‘Psychic Numbing’: How to Avoid Desensitization to Bad News

No matter your political inclinations, we can all agree on one simple fact: 2016 was a crazy year. Anger and resentment became political focus points across the Western world. Foreign policy crises, especially the Syrian civil war, burned hot throughout the year with little resolution in sight. A flow of corruption and scandal took down government leaders on at least three different continents.

Everyone that you talk to will find different elements in 2016 to condemn and to celebrate. Some will be outraged by the presidential election results but thrilled with the big leftward steps taken in our culture and popular media. Plenty others will have precisely the opposite view, pleased with political victories but deeply unsettled about the broader direction of society. Wherever you fall personally, it seems safe to say that nobody will remember the last year as an apogee for optimism, warm-heartedness, or American unity.

What does that mean for your 2017? In the face of events or trends we dislike, it can be tempting to try to simply care less about the world around us. When the cable news gets too wearying, it seems like we should simply turn off the TV. Perhaps the prudent path forward is to pull up the informational drawbridges that connect us to the world and redirect our attention inward.

There is something noble in this instinct, but there is also something dangerous and destructive. A little social science can help us discern what to do.

First, let’s remember that these sensations are nothing new. Tragedies have always been part of life. That means there’s a surprisingly robust academic literature on the subject. And so, over the past couple of weeks, when I wasn’t hunting with my son Carlos over the holiday, I dug into some of the research that looks at our response to large-scale traumatic events. (First prize for nerdiest dad!)  I outlined my findings in a recent New York Times column, but here are some of the basic takeaways:

It turns out that social scientists have a term for when people simply throw up their hands in response to overwhelming circumstances: “psychic numbing.” Some of the most interesting research on this topic comes from Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. His body of work shows that when tragedy is large in magnitude and in a distant location, we become desensitized. Recent history shows us some of the depressing  implications. For example, while many of us feel compassion for the refugees fleeing war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East, the organized response to such events is muted at best.

Slovic wasn’t the first academic to talk about “psychic numbing.” Any fan of Adam Smith will likely recall a famous passage from his Theory of Moral Sentiments where Smith discusses Europeans responding to an apocalyptic earthquake in China:

“If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.”

Is there a solution to psychic numbing? Is there a better way forward than either feeling constant despair about events we can’t control or cauterizing our normal human empathy?

Absolutely, but it’s not what you might presuppose. When we hear of these tragedies, we often rush to grasp the big picture. Collect the data. Gather the evidence. Figure out what systemic changes we can demand from on high. Let me propose that this thinking is part of the problem. What if the real solution, on a personal level, is to do the opposite of “thinking big”?

Any readers who work in fundraising have likely heard some version of the saying, “One is greater than one million.” No, this isn’t bad math. It’s the real-world application of a “think small” philosophy. As I wrote in the Times column, “when it comes to people in need, one million is a statistic, while one is a human story.” Thinking small can simultaneously allow us to continue paying attention to trends or events that disturb us – but by focusing on individual victims instead of just on global systems, we are limiting the scope of our empathy to circumstances we may be able to actually improve through our own efforts.

I have seen this “1 > 1 million” axiom at work in my own life. As you all know, of late, there has been an incendiary bipartisan backlash against globalization and the notion of an interconnected world. But despite the short-term shift in political winds, my own personal and scholarly appreciation for globalization has only grown stronger.

I have contemplated the many lives I personally know who have been saved by our globalized world.  While I know of many such stories, my thoughts always return to daughter, Marina. My wife and I adopted her 12 years ago from an orphanage in China. Fifty years ago, that would have been virtually impossible, and it would even be more difficult today, thanks to misguided government policies that limit foreign adoptions. Her presence in my life is not only a profound blessing. It is also a simple reminder that the walls of protectionism and restriction don’t only wall off the movement of physical capital and traded goods. They also close the valve of opportunity for millions of children around the world.

Here’s a little challenge for the beginning of this new year. Look back on the events or trends that disturbed you most in 2016. Then, instead of thinking about global, symbolic protest movements you can join or systematic changes you can demand from on high, contemplate a practical way to familiarize yourself with one human being who has been affected. Then, find a way to concretely help that individual.