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“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." These are the words of a woman whose acts of charity and kindness earned her sainthood – Mother Teresa.

They exemplify one of the most baffling aspects of the human response to the plight of others. While most of us will see a single death as a tragedy, we can struggle to have the same response to large-scale loss of life. Too often, the deaths of many simply become a statistic.

The millions of lives lost in natural disasters, wars or to famine, for example, grow too large to fathom.

Even now we can see the same strange process happening as the worldwide death toll due to coronavirus rises. The number of lives claimed by the virus has already exceeded 400,000 and more than seven million cases have been recorded in 200 countries. Each death is a tragedy played out on an individual level, with a family left shocked and bereaved. But as we zoom out, can anyone really wrap their head around such large numbers?

In the US, which reached a grim milestone of 100,000 deaths last month, journalists have reached for ways to help people understand the devastation. The figure is “twice the number of Americans lost during the entire Vietnam War”, and “exceeds the number of US military combat fatalities in every conflict since the Korean War”.

But our inability to comprehend the suffering that such numbers entail can harm the way we respond to such tragedies. Even now, there is evidence that people are suffering from coronavirus news fatigue and reading less about the pandemic.

This might be due, in part, to a psychological phenomenon known as psychic numbing, the idea that “the more people die, the less we care”.

“The fast, intuitive gut feeling is miraculous in many ways, but it has some flaws,” says Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon who has been studying psychic numbing for decades. “One is that it doesn’t deal with numbers in magnitude very well. If we’re talking about lives, one life is tremendously important and valuable and we’ll do anything to protect that life, save that life, rescue that person. But as the numbers increase, our feelings don’t commensurately increase as well.”

In fact, Slovic’s research suggests that as statistical numbers associated with a tragedy get larger and larger, we become desensitised and have less of an emotional response to them. This in turn leaves us less likely to take the kind of action needed to stop genocides, send aid after natural disasters or pass legislation to fight global warming. In the case of the pandemic, it may be leading to a kind of apathy that is making people complacent about hand washing or wearing a mask – both of which have been shown to reduce transmission of the virus. (Read more about why people are ignoring social distancing rules.)

Part of the problem may be that as numbers get bigger, they mean less and less to us personally.

“From an evolutionary perspective, we were focused on the things that threatened to kill us immediately or small group interactions,” says Melissa Finucane, a senior behavioral and social scientist at policy think tank the Rand Corporation, who has studied decision-making and risk assessment. “Now we’re trying to figure out very complex risk scenarios where there’s a lot of statistics available. But the average human who’s not a statistical analyst or epidemiologist, doesn’t have the tools you need at their fingertips to make judgements about something as vast and complex as the global pandemic.”

But this can have serious consequences for how we cope when faced with large scale tragedies.

In a series of studies in Sweden in 2014, Slovic and his colleagues demonstrated that we not only become numb to the significance of increasing numbers, but our compassion can actually fade or collapse overall as numbers increase.

Participants were presented with either a picture of a poor child or a picture of two poor children and asked about their willingness to donate. Rather than feel twice as sad and twice as willing to help, people donated less when they saw two children instead of one. Slovic says that’s because an individual is the easiest unit for humans to understand and empathise with.

“If you see one child, you can focus on the child,” he says. “You can think about who they are and how they are like your own child. You can concentrate more deeply on one person than two. [With two] your attention starts to lessen and so do your feelings. And our feelings are what drive our behaviour.”

Slovic’s research has also found that the positive feelings associated with donating to one child, or “warm glow”, was reduced when people were reminded about the children they weren’t able to help, a phenomenon he and his colleagues call “pseudo inefficiency”.

Participants taking part in the study were shown pictures of a single child, but half were also given statistics about the number of other people starving in the region where the child was from. It is exactly the sort of approach that many of us will have seen in charity videos after natural disasters, for example.

“We thought if we showed how serious the problem was, people would be more motivated to help,” says Slovic. Instead, donations dropped in half when the photo included the statistics. Part of the reason for this behaviour is because we are actually rather selfish creatures at heart.

“We donate in situations because we want to help, but it also makes us feel good,” says Slovic. “It doesn’t feel as good to help a child when you realise she’s one in a million. You feel bad that you can’t help everyone and those bad feelings come in, mix with the good feelings and devalue the good feeling.”

It also has to do with how much of an impact people feel their actions can have. As the number of people suffering or dying grows in a tragedy, our donation or efforts increasingly feel like a drop in the ocean.

Research by Slovic and his colleagues following the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when 800,000 people were killed in 100 days and millions were displaced, asked a group of volunteers to imagine they were a representative from a neighbouring country in charge of a refugee camp. They had to decide whether or not to help 4,500 refugees with access to clean water. Half were told the camp was sheltering 250,000 people, while the rest were told it had 11,000 refugees.

