‘The more who die, the less we care’

Our editor Jon Sutton on Professor Paul Slovic’s keynote at the British Psychological Society’s online conference.

There are, said Professor Paul Slovic (Decision Research and the University of Oregon), enormous human and environmental challenges as we face the changing landscapes of the future. ‘I have to warn you the talk is quite distressing. It’s not a pleasant menu’ – climate change, Covid-19, genocide, nuclear war – ‘the positive side of it is maybe we can overcome the obstacles to managing them better.’ 

So in ‘confronting the deadly arithmetic of compassion’, Slovic also had ‘hope for better times in this age of unprecedented risk’ – ‘I always like to have two titles, in case the first one doesn’t work’. His talk centred around the concepts that Daniel Kahneman put forward in Thinking Fast and Slow. – of fast, feeling based thinking, and a slow analytical style. Fast is easy, feels right, and usually works; but it is innumerate and can lead to serious mistakes. Slow thinking can deceive us too. 

In terms of that innumeracy, consider what Covid-19 teaches us about climate change – ‘act now before it is too late’, Slovic said. His native United States, he said, is not only not controlling coronavirus, but is actually going in the opposite direction. He attributed this at least in part to a failure to understand exponential growth, even in the early stages of the outbreak. Climate change and its damages also happen exponentially. Antarctica has lost nearly three trillion tons of ice since 1992, and oceans are rising at the fastest rate in past 28 centuries. 

What’s to be done? We don’t do as well with numbers as we do with visual imagery, so show the impact on Donald Trump’s Mar-a-lago complex (or, alternatively, somewhere the wider population might care about) of a 7ft rise in sea levels. Pay attention to experts who think slowly and scientifically. Don’t expect people to give up the comforts and conveniences of a climate harmful lifestyle; government and industry must work to develop new ways to meet our needs with less damage. But Slovic doesn’t seem to be a fan of a ‘softly softly’ approach, saying ‘We don’t need nudges to behave better, we need shoves’.

Confronting that ‘arithmetic of compassion’, Slovic argued that we are incoherent in our valuation of human life. ‘We value individual lives greatly, but those lives lose their value in the face of greater threats.’ We’ve known this for a long time; it’s a sentiment encapsulated in the quote, often attributed to Stalin, ‘One man’s death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic’; in the saying ‘Statistics are human beings with the tears dried off’; and in Albert Szent-Györgyi’s ‘I am unable to multiply one man’s suffering by a hundred million’.  

After each genocide, Slovic said, we say ‘never again’. And then repeat, again and again. In 1994, 800,000 people were murdered in 100 days in Rwanda, while the world watched and did nothing. State-led mass killings have taken place recently in Congo, Myanmar/Burma, Nigeria and many other countries. Why do we rarely intervene? Slovic pointed to various factors: it’s dangerous, costly, difficult; there’s racism; distance is involved, and a diffusion of responsibility combined with the dominance of protecting national security over protecting foreign lives. But in terms of experimental evidence, he focused on ‘psychic numbing’, with information failing to convey affect and emotion. We should see every human life as of equal value, or at least think that large losses threaten the viability of the group or society. But our actions don’t follow either of these. Our feelings override our analytic judgements; we experience diminished sensitivity as ‘n’ grows large. ‘The feeling system can’t count!’, Slovic concluded. People report, for example, being more willing to send clean water to a refugee camp in order to save 4500 of 11,000 lives than 4500 of 250,000.  

What can we do about it? Slovic pointed to the research of Tehila Kogut and Ilana Ritov on the ‘identified victim’ – donations are twice as high with a single victim. Unfortunately, we have a short attention span for this stuff. There may have been a spike in web searches around ‘Syria’ and ‘refugees’ after the media published the tragic photo of the drowned three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, and a study showed a surge in donations to the Swedish Red Cross on behalf of Syrian refugees. But they quickly returned to base level. ‘An image can wake us up, but then there’s a window of opportunity when you’re emotionally connected,’ Slovic said. ‘We start to think “What else can I do?” – if it feels like the answers is nothing, then it dampens out.’

Slovic ended with a stark warning around how the ‘prominence effect’ can cause a disconnect between values and actions, and the implications of this in the nuclear age. ‘Prominence is like an attentional spotlight – lives not in the spotlight are ignored no matter their number.’ The existence of nuclear weapons may have become taken for granted, but Slovic is clearly worried about ‘the caveman and the bomb in the digital age’. ‘People say they’re not used, but actually that’s not true, and in any case is a pointed gun not being used?’ As Bruce Blair wrote in 2016, ‘The city of Moscow alone lies in the bore sights of more than 100 nuclear weapons.’ 

Bringing his talk back round to the deadly arithmetic of compassion, Slovic referred to Roger Fisher, Professor of Law at Harvard University, who in 1981 suggested that the secret code the President needs to initiate a nuclear attack should be implanted near the heart of the person who would need to be sacrificed in order to start a nuclear attack.  

In conclusion, Slovic urged us to ‘understand the strengths and weaknesses of fast and slow thinking as a necessary first step towards valuing lives humanely and improving decisions’. Find out more at https://www.arithmeticofcompassion.org

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