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Murder by Numbers

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Murder by Numbers

Posted by John Norris on January 5, 2009

A very interesting piece in the Washington Post today on how people respond to suffering and mass atrocities. The article features comments not only from my colleague, John Prendergast, but insights from the research of Paul Slovic. Slovic’s basic thesis: people’s emotional response to tragedy and suffering essentially becomes watered-down and more diffuse as the sheer number of people suffering rises.

The fundamental logic is generally sound, but I would also ask: why then did people respond so viscerally to the attacks of September 11 and the mass casualties inflicted on that horrible day? Several factors: the attacks were intensively covered by the media; the stories were presented in very human, personal terms; and, it was very easy for most Americans to picture themselves in such a setting. I would argue that the real lesson of Slovic’s work is not that people don’t care about killings in large numbers; it is that caring becomes much more difficult when the human element of mass killings becomes blurry and loses focus. I imagine Slovic would agree.