awful 5x a day for years it’s just normal

    Its like reverse “if every day is a beautiful day, whats a beautiful day?”

  2. Taurius

    You can tell a story of 5 people dying and give people a sense of the loss. Hard to tell the stories of 500,000 people and convince people to read them all let a lone write the stories.

    *also it’s easy to visualize 5 people dying versus 500,000. Large numbers become abstract to us, and those death become an abstract. More of an idea than actual people. Try to imagine 500,000 dead surrounding you. It’s impossible.

  3. Magnus77

    Attributed to Stalin:

    “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

  4. The_God_of_Abraham

    Humans, like all advanced (and even most not-so-advanced) life, are pattern-deducing creatures. At a high level, this is fundamental to survival. Creatures who can’t identify patterns–exploiting the positive ones and avoiding the negative ones–can’t effectively predict or prepare for the future.

    When an event comes along that violates our mental models, our brains flag that event for disproportionately large attention and possible response. The reason is twofold: exceptions to the pattern may be especially dangerous–or lucrative–and both of those cases merit extra attention.

    The other reason is that perceived pattern violations may mean that our mental model of the pattern is faulty. If pattern violations happen regularly, then our understanding of the pattern needs improvement. This, again, is a question of fundamental fitness for continued existence in our environment.

    These two phenomena together lead to (among other things) “compassion fatigue”, as it’s often called. And in cases like innocent deaths, that’s perhaps a lamentable thing–but it’s not an irrational or incomprehensible one.

    Example:

    A bright-eyed farm girl moves to the big city. She sees a homeless person panhandling at the bus station when she arrives. Put aside questions of morality and even compassion for a moment: this sight greatly violates *her understanding of the pattern.* Everyone in her small-town version of the world has a place to live, no matter how modest. So she gives him ten bucks. Surely that will help rectify the world! This money will help get him back on his feet, back to being a productive member of society, and *the pattern will remain intact.*

    But a month later he’s still there, and she’s only giving a couple bucks. And there are more like him. Dozens. Hundreds! The faces become familiar. Six months down the road and she’s not giving any of them anything. This is normal. The pattern has been updated to reflect reality. She can’t give all of them ten bucks every time she walks by, and there’s a part of her brain telling her that there’s really no need to. This is normal!

  5. ColddFire

    I can only imagine this is a self defense mechanism. If we were wholly empathetic to every death there’d be no room left to live.

  6. Allwhitezebra

    I’ve lost five close friends and family, and almost a brother, to overdoses over the past fifteen years starting at age 16, the last two I felt nothing. It’s a real thing.

  7. Gemmabeta

    I worked a stint on a palliative unit.

    At first I was scared that I will feel terrible,

    And then I was scared that I didn’t feel as terrible as I thought it was going to be.

Leave a Comment