“People were much more willing to protect 4,500 people out of 11,000 than out of 250,000 because they are responding to the proportion, not the actual number,” says Slovic. “In the first scenario, it doesn’t seem worth it. But if you can cut the amount of people who are suffering nearly in half, it feels like a big deal, even though it’s the same number of people.”

Of course, there are reasons why some people choose to avoid sad news or thinking deeply about tragedies altogether. Repeatedly watching news of violent events is associated with higher levels of acute stress that can negatively impact our mental health.

One study in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing for example, found that participants who followed news coverage of the attack for six or more hours a day in the week following the atrocity were nine times more likely to report high levels of acute stress even several weeks later. (Learn more about how the news changes the way we think.)

“It’s also a cyclical pattern,” says Roxane Silver, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine and one of the study’s authors. “The more stressed you are the more you are likely to be engaged with the media. And it can be hard to break the pattern, especially when the news is bad. The more news, the more stress, the more stress the more news.”

While watching the news for updates about the latest lockdown rules and the spread of the virus has been important during the coronavirus, it is a source of rising levels of anxiety for many people during the pandemic.

“It’s not psychologically beneficial and likely to be associated with distress, anxiety, worry and fear, and potentially sadness,” says Silver. Instead of being immersed in the news, she suggests selecting a handful of sites and checking them no more than twice a day.

So how do we avoid becoming numb to tragedies as they unfold around us?

There are times when we’re better at understanding the gravity of numbers, according to Slovic. Easy calculations, like when something doubles, grab our attention. Round numbers like 100, 1,000 or 100,000 or one million are milestones that usually make us pause. It is also common for journalists to humanise tragedies by seeking individual stories of those involved. It is why newspaper reports frequently focus on seemingly unimportant details like a person’s age, their job and whether they had children. It’s why photographs of personal items, like a pair of shoes or an abandoned toy, are often used to bring a large scale tragedy back to an individual level.

And then there are times when a single tragedy, set within a larger context, can have a profound impact on the psyche of societies at large.

It can be seen now in the United States and around the world, as protesters take to the streets to demonstrate against police brutality and systematic racism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in May.

“We are witnessing a dramatic example of the power of an image, in this case of the murder of George Floyd, to wake us up to racist violence that has been with us for centuries, despite being accompanied in recent decades by plenty of numbing statistics,” says Slovic.

He says the protests are in keeping with the global reaction to the photo of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Kurdish-Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, when his family tried to reach Europe to escape the Syrian Civil War. By 2015, the war, which started in 2011, had killed 250,000 people and created millions of refugees.

“And no-one cared, it was just statistics to most people,” says Slovic, who studied the international response to the photo and found it triggered a wave of empathy after it was published. “It was such a shocking, emotionally wrenching picture that it woke people up. It went viral around the world and created an awareness and concern that the statistics of 250,000 deaths prior to the image didn’t produce.”

The number of donations to a fund set up by the Swedish Red Cross, for example, increased by 100 times in the week after the photo was taken, Slovic found. Total daily donations were also 55 times higher that week. It wasn’t until six weeks after the photo appeared that the donations fell back to their earlier levels.

But every crisis is different. The civil rights protests by black activists in the US, for example, may not fade as quickly, Slovic believes.

“I think what happened to lead to a relatively shorter duration of compassion after the Kurdi image is that people didn’t know what to do beyond donating to aid organisations to help Syrian refugees,” he says. “Our governments didn’t seem to know what to do about it and citizens didn’t know what to do to be effective. People tend to shy away from taking any action when they don’t know what to do. With the protest movement, I think we’ll see a tremendous amount of effort from citizens and visible progress that will sustain it.”

But what can we do in the absence of a photo or story so wrenching that we can’t help but pay attention to it? Can we really afford to let the rising number of deaths due to coronavirus numb us to the point of complacency?

Government agencies and health officials should be smart in their messaging, says Finucane, since a change from two million cases to 2.1 million cases probably won’t catch people’s attention and motivate them to do things like avoid crowds and wear masks. Instead, messaging should be more personal and emotionally compelling.

“It’s also important to use both positive and negative messaging, including giving people credit when they are making an effort for a long period of time and telling them what’s going well,” she says. And timing is important. “When something changes that is alarming, make sure you have something important to say about it and pair that with a specific behavioural action you want people to take to react to the risk, so they will pay attention.”

For the individual citizen, Slovic says it’s about changing our mindset and engaging in slower, deliberate thinking. He points to a famous quote from Holocaust survivor Abel Herzberg: “There were not six million Jews murdered; there was one murder, six million times.”

Slovic advises thinking about the lives and stories of individuals. “You have to use slow thinking to appreciate the individuals beneath the surface of the numbers,” he says.

And even if it’s unpleasant, we shouldn’t just turn a blind eye. “If you feel like something isn’t relevant to you or you can’t do anything about it, you might not want to pay attention to it and make yourself upset,” he warns. But he adds: “You put your head in the sand at your own risk.”