Slovic: There's numbness in numbers, even small ones

Numbers appear to be the novocaine of compassion, UO psychology professor Paul Slovic writes in a recent article for The New York Times.

Slovic, a well-known researcher on risk perception and apathy toward genocide, writes in the newspaper’s Gray Matter column that while it has long been known that people generally are numbed by tragedies involving many victims, the effect can be seen with events that hurt more than just a single person.

Slovic coauthored the article with his son, Scott Slovic, a professor of literature and environment at the University of Idaho.

In research using both hypothetical and real situations, Slovic found that the urge to make a donation to help a single person was substantially reduced when the number needing help rose to just two. That held true even if subjects were asked about helping only one person but knew that many others also are in need.

“It seems that we are psychologically wired to help only one person at a time,” they wrote. “And we don’t even care to do that if we sense that there are others we cannot help.”

For the full story, see “The Arithmetic of Compassion” in The New York Times. Slovic also is featured on the UO's Oregon Experts website.