Are we becoming indifferent about the wars in Ukraine and Gaza? “The more people die, the less we care,” says psychologist Paul Slovic

What does disaster do to our empathy? Our brain cannot cope with large numbers of victims, psychologist Paul Slovic discovered.

’50 dead in Khan Younis, but probably many more victims under rubble.’ It is a short message in a news blog from NRC from last month. Almost casually. The article includes a photo of the bombed city, taken from afar. A large, silent plume of smoke hangs above the buildings.

The Gaza war has now been going on for more than four months and every day there are reports of new attacks and new numbers of dead and wounded. “Don’t look away,” was the appeal from UN Secretary General António Guterres back in November. But that is sometimes difficult. Research commissioned by Sire showed that almost two-thirds of Dutch people have started to feel less hopeful about society over the past five years. And a large portion of them cite the news as one of the reasons. The updates from Gaza. The reports about Sudan and Ukraine. The stories about refugees, poverty and earthquakes.

What exactly does the endless accumulation of bad news and human suffering do to our heads? And what consequences do all these messages have for our empathic abilities? Can we actually avoid looking away? These questions are the life’s work of psychologist Paul Slovic.

“It started with the genocide in Rwanda in 1994,” says Slovic from his office in Oregon, America. “I was fascinated by the enormous gap between the knowledge that 800,000 people were killed and the minimal response in the world. Why is that, I wondered. How is it possible that people value individual lives so much, while at the same time we effortlessly let enormous disasters and casualty numbers slide away from us?”

Slovic has been researching apathy towards great human suffering for almost thirty years. His experiments and work also raise questions for media about how these types of stories can be told.

“It is important to understand how the head works,” says Slovic right at the start of the conversation. “We need to understand what our cognitive and emotional limitations are. People are very aware of the limitations of memory: we make lists when we go shopping because we know we cannot remember everything. But we are less aware of our limitations in other areas of psychology.”

What psychological factors play a role in dealing with great human suffering?

“It is important to realize how little influence logic and reason actually have on our behavior. Research shows time and time again how much people make decisions based on feelings. That goes well surprisingly often, but not always.

“One of the ways it doesn’t work is with big events, with things that don’t happen in front of us. When it comes to data and statistics, that’s where our brains fail spectacularly. My colleagues and I summarized it with the perhaps shocking statement: The more people die, the less we care.”

Is that what you call ‘psychic numbing’?

“Yes, that is the gist. The more victims there are, the more apathetic people become. It seems contradictory and it is also illogical, but people do not make that choice based on logic. In the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, you see that an indifference is starting to appear around the casualty numbers. This has to do with the passage of time, but also with the magnitude of the event.

“People are capable of doing so much to help another individual, sometimes even risking their own lives. That individual can be a single person, but also a unit such as a family or even a community, that definition is a bit flexible. But as the number of victims increases, the brain quickly loses control of their individual value and feelings of empathy quickly diminish.”

Is there some kind of threshold value? What is too much?

“That’s the striking thing. Our research shows that insensitivity actually starts when the number of victims is two instead of one. For example, we did an experiment where we asked people if they wanted to donate to an aid organization. In one case the call was for helping one child, in the other case there were two children. And what we saw is that people are less willing to give money when it comes to two children and also get less satisfaction from it. Even on that small scale you see how bad the brain is at dividing attention and what effect that has.

“If the number of victims increases, the willingness to help plummets. We saw this last year with the floods in Libya and now also in Gaza. For our brain, the difference between 10,000 and 20,000 victims is minimal. Humans are incapable of dealing with scale, so such catastrophic events strangely become less and less impactful as the numbers rise.”

So we don’t lack empathy, we’re just bad at math?

“Well actually yes. Our feelings, on which we base our decisions, cannot cope with scale and statistics. And that deceives and misleads us. Nowadays there is a lot about deception, disinformation and deep fakes. That’s a problem, of course, but people don’t think enough about the ways in which their own brains mislead them.

“For example, we did another experiment where we looked at how willing people were to send help to save 4,500 lives in a refugee camp. When we told people that there were a total of 250,000 people in the camp, they were much less willing to do anything than if there were 11,000. People were overwhelmed by the high numbers, by the feeling that their actions were just a drop in the ocean.

“Negative feelings are generally stronger than positive feelings. That’s because they are more essential for survival. But it also means that the spark of satisfaction you feel from helping someone is quickly extinguished by the realization that you are not helping many others. We feel ineffective and then do nothing.”

You are also very concerned with the role of the media. What can journalism learn from these psychological insights?

“It is very important that the media are aware of the type of stories they tell. I’ll give an example. In 2015, the war in Syria had been going on for years, countless deaths had occurred, and many people were numbed by that information. But that changed with the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the two-year-old Syrian boy who washed up in Turkey in September 2015. Suddenly everyone was talking about the war.”

“Then I and my colleagues decided to look at the attention. We looked at Google searches for “Syria,” “refugee,” and of course “Aylan.” You could see the spike in attention, and you could see how it decreased again in the following month. And it’s not just search behavior. A Swedish colleague looked at the donations for the Swedish Red Cross, which was then raising money for refugee shelters in Sweden. They got about $8,000 [zo’n 7464 euro] per day. And then that picture came and it went up to $430,000 [401.134 euro].

“Most journalists know that personal stories and experiences are received differently by readers, but people still misunderstand the difference in attention that those types of stories generate.”

What lessons can we learn from your research when it comes to that other big, abstract crisis: climate change?

“It must be recognized that these types of issues have a huge behavioral component. Scientific knowledge is essential, but not enough. We need to better understand how our brains work if we want to have any chance of preventing the planet from becoming unlivable. Dealing with climate change, refugee crises and wars is beyond our reach unless we face how our minds do the math of empathy.”

Paul Slovic

Paul Slovic (1938) is professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the president of Decision Research, an international platform for psychological research into risk perception and decision-making. He spent years researching the psychological factors that contribute to apparent apathy towards genocide, political violence and human suffering. He has won several awards for his work, including the Franklin Institute Award in 2022. Slovic received two honorary doctorates and was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in America in 2015.