We are more moved by the loss of an individual life than the loss of thousands of lives

We are more moved by the loss of an individual life than the loss of thousands of lives

We have already become accustomed to accepting that, daily, the victims of COVID-19 number in the hundreds. What in other areas would be a scandal only if there were a dozen victims, or even one or two victims, here does not move us so much , or at least not proportionally.

This happens. basically due to two psychological effects : "singularity effect" and "psychic numbing".

Singularity and numbness

Great atrocities do not generate proportional reactions to motivate action , but individual stories reach deeper levels of our emotions and push us to act with greater urgency and investment of means.

For this reason, people donate much more money to help an identifiable victim (for example, a child or a family) than an unidentifiable victim, especially if we are talking about a very large number of victims .

The authors of this recent study , from August 2020, confirmed this bias by performing analysis of texts from the New York Times and other sources that publish the loss of life, analyzing the affect and emotion of the text (sentimental analysis) in the readers. Concluding, in short, that: the more they die, the less we care .

In other words, our ability to feel sympathy for people in need seems limited, and this form of compassion fatigue can lead to apathy and inaction, consistent with what is seen repeatedly in response to many large-scale human and environmental catastrophes. scale.


Or as the Nobel Prize winner in Medicine Albert Szent-Gyorgi summarized:

I am deeply moved to see a man suffering and I would risk my life for him. Then I speak impersonally about the possible pulverization of our great cities, with a hundred million dead. I am unable to multiply a man’s suffering by a hundred million.

This tendency to conceptualize humanity as a few individuals is due to the fact that we do not have enough mental capacity to process so many people. Our brain was forged in a past world where we were part of tribes of just 100 or 150 individuals. Spending mental energy on more individuals was wasteful .

For that reason, too, we tend to think of the authors of inventions or literary works as unique geniuses and not so much as ecosystems of factors (involving hundreds or thousands of other brains as well). Or that the debauchery of cities like Amsterdam is due to human-made policies and not interconnected coincidences , such as the somewhat tiny discovery in the guts of herring and that Amsterdam was raised on a quagmire: