Why one death is more moving than a million

August 31, 2011  |  Statistics

We read the story about the suffering of an individual, and we're moved. We read in the paper that millions have died over the years due to hunger, and we're not quite as moved. This is due in part to our inability to imagine big numbers, but as David Ropeik for Psychology Today explains, the way we perceive risk also is a factor:

Paul Slovic, one of the pioneers of research into the way we perceive risk, calls this greater concern for the one than the many "a fundamental deficiency in our humanity." As the world watches but, insufficiently moved, fails to act to prevent mass starvation or stop genocides in Congo or Kosovo or Cambodia or so many more, who would not agree with such a lament. But as heartless as it seems to care more about the one than the many, it makes perfect sense in terms of human psychology. You are a person, not a number. You don't see digits in the mirror, you see a face. And you don't see a crowd. You see an individual. So you and I relate more powerfully to the reality of a single person than to the numbing faceless nameless lifeless abstraction of numbers. "Statistics," as Slovic put it in a paper titled "Psychic Numbing and Genocide", "are human beings with the tears dried off." This tendency to relate more emotionally to the reality of a single person than to two or more people, or to the abstraction of statistics, is especially powerful when it comes to the way we perceive risk and danger, because what might happen to a single real person, might happen to you. As the familiar adage puts it, "There but for the grace of God go I."

[Psychology Today via @alexlundry]

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