We Take a Stand

Psychic Numbing In The Time Of COVID-19

3 min read

By Gwenn Canlas | Published: October 18, 2020


Are you feeling numb to all the COVID-19 numbers each day?

Here’s why people care less as more people die and how that impacts the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our compassion decreases as the number of victims in a tragedy increases. This is especially true when information is presented in the form of numbers or statistics. Joseph Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”


Limit Of Compassion

Psychologists call it “psychic numbing” and it tells us a lot about the way we respond, or don’t respond, to some of the world’s biggest problems.

University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic has been studying the limits of human compassion for decades. He found that people’s concern for those in distress didn’t increase as the number of needy cases did.

“Our feelings are very strong for one person in danger, but they don’t scale up very well,” he says. “If there are two people, you don’t feel twice as bad. Your attention gets divided, and you don’t have as strong an emotional connection.”


Desensitizing Effect

A life that is so valuable to protect if it is the first or only life at risk, loses its value against the backdrop of a larger tragedy, with many lives endangered.

Slovic sums up the findings of his research in one sobering phrase: the more who die, the less we care. “Psychic numbing” desensitizes us.

It is a fundamental psychological response we unconsciously put in place to cope with particularly distressing times, as an innate protective mechanism against what would be an incredible amount of psychological trauma.


No Longer Shocking 

In today’s context, “psychic numbing” may cause us to take the COVID-19 less seriously.

The long duration of the pandemic, combined with the absence of a clear end, can dull our sense of shock.

Save from the fact that our brains aren’t wired to make sense of big numbers, we’re also trying to digest 1,092,144 COVID-19 deaths worldwide amid a sea of other worries, including economic uncertainty, political squabbling, typhoons and floods, geopolitical conflict, the 2022 election tensions, and the unprecedented shifts in how we work, shop, socialize, and educate our children.


Shut It Out

Also, due to restrictions on social gatherings, many family members of victims cannot even attend funerals, let alone see their loved ones before their bodies get cremated.

We check out emotionally. A common stress response to unpleasant thoughts is to deny them or simply shut them out.

We are talking about COVID-19 deaths in every other way except loss.

Simply put, our brains have gotten used to hearing about COVID-19 deaths to the point where higher numbers no longer register emotionally.

The gravity of the situation doesn’t feel real to us, numbers and statistics are merely abstractions, reading “2,000,000 COVID -19 deaths” feels not much different to “200,000” or “2,000”.


Impact Of Detachment

By now we have heard “flatten the curve” more times than we can count.

And that’s where the danger lies.

When we become numb to the increasing death toll we might be less likely to take preventative action, like wearing a mask or socially distancing.

Detachment could impact our individual decisions about the pandemic.

If we feel that wearing a mask makes little difference, we may be less willing to do so.

That decision, if adopted by many, could have a broader magnitude of negative consequences.

Our desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings shouldn’t allow us to disengage.


Cognitive Biases

By becoming aware of our cognitive biases, we can take the time to consider the individuals behind the statistics — putting a name and a face to the suffering, as well as empowering us to prompt feelings of responsibility and self-efficacy (e.g. “protect yourself and others by washing your hands frequently and maintaining social distance”).

To avoid “psychic numbing”, we need to device an alternative way of informing people.

As much as it is vital to give people a clear and truthful representation of a situation with clear and reliable numbers, there is also the need to present information in a way that will allow us to connect to it.

Let us resist “psychic numbing” to COVID-19.

Solving our world’s biggest challenge could depend on it.

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