Tag Archives: communication

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).

Emails Predicting Organisational Collapse

Regard­less of con­tent, the email pat­terns inside organ­isa­tions may be able to pre­dict approach­ing crises. This is the con­clu­sion of a study look­ing at how the com­mu­nic­a­tion between Enron employ­ees changed as the com­pany approached its 2001 bank­rupcy.

[Research­ers] expec­ted com­mu­nic­a­tion net­works to change dur­ing moments of crisis. Yet the research­ers found that the biggest changes actu­ally happened around a month before. For example, the num­ber of act­ive email cliques, defined as groups in which every mem­ber has had dir­ect email con­tact with every oth­er mem­ber, jumped from 100 to almost 800 around a month before [Enron’s] Decem­ber 2001 col­lapse. Mes­sages were also increas­ingly exchanged with­in these groups and not shared with oth­er employ­ees.

[Ron­aldo] Menezes thinks he and [Ben] Collings­worth may have iden­ti­fied a char­ac­ter­ist­ic change that occurs as stress builds with­in a com­pany: employ­ees start talk­ing dir­ectly to people they feel com­fort­able with, and stop shar­ing inform­a­tion more widely.

As oth­er research­ers in this area have sug­ges­ted, such shifts in com­mu­nic­a­tion pat­terns “could be used as an early warn­ing sign of grow­ing dis­con­tent with­in an organ­isa­tion”.

via Mind Hacks

History of the 160 Character Text Message

I’ve nev­er giv­en much thought to this, and maybe that’s a sign of how well it was designed and imple­men­ted: the his­tory and (high-level) tech­nic­al devel­op­ment of  text mes­saging.

Would the 160-char­ac­ter max­im­um be enough space to prove a use­ful form of com­mu­nic­a­tion? Hav­ing zero mar­ket research, [the research com­mit­ee] based their ini­tial assump­tions on two “con­vin­cing argu­ments”:

For one, they found that post­cards often con­tained few­er than 150 char­ac­ters.

Second, they ana­lyzed a set of mes­sages sent through Tel­ex, a then-pre­val­ent tele­graphy net­work for busi­ness pro­fes­sion­als. Des­pite not hav­ing a tech­nic­al lim­it­a­tion, Hil­l­eb­rand said, Tel­ex trans­mis­sions were usu­ally about the same length as post­cards. […]

[Fried­helm Hil­l­eb­rand, the ‘fath­er of text mes­saging’,] had an argu­ment with a friend about wheth­er 160 char­ac­ters provided enough space to com­mu­nic­ate most thoughts. “My friend said this was impossible for the mass mar­ket,” Hil­l­eb­rand said. “I was more optim­ist­ic.“ 

Nowadays, with the ubi­quity of text mess­ging and ser­vices such as Twit­ter I feel that there is little doubt that 160 char­ac­ters is enough to get across all but the most com­plex or import­ant mes­sages.