‘Psychic Numbing’: Why does mass suffering induce mass indifference?

Psychic numbing‘ is a relatively new term, assigned to the phenomenon which shows people tend to feel less urgent compassion, and tend to give less, when the suffering in question is shown to be more systemic and more pervasive, or affecting larger numbers of people. Some psychologists believe it is linked to our intuitive sense that if one suffers alone, the suffering is worse, but if one is accompanied, there might be some security in numbers, not just emotionally, but practically.

The individual does not actually suffer less, but somehow, human beings —across cultures, ages groups and regions— appear to have an almost inborn tendency to convince themselves that the one who suffers with others is somehow safer. This is, of course, rarely true. While yes, a young boy might survive because his older sister goes without food, two young children in a population beset with pervasive, persistent scarcity or political disorder, may be at significantly heightened risk of violence, or even enslavement.

Others suggest the phenomenon of psychic numbing is more to do with some sort of instinctual calculation of the worth of one’s efforts. If one seeks to help one lone child, one’s actions seem able; if one seeks to send a small amount to help millions, one’s actions may seem less able, less capable of ‘making a difference’.

There is a theory that this might be related to a long “prehistoric” period —far longer than the period which we refer to as “recorded history”— in which smaller tribal bands were the organizing principle of human society. We can understand safety in numbers, but we can’t conceive of how sending a few dollars, or writing a letter, will in any way contribute to easing the suffering of millions of people.

Biologically, this just doesn’t compute in a cerebral infrastructure organized around tribal society. Yet there are alternatives: there is the theory of an informational tipping point. The lone photo, with no information and no statistics, will spark great compassion. Adding statistics or removing the photo, or naming numbers that run into the millions, will lessen the likelihood of compassion across a large population.

But when enough information is given so that the reader/viewer can comprehend in intellectually resilient terms the scale of a tragic crisis, the real energy of compassion is again motivated, perhaps more effectively than by any other means. Social networking has allowed people to share information and to make donations with an ease of effort and on a scale of cooperative endeavor never before possible.

This may be helping to ease the transition away from generalized psychic numbing and toward generalized charitable predisposition, as social networking sites help to shrink the size of the planet to the biologically comprehensible “village” scale, familiarizing people with their counterparts across the world.

How much of a role is there for social networking in solving this problem? How much of the problem is about resistance to new information about crises of massive scale? How much is a crisis of imagination? And are there examples of how we can do or are doing better in any given case?

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Originally published August 15, 2010, at TheHotSpring.net

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