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.