In the face of huge disaster death data, people will be “mental numb”?

Beijing time July 7 news, according tomedia reports, the death of a relative and friend will have a strong impact on our mood, but if the death toll continues to rise, people seem to become more and more apathetic, why? At present, scientists illustrate one of the most confusing aspects of human response to the plight of others, and while most of us would regard the death of an individual as a tragedy, it is difficult to respond in the same way to large-scale deaths, and in many cases, a large number of deaths are just statistics.


For example, millions of people have been killed in natural disasters, wars or famines, and people have shown great calm. Even now, as the number of deaths from new crown infections rises sharply around the world, we see the same strange things happening quietly. The epidemic has claimed more than 400,000 lives, more than 7 million cases in more than 200 countries, and each of the dead is a tragedy at the level of relatives and friends, causing great suffering to a family, but to expand the scope, does anyone really understand the true meaning of the huge death data?

In June, as the death toll from the new U.S. outbreak reached 100,000, journalists sought to help people understand the severity of the disaster. The death toll is double the number of U.S. troops killed in the Vietnam War as a whole and exceeds the total number of U.S. military battlefield deaths since the Korean War.

But we can’t understand the pain of these numbers, and even now there is evidence that people are numb to news of the new crown virus and that they have read less about the epidemic.”

This may be partly due to a psychological phenomenon known as “mental numbness”, in which “the more people die, the less we care about.” “

“Fast intuition is incredible in many ways, but it also has some flaws, on the one hand, it doesn’t handle the number of magnitudes very well, and if we’re talking about life, a person’s life is very important and valuable, and when he’s in danger, we’ll do anything to protect him and save him, but as the death toll increases, the pain of a person’s death doesn’t increase,” said Paul Slovich, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. “

As the number of deaths increases, not only will we become more numb, but our compassion will fade away, and in fact, Slovic’s research shows that as the number of deaths from a statistical disaster increases, we become more numb and the emotional response becomes lower. It is unlikely that we will take the necessary action to prevent the death toll from widening further, or provide assistance in the wake of natural disasters, or pass legislation to combat global warming. In the case of the new crown outbreak, it can lead to a sense of indifference among the population, which makes people feel complacent about washing their hands or wearing masks, both of which have been shown to reduce the spread of the virus.

Part of the reason people have become numb and apathetic is that as the death toll increases, it means less and less to us as individuals.

Melissa Finucane, a senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND Who specializes in decision-making and risk assessment, points out that from a human evolution perspective, we’re looking at things that kill humans immediately, or small groups of battles, and now we’re trying to identify complex risk situations and get a lot of valuable statistics, but most ordinary people aren’t statistical analysts, nor epidemiologists, who can’t use statistical tools to make accurate analysis of virus pandemics such as the New Crown epidemic.

But it could have a serious impact on the way we respond to a large-scale tragic disaster.

In a series of studies in Sweden in 2014, Slovic and his colleagues demonstrated that not only did we become numb to the severity of the increase in deaths, but that our compassion actually diminished or disappeared altogether as the death toll increased.

In one experiment, the researchers showed participants a picture of a poor child and two children in poverty and asked them if they were willing to donate, and when participants saw two poor children instead of one, their donations decreased without the willingness to donate. This is because individuals are the most easily understood and sympathetic to humans, Slovic said.

“If you see a child, you can focus on the child, you can think about who they are, how much they are like their own children, and usually people focus on one person, not two people,” he said. If you focus on two people, you put less attention into it, less emotion, and our emotions are the driving force of behavior. “

At the same time, Slovic’s research found that when people realized they couldn’t help poor children, their positive feelings about helping and donating to a poor child decreased, a phenomenon they called “pseudo-inefficient.”

‘It’s bad when you can’t help everyone, ‘ says Mr. Slovic. ‘These bad emotions mix with good emotions can reduce your good mood. Participants in the study looked at a photo of a poor child, and the researchers told them that there were many more poor children in the area where the poor children were in the area, often in a charity video after a natural disaster.

“We think that if this presentation reflects the severity of the disaster, people will be more motivated to help them, and instead, when the statistics are included in the photo, donations are halved, in part because we humans are actually a selfish creature of the heart,” he said. We donate because we want to help others, but it also makes us feel good, and when you realize that a child is very poor and in danger, you feel the urge to help him, but when you find that such a child is only one of the millions of poor children, the urge to help him will decline, because you realize that you can’t help everyone, your ability is insignificant, it feels bad, this emotion mixed with the mood to help others, it reduces your ability to help others. “

At the same time, the will to help others is also related to the size of their ability to feel, in a tragedy of disaster, the number of people suffering or dying more and more, our donations or disaster relief efforts appear more pale, like a drop in the ocean.

Slovic and his colleagues studied the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when 800,000 people were killed and millions displaced in 100 days. They asked a group of volunteers to imagine themselves as heads of camps from neighbouring countries, who had to decide whether to help 4,500 refugees get access to clean water, half of whom were told the camp was home to 250,000, and the remaining volunteers being told there were 11,000.

“The volunteer survey shows that they are more willing to protect 4,500 of the 11,000 refugees than 4,500 of the 250,000, which they don’t think is worth it in the first case,” Slovic said. “

Of course, there are reasons why some people choose to avoid sad news or think deeply about a tragic disaster, and watching news of violence repeatedly is associated with a higher level of acute stress, which can have a negative impact on our mental health.

Sometimes this is a disaster in the context of the big background, but it can have a profound psychological impact. For example, a follow-up study of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing showed that more than six hours of daily news coverage lasted a week, with nine times the usual rate of social violence, and even a few weeks later, when the social group maintained a high eras of acute stress.

“The more stress you put on, the more likely you are to be exposed to the media, and the harder it is to break this pattern, especially when bad news is, the more news, the more stress, the more stress, the more stressed, the more news,” said study co-author Roxanne Silver, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine. “

It is important to keep an eye on the news updates on urban confinement and the spread of the epidemic during the New Crown virus epidemic, but it is also a reason why many people are becoming increasingly anxious during the pandemic.

“It’s not good for psychology, and it can lead to depression, anxiety, worry and fear, and potential lying,” Roxanne said. I think rather than immerse yourself in the panic of the news of the outbreak, choose a few websites and view them no more than twice a day. “

So how do you avoid becoming numb when a catastrophic tragedy happens around us?

‘Sometimes we are better at understanding the appeal of numbers, and simply calculating, for example, doubling the number of things can attract our attention, ‘ says Mr. Slovich.

Journalists are often good at finding emotional character stories that resonate with readers and audiences, which is why news media reports often focus on seemingly unimportant details, such as someone’s age, their job and whether they have children, and why taking pictures of a pair of shoes or a personal item with an abandoned toy is often used to bring a large-scale tragic disaster to a personal level.

At times, a tragic event can have far-reaching consequences for entire society in a broader context, with the death of An African-American man George Floyd on the knee by a white police officer in May, which sparked mass protests, many of which took to the streets to protest police violence and racial discrimination, and which spread to multiple parts of the United States and other countries.

“In the death of George Floyd, we have witnessed an example of the power of image that awakened our awareness of racist acts of violence, despite the overwhelming amount of insensitive statistics in recent decades,” Slovich said. “

We have witnessed a dramatic example of racist violence in the United States, which has continued over the past few hundred years. In 2015, three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, and his family planned to venture into Europe to escape the Syrian civil war, but they were hit by a shipwreck, and the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on the beach, Slovic said. The Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, has killed 250,000 people and turned millions into refugees by 2015.

“In fact, no one cares, it’s just a statistic for the tens of thousands of deaths,” Slovic said. However, he studied the community’s reaction to the photograph of the death of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian refugee, and there was a general wave of sympathy for the photo.

He pointed out that this is a very shocking, emotionally painful picture that has awakened people, and that the photo has been widely reprinted around the world, raising concerns and concerns about Syrian refugees, who had died in the Syrian civil war before it was taken.

Meanwhile, Slovic found that in the week after the photo was published, the Swedish Red Cross Fund received a 100-fold increase in donations, 55 times higher each day that week, and did not return to its previous level until six weeks after the photo was released.

But each disaster crisis is different, for example, and Slovich argues that civil rights protests by black American activists may not diminish any time soon.

‘I think the reason for the relatively short duration of compassion after Alan Kurdi is that people don’t know what else to do but donate to aid organizations that help Syrian refugees, and our government doesn’t seem to know how to do it, and people don’t know how to do it,’ Mr. Slovic said. In such cases, the public is often reluctant to take any action and organize protests, which may be a huge effort.

But what can we do without the photos or news stories that keep us focused on? With the death toll from the new crown virus rising, are we really insensitive to this disaster?

Mr. Melissa said government agencies and health officials should be very clear about the message, because the increase from 2 million to 2.1 million may not attract attention or prompt them to do things such as avoiding crowds and wearing masks, but rather more humane and emotionally persuasive.

“It’s also important to use both positive and negative messages, including praising people for their long-term efforts, telling them where things are going well, when timing is important, making sure you have something important to say, and combining it with specific actions that you want people to take for risk, that raises concerns,” she said. “

For every citizen, Slovic says, this can change the way we think and think slowly and carefully, as Herzberg, a Holocaust survivor of World War II, famously put it: “It’s not 6 million Jews murdered, it’s just one murder, it’s six million repetitions.” “

He suggests thinking about an individual’s life and story, saying, “You have to think slowly about the individual events behind statistics.” “

Even if these disasters make people unhappy, we should not turn a blind eye. If you feel something has nothing to do with you, or if you can’t do anything about it, you may be more upset by not paying attention to it, he warns. It’s like burying your head in the sand at your own risk.

Extreme emotions

For most of us, the recent crisis of the new crown virus has triggered extreme emotional changes and led to more aggressive behaviour, Mr. Slovic said. Next we’ll explore the root causes of these extreme reactions and analyze how we can better manage them.