There is an effect, which I will call “quantitative numbing,” that results in greater quantities of things that concern us producing less rather than more concern. This is an expression of “psychic numbing,” which is well documented. This phenomenon is chillingly described in a quote that is probably misattributed to Joseph Stalin, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” According to Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, in a chapter titled “The More Who Die, the Less We Care” that appears in the book Numbers and Nerves:
There is considerable evidence that our affective responses and the resulting value we place on saving human lives follow the same sort of psychophysical function that characterizes our diminished sensitivity to changes in a wide range of perceptual and cognitive entities—brightness, loudness, heaviness, and wealth—as their underlying magnitudes increase.
As psychological research indicates, constant increases in the magnitude of a stimulus typically evoke smaller and smaller changes in response. Applying this principle to the valuing of human life suggests that a form of psychophysical numbing may result from our inability to appreciate losses of life as they become larger.
(Numbers and Nerves: Information, Emotion, and Meaning in a World of Data, Scott Slovic and Paul Slovic, editors, 2015, page 31)
This effect exhibits a logarithmic pattern, with larger numbers resulting in a diminishing response. Slovic and Västfjäll go on to point out, however, that feelings of compassion suffer an even greater loss as quantities increase. In fact, increases in the growth of compassion are not merely reduced as quantities increase, but compassion actually decreases and does so quite dramatically.
For example, studies have shown that charitable contributions in response to appeals are greatest when intended to help a single individual, are reduced somewhat when helping two, and decrease at a greater and greater rate as the numbers grow. Beyond a certain threshold, we stop giving altogether, even to save lives.
Our moral intuitions often seduce us into calmly turning away from massive losses of human lives, when we should be driven by outrage to act. This is no small weakness in our moral compass. (ibid, page 35)
This is a tragic response that we must learn to overcome, but it is difficult for it is built into our brains.
This phenomenon of more producing less is not limited to compassion. It seems to broadly apply to our greatest concerns. Current events involving president-elect Donald Trump have made me particularly sensitive to quantitative numbing. Because he exhibits so many examples of bad behavior, those behaviors are having relatively little impact on us. The sheer number of incidents creates a numbing effect. Any one of Trump’s greedy, racist, sexist, vulgar, discriminatory, anti-intellectual, and dishonest acts, if considered alone, would concern us more than the huge number of examples that now confront us. The larger the number, the lesser the impact, because increases in quantity inoculate us against the effects. This tendency is built into our brains; it is automatic, immediate, and unconscious.
The cause of this psychic numbing effect is not entirely understood, but it is surely related to the fact that our brains developed during eons of living much simpler—although harsh—lives as hunter-gatherers. Our needs were relatively few, as were the types of risks and opportunities that we faced. We didn’t need to manage large numbers of things. Subitization—our preattentive ability to recognize the quantities one, two, and three immediately, without conscious thought—was perhaps built into our brains for this same reason.
To overcome the numbing effect of large quantities, we must engage our slow, rational, and reflective System 2 thinking processes. For example, in relation to Trump’s onslaught of bad behaviors, we should consider each infraction individually, allowing its full weight to affect us. Then, when thinking of his bad behaviors cumulatively, we should consciously remind ourselves that more is more, not less. We must rationally reframe the information. Abel Hertzberg reframed the Holocaust to effect this shift when he said, “There were not six million Jews murdered: there was one murder, six million times.”
We can and must fight quantitative numbing. If we don’t, we will remain its victims.