The tragedies are so vast they are incomprehensible: thousands are dead after a powerful earthquake in China while up to half a million people in Myanmar may die as a result of post-cyclone epidemics. How does the mind grapple with such nightmarish statistics?
The answer is simple: it doesn’t. Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, has demonstrated that suffering on such a epic scale falls into one of the brain’s many blind spots. His experiments are straightforward: he asks people how much they would be willing to donate to various charitable causes. For example, Slovic found that when people were shown a picture of a single starving child named Rokia in Mali, they acted with impressive generosity. After looking at Rokia’s emaciated body and haunting brown eyes, they donated, on average, two dollars and fifty cents to Save the Children. However, when a second group of people were provided with a list of statistics about starvation throughout Africa – more than three million children in Malawi are malnourished, more than eleven million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance, etc. – the average donation was fifty percent lower.
At first glance, this makes no sense. When we are informed about the true scope of the problem we should give more money, not less. Rokia’s tragic story is just the tip of the iceberg. According to Slovic, the problem with statistics is that they don’t activate our moral emotions, which are what compel us to act. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our mind can’t comprehend suffering on such an unimaginable scale. This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well, but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water. Or why we donate thousands of dollars to help a single African war orphan featured on the cover of a magazine, but ignore widespread genocides in Rwanda or Darfur. As Mother Theresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
So don’t think of the thousands of people who are dying of thirst right now in Myanmar. Think instead of one thirsty person.* And then give to the International Red Cross.
*I also wonder if this is why photographs are so much more effective at conveying massive tragedies. When we look at a picture, the vague horror of statistics is replaced by the suffering of a single face.