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).