The More Who Die, the Less We Care: Confronting the Deadly Arithmetic of Compassion and the World’s Urgent Problems
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 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). While we respond strongly to aid a single individual in need, we often ignore mass tragedies, such as genocide, or fail to take appropriate measures to reduce potential losses from pandemic disease, natural disasters, and other major problems. As numbers get larger, we become uncaring and passive. Because of our insensitivity to large-scale humanitarian and environmental challenges, we must develop communication strategies aimed at overcoming numbness and motivating effective actions to address the world’s most serious problems. In describing the goals and accomplishments of our Arithmetic of Compassion website, we will highlight some of the approaches to communicating crisis—such as written and spoken personal testimony—that we find to be especially promising.
In 1976, Paul Slovic co-founded the research institute Decision Research, where he currently serves as president. He has been a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon since 1986. He and his colleagues worldwide have developed methods to describe risk perceptions and measure their impacts on individuals, industry, and society. His most recent research examines “psychic numbing” and the failure to respond to global threats from genocide, climate change, pandemic disease, and nuclear war. He publishes extensively and serves as a consultant to industry and government. He received the 2022 Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in the Science of Decision Making, given by the Franklin Institute.
Scott Slovic is University Distinguished Professor of environmental humanities at the University of Idaho. He served as founding president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) in the mid-1990s, and from 1995 to 2020 he was editor-in-chief of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, the central journal in the field of ecocriticism. He is the author, editor, or co-editor of 30 books, including the 2022 volumes Nature and Literary Studies (Cambridge University Press) and The Bloomsbury Handbook to Medical-Environmental Humanities (Bloomsbury Academic). He currently co-edits the book series Routledge Studies in World Literatures and the Environment and Routledge Environmental Humanities. Much of his research focuses on how information is collected, communicated, and received in the contexts of humanitarian and environmental crises.