Suppose you volunteer to participate in a psychological experiment. You answer a set of questions and receive a small cash payment in return. As you are leaving the lab, you are handed an envelope from Save the Children and a photo of a starving seven-year-old girl, Rokia, and asked if you would like to donate some or all of your earnings to help her. Another group of volunteers is invited to contribute to help a famished seven-year-old boy, Moussa, while a third group is shown the photos of both Rokia and Moussa and asked to contribute to help both of the children.

Now, here’s the rub: two lives should in theory draw more support than one, but in this experiment, people gave more to the individual children than they did when Rokia and Moussa were paired.

New research from psychologist Paul Slovic and his colleagues shows that what’s called “psychic numbing” mounts as the number of suffering people grows. “The identified individual victim, with a face and a name, has no peer,” they write. That’s not exactly news. People ranging from Mother Teresa (“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will”) to, reportedly, Stalin (“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”) have long recognized that people confronted by large-scale human suffering are often overwhelmed. But it is a new and unsettling twist that compassion begins to fail with the mere addition of a second person.

Slovic is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the president of Decision Research, a nonprofit he founded in 1976. This new study extends a line of work on psychic numbing that he has been involved in for a decade. Slovic suggests that psychic numbing has psychophysical origins common to the way all humans process information. The human tendency to tune out far-flung unpleasantries has nothing to do with American materialist culture, say, or any other social or political condition one might be tempted to link it to. (In fact, the Rokia/Moussa experiment was conducted in Sweden with Swedish college students.)

It seems our brains have evolved to be very good at responding to immediate threats—the predator in the bush, the friend caught in a flood—but fail to act when large, far-off groups are in danger. We have what amounts to old parochial brains in a new globalized world.

That is bad news for journalism, at least to the extent that journalism claims to make a difference by arousing mass emotion and thus compelling humanitarian intervention during a large-scale crisis—whether it is genocide, the spread of a disabling or fatal disease, suffering caused by poverty, or the devastation of earthquake, fire, or flood. Slovic told us by phone in July that he originally thought there would be a more effective U.S. response to the genocide in Darfur if we had “just ramped up” public feelings. He concluded, however, that although public sentiment “is important, and there needs to be public support, we can’t just rely on it—it’s too fickle and too distractible.”

If Slovic is right, then the challenge for journalism is to cover genocide and other “psychically numbing” catastrophes in ways that move beyond the big picture to the wallet-sized photo that attaches a single human face to the tragedy. With Darfur in mind, Slovic praises the persistent and intimate reporting of the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, and suggests that bringing people from Darfur to our communities and our homes to tell their stories could rouse people in a way the occasional news story from afar does not.

Ultimately, though, Slovic contends that journalism’s ability to overcome mankind’s inherent “psychological deficiencies” is limited. Instead, he counsels, we must “design legal and institutional mechanisms that will enforce proper response to genocide and other crimes against humanity.”

Journalism can make a difference, but it cannot make all the difference. 

 

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More in The Research Report

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Michael Schudson & Tony Dokoupil write The Research Report for CJR.