Paul Slovic, “If I look at the mass I will never act”: Psychic numbing and genocide

This paper (published in Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 2, No. 2, April 2007, pp. 79–95) in a sense repeats many of the ideas expressed by Campbell and Johnson (indeed, both those authors refer to Slovic’s work in their articles. He comes at the topic not from a political or cultural point of view, but from the science of psychology.

To begin with, he takes his title from a famous statement made by Mother Teresa: “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” The idea that Slovic sets out to explore is why we seem to be able to expend great efforts to attempt saving the one, while the plight of the many seems not to elicit the same urgency of response – why do good people ignore genocide. He calls this a fundamental deficiency in our humanity, but one that if identified, we can possibly overcome. Central to his paper is the idea of affect, which is a mixture of “positive and negative feelings that combine with reasoned analysis to guide our judgements, decisions, and actions.” (p 80)

Dismissing the proposition that the authorities and institutions might not be aware of the ongoing situations, he first looks at the disproportionate coverage in the media that mass murder or genocide is given when compared with topics that are closer to home. He also cites our “inability wrap our minds around” the sheer scale of the atrocity, resulting in a “retreat to the twilight between knowing and not knowing” that are at the heart of our failure to react appropriately against genocide.

He uses Seymour Epstein’s dual model of the human thought process to divide thinking into 2 main systems – experiential and analytic:


The idea is that we apprehend reality in two fundamentally different ways – the automatic, intuitive, non-verbal way and the analytical, rational, verbal way. The experiential system is inherently linked to the idea of affect, where we respond to emotionally significant events by an automatic search in our memory bank for related events and their emotional accompaniments – if these feelings are pleasant, they motivate thought and action to reproduce the feelings, and if the opposite is true, the actions motivated tend to try and avoid repetition of such feelings. This system relies upon sensory images that have been stored in the memory and can constitute pictures, words, sounds, smells and other products of the imagination. Aside from merely positive and negative feelings, it has also been shown that nuanced feelings (i.e. empathy, sympathy, compassion, distress) are critical for us being motivated to help others – in other words when we feel for the other person.

The final important element is attention, which magnifies our emotional responses to emotionally charged stimuli. Thus the following model is proposed:


Slovic suggests that “imagery and feeling are lacking when large losses of life are represented simply as numbers or statistics.” (p 83)

In considering the value of human lives, Slovis suggests a number of models – one where the value of life saving increases in direct proportion to the number of lives that need to be saved, and a second one where large losses are disproportionately more serious since they threaten the viability of a community.

Unfortunately, as he points out, we are unable to multiply one man’s suffering by a hundred or a hundred thousand. employing research which shows we are unable to detect differences in large amounts unless the change is large (“Our cognitive and perceptual systems seem to be designed to sensitize us to small changes in our environment, possibly at the expense of making us less able to detect and respond to large changes” p 85), Slovic proposes a third, psychophysical model where the value of life saving appears to diminish as the number of lives increases:

This would appear to correlate with what happens when we are faced with large numbers of people suffering – what he terms a form of ‘psychophysical numbing‘. He also looks at how the proportion of lives being saved seems to be of more relevance than the actual number of lives saved (there would be more support for saving 80% of 100 lives than 20% of 1000 lives, since 80% is obviously a good figure and 20% a poor one!).

Slovic also looks at how we view individuals as psychologically coherent units, and as such we are able to process information better and get a clearer picture of an individual than of a group. He also mentions research that attempted to show that we feel more compassion when considering an identified single victim than when considering a group – even if they are identified. The disturbing fact about this research is that it seems to show how limited our capacity to feel really is – in fact it appears that a collapse of compassion occurs (compassion fatigue, blurring of individuals or psychic numbing) when the number of individuals is increased to just two! The final figure represents what happens when we are confronted with genocide or mass murder, this ‘switching off’ of the emotions that leads to apathy and inaction:

As a result of this psychological failure, Slovic affirms, politics is allowed to trump morality again and again: “Apathy toward genocide and other forms of mass murder moves us closer to the loss of humanity.” Slovic ends with a quote taken from Romeo Dallaire, the commander of UN peacekeeping forces who witnessed the Rwandan genocide at first hand: “Are we all human, or are some more human than others? If we believe that all humans are human, then how are we going to prove it? It can only be proven through our actions” (p. 522).

In tracing the history of human rights, Sharon Sliwinski (2006) reveals that the term ‘crimes against humanity’ was first coined in 1890 by George Washington Williams whose accusation was aimed at King Leopold II of Belgium and the atrocities committed in his personal colony, the Congo Free State. She claims that the Congo Reform Movement, set up in 1904 in Britain, was the first humanitarian organisation to utilise photographs of atrocities to muster support for their campaign.

The notion of Human Rights, she asserts, came about in response to images of violence that had already been meted out to victims “the conception of rights did not emerge from the articulation of an inalienable human dignity, but from a particular visual encounter with atrocity” (p 334) and as such human rights were only “conceived through the recognition of their loss” (ibid, 335). Using lantern shows as evidence of violent acts and compelling speech, missionaries “wove a powerful myth that proposed this painful encounter with atrocity could be transformed into meaningful action” and in doing so, Sliwinski proposes that the CRM possibly “invented the belief that the liberation of strangers’ suffering was in the hands of distant spectators” (p 356). As such, all subsequent calls for action against atrocity can be understood as mere dreams and human rights discourse is just a “fantastic wish to put an end to suffering” (356); pictures showing atrocities reveal the helplessness of the viewer, while the UDHR is a way to avoid facing the harsh realities of violence and suffering.

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