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Peng '26: Psychic numbing is killing our ability to empathize

I am giving you $70.

I am also presenting you with a charity request letter from Save the Children. You now have an opportunity to donate any of your just-earned $70 to Rokia, a starving seven-year-old girl. Your donation will go towards providing Rokia with food, education and basic medical care.

How much of the $70, if any, would you choose to donate? How much of a difference do you think your donation could make to Rokia’s life?

Note that answer in your head.

Let’s say instead of presenting you with Rokia’s situation, I told you about one million children suffering from a country-wide famine. Your donation will go towards funding a food bank for those one million children.

Would your donation amount change based on this alternate scenario? Most likely, it would, and this is due to a human condition called psychic numbing. Psychic numbing is the detachment and emotional shut-off we feel in the face of mass tragedies. After overexposure to traumatic events, our brains use psychic numbing as a coping mechanism to trick ourselves into accepting these events as normal. This is why when journalists frame global issues around a growing number of deaths, they drive people closer toward apathy, not action. In order to engage with issues that deal with such a massive scale, we need to, paradoxically, focus on the miniscule.

Dr. Paul Slovic has studied the intersections of emotion and decision-making for decades. In one of his studies, Slovic’s team presented 107 Swedish undergraduate students with Rokia’s situation. Each student was given kr70 — kr, or krona, is the Swedish currency — and shown eight separate images of one, two or eight children. They were then asked how much money they would be willing to donate, as well as how much impact they felt their donation would make.

A logical conclusion to Slovic’s study would be for donations to increase as victim numbers grow. After all, there are more starving children on the line. However, Slovic found the opposite to be true: Students donated less when they were presented with eight victims compared to one. In addition, as the number of victims increased, researchers recorded a significant decrease of activity in the zygomaticus major muscle, a facial muscle associated with feelings of empathy and compassion. As the victim count went up, the participants began to lose empathy for each additional victim. “There is no constant value for a human life,” Slovic said in a Vox interview. “The value of a single life diminishes against the backdrop of a larger tragedy.”

Lost among provocative headlines that seem to vie for the highest death count, we stopped caring about issues that impact human lives. Our apathy towards large numbers of people dying is the essence of psychic numbing. The first time a tragic event occurs, we are naturally concerned. The more it happens, however, the more detached we become. This numbing response leads to a loss of sensitivity when it comes to larger and larger victim counts. Numbers such as tens of thousands, millions and even billions become merely abstract statistics; it is impossible for the human mind to quantify so many people. Often, we are unable to grasp the full magnitude of how many lives are at stake.

Even if we do manage to overcome this numbness, the magnitude of the tragedy and its victims can cause us to experience a false sense of inefficacy, the feeling that whatever we do to help would not make a difference. Think back to Rokia’s plea for help. It was much easier to feel like you can improve Rokia’s living conditions when she was presented as just one person. Depending on where she lives in the world, your $70 has the potential to feed her for months and pay for her schooling. On the other hand, when it came to helping a million children, your $70 donation felt like slapping a Band-Aid on a bullet wound — too futile to stop the bleed. This feeling is heightened by the fact that your money can only address a very small portion of the problem. Hearing that “one million children” are at stake emphasizes your powerlessness to end world hunger. You may think, “So what if I donate the $70? Nothing will change.”

Psychic numbing is an issue close to my heart. Whenever I write papers to demonstrate the gravity of a subject, cherry-picking numbers with more and more digits comes naturally to me. The higher that number is, surely the more people will care. However, while searching for a source that captures the enormous death toll of COVID-19, I ended up distracting myself from the actual tragedy at hand. Reading article titles that stressed one million COVID-19 deaths in 2022 and 14.9 million excess deaths, I felt … nothing. I didn’t feel sad, upset or mad; I felt an empty, paralyzing indifference.

I try to fight my apathy by learning to recognize this feeling — or the lack thereof — and guarding against this false sense of inefficacy. Slovic said in his interview, “Even partial solutions save whole lives.” It is important to remember that, whatever little I can contribute in comparison to the grand scheme of things, it helps. By focusing on personal stories from one identifiable victim over abstract descriptions of the scale of abuses — putting stories over statistics — I find it much easier to empathize. However, when personalizing crises, we must also be careful not to exploit the victims whose stories are used. Ensuring people’s experiences are shared consensually, learning from resources created by marginalized groups and fighting stereotypes are all ways to engage audiences while practicing ethical storytelling.

Humans need stories to connect with each other on a personal level; only when we understand the pain and misery of others do we take action. Otherwise, their suffering is too distant, too out of reach to comprehend. By prioritizing personal stories over illustrating scale through impersonal statistics, we can prevent the numbing cycle from continuing in news agencies, charities and academia. 

Christina Peng ’26 can be reached at christina_peng@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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