Covid-19: why are we getting indifferent despite the growing number of deaths

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The death of a person can have a significant effect on our emotions. However, this effect does not increase proportionally with the number of deaths. Worse, emotion gradually gives way to indifference as the number of deaths increases.

A known psychological phenomenon

Very often, the deaths of many people move less than the death of a single individual (or a few). As the BBC explains in a July 1, 2020 article, the deaths of a multitude of people become mere statistics. This is arguably the most disturbing aspect of the human response to the plight of others. How do we explain it?

This psychological phenomenon has a name: psychic numbness. In other words, it is about the idea that the more people die, the less it affects us. However, this theory also concerns the number of deaths due to Covid-19. Although the current toll is around 520,000 deaths, the return to normal life and other usual concerns take precedence over emotion and cause indifference.

Asked about the issue, Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon (USA), believes that life is extremely important and precious. Unfortunately, this type of sentiment does not increase proportionally with the increase in numbers.

Want to give good conscience

A few years ago, Paul Slovic and his team conducted a series of studies on this issue. The goal? Demonstrate that our compassion can fade as the number of deaths increases. During an experiment, participants received two photos, the first showing a poor child and the second two poor children. However, researchers mostly observed that participants were ready to give more money to the child alone than to the other two. If logic would make us feel twice as sad and twice as willing to help, this result can be explained. Indeed, the individual is the easiest unit to understand and apprehend according to Paul Slovic.

Another phase was to show photos of the same type with statistics from the region of origin of the children. However, accompanying photos with such data has cut donations in half! According to Paul Slovic, donating in certain situations would make us feel good. However, when it comes to helping a child when you know they are one of many in the same situation, the effect is not the same.

The most striking example seems to be the reaction of the world to the photo of Alan Kurdi in 2015. This Kurdish-Syrian child of three years drowned in the Mediterranean when his family tried to reach Europe to flee the war. After the photo was published and for a week, donations to NGOs and other humanitarian associations exploded. However, the war in Syria had been raging since 2011!