Despite their staggering death tolls, humanitarian crises, mass murders, and genocide don’t always incite the global response they warrant.

So how many deaths does it take to awaken compassion?

Answer: One.

That is—only one.

At the latest installment of the Anastasi Lecture Serieson Oct. 23, Paul Slovic, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and founder and president of Decision Research, presented what he called a paradox of compassion.

“Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue ‘the one’ whose needy plight comes to their attention,” Slovic said. “These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of ‘the one’ who is ‘one of many’ in a much greater problem.”

In his lecture, “The More Who Die, the Less We Care: The Arithmetic of Compassion,” Slovic provided several examples in which the “singularity effect”—the idea that great value is placed on saving individual lives—contrasts starkly with “psychic numbing,” a phenomenon whereby people tend to care less about mass atrocities than about singular tragedies.

Paul Slovic, Ph.D., presented his lecture, “The More Who Die, the Less We Care: The Arithmetic of Compassion” at the annual Anastasi lecture. Photo by Bruce Gilbert

In a 2005 study, Slovic said a group of participants was given a photo of eight children in need of $300,000 combined for cancer treatment. Another group saw a photo of just one child who needed the $300,000 treatment. Despite the identical cost of treatment, the participants were more likely to donate to one child than they were to eight children.

A similar finding came about in a 2006 study. Participants could donate to Rokia, a starving child in Africa, to Moussa, another starving child in Africa, or to both Rokia and Moussa. Participants chose to donate to either Rokia or Moussa, but donated substantially less to both children.

The most striking example of psychic numbing is genocide, Slovic said, which, even in the information age, is often willfully ignored. In 1994, 800,000 Rwandans were murdered in 100 days—“All while the world watched and did nothing,” Slovic said.

And since 2003, the Sudanese government has murdered as many as 400,000 villagers in Darfur and displaced 2.5 million more, with little to no response from the world even though the crisis has been “thoroughly documented.”

There are a number of reasons that cause this willful ignorance, Slovic said, including distance, lack of leadership, and the danger or cost of responding.

Two reasons, though, are especially powerful on an emotional level. First, when hearing about millions in crisis, people lament that their aid would just be a drop in the bucket. As a result, they do nothing at all.

Second, information about crises is often just dry statistics that fail to convey emotion.

“Statistics of a mass murder or genocide, no matter how large the numbers, fail to convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The numbers… fail to motivate action,” Slovic said.

The annual Anastasi lecture honors the career of Anne Anastasi, Ph.D., former chair of the Department of Psychology and president of the American Psychological Association. Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Putting faces to the atrocities, on the other hand, can provoke an emotional response, which is more likely to prompt action.

Nevertheless, as shown by the studies of the sick or starving children, emotion is not always enough to override psychic numbing, Slovic said. Hence, laws and institutions need to be established with the specific goal of combating this phenomenon.

Response measures would include:

  • Setting rules that dictate how to respond to humanitarian crises, as well as how to prevent them;
  • Reporting more individual details;
  • Employing emotion by using imagery that empowers victims and demonizes perpetrators; and
  • Exposing hypocrisy by making nations justify their reasons for inaction as well as action.

“The implications of the psychological account need to be aggressively and creatively merged with legal and political realities,” Slovic said. “Failure to effectively counteract psychic numbing may condemn us to passively witness another century of mass murder, genocide, and a host of other serious social and environmental problems.”

The Anastasi lecture was sponsored by the Department of Psychology.