Paul and Scott Slovic - "The More Who Die, the Less We Care" (15 March 2022, CSER Public Lecture, University of Cambridge)
To help society to prevent or mitigate catastrophic losses of life, immense effort and technological sophistication are employed to assess and communicate the size and scope of such losses. This assumes that people can understand the resulting numbers and act on them appropriately. However, recent research casts doubt on this assumption. Large numbers have been found to lack meaning and to be underweighted in decisions unless they convey affect (feeling). We respond strongly to aid a single individual in need, but often ignore mass tragedies such as genocide or fail to take appropriate measures to reduce potential losses from natural disasters. As the numbers get larger, we become insensitive; numbers fail to trigger the emotion or feeling necessary to motivate action. In some cases the numbers convey a false sense of inefficacy, discouraging us from taking valuable actions we are capable of doing. Biases in decision making compound these problems, leading to actions that contradict our stated values toward protecting lives. Failure to understand how our minds become insensitive to great losses of human life and failure to act on this knowledge increases the likelihood that we will not take appropriate actions to reduce the risks from catastrophic events associated with violence, poverty, disease, and natural disasters. Because of our insensitivity to large-scale humanitarian and environmental challenges, we must confront the world’s urgent problems with communication strategies aimed at turning numbness into poignancy, such as the stories highlighted at www.arithmeticofcompassion.org.