Psychic Numbing and Communicating on Risk and Tragedies

I’ve been preoccupied lately with the developing aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake. Unlike other disasters on a similar or greater scale, I’m finding it easier to grasp the real human cost of the disaster in Japan as my brother lives in Kanagawa Prefecture and therefore there are less levels of abstraction between me and those directly affected. You could say that this feeling is related to what Mother Teresa was referring to when she she said “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will“.

If I had no direct connection with Japan I assume the dry statistics of the sizeable tragedy would leave me mostly unaffected — this is what Robert Jay Lifton termed “psychic numbing”. As Brian Zikmund-Fisher, a risk communication expert at the University of Michigan, introduces the topic:

People are remarkably insensitive [to] variations in statistical magnitude. Single victims or small groups who are unique and identifiable evoke strong reactions. (Think, for example, the Chilean miners or “baby Jessica” who was trapped in the well in Texas in 1987.) Statistical victims, even if much more numerous, do not evoke proportionately greater concern. In fact, under some circumstances, they may evoke less concern than a single victim does. […]

To overcome psychic numbing and really attach meaning to the statistics we are hearing […] we have to be able to frame the situation in human terms.

Zikmund-Fisher links heavily to Paul Slovic‘s essay on psychic numbing in terms of genocide and mass murder (pdf): an essential read for those interested in risk communication that looks at the psychology behind why we are so often inactive in the face of mass deaths (part of the answer: our capacity to experience affect and experiential thinking over analytical thinking